Pro-car populism is about protecting cars, not people

Bill Lindeke over at streets.mn wrote an interesting post a few days ago titled "What To Do with Pro-Car Populism?", about a recent discussion he had with an old friend. The premise of it is summed up nicely in the following paragraphs:

I began explaining the distortions in the parking market. With his economics background, I thought he’d be interested. I did my best to describe the cumulative effects of minimum parking requirements, the perverse incentive structure of parking meters, the hidden cost of asphalt, and so on. The solution, I said, was to externalize the price of parking, raise prices in certain areas and begin acknowledging the opportunity cost of urban space. (See my explanation here.) Prices should reflect the cost of parking, I concluded. 
I was surprised at his reaction. ”What about poor people?” he asked me. “You’re going to make it impossible for them to drive. In my city, nobody can afford to live in the city. I've been to these towns and neighborhoods where the poor people live. They’re miles away from jobs. They drive everywhere. You have to think about them!” He began to get passionate, as he usually does. “If you make parking expensive, only rich people will be able to drive. Driving will only be for the wealthy.”

For many urbanists it can be kind of a slap in the face to be told you're not looking out for the interests of the poor, since we generally see dependence on the automobile as having negative consequences for everyone, and lower-income people in particular. Often, we may see ourselves as champions of the poor and down-trodden, fighting against a car-centric status quo and the great costs associated with it. But it's true that, within the current framework, increasing the costs of parking, gas, etc will disproportionately hurt the poor.

Lindeke's answer to pro-car populism amounts to a rejection of the premise; that is, a system in which driving is subsidized (as it currently is) can never be favorable to poor people--parking reform, vehicle-miles traveled fees, and everything else is just tinkering around the edges of an already busted system.

I think he's completely correct, but even he admits that he's not entirely satisfied with his response. After all, car subsidies and expensive city housing is the framework in which we live. To change things in a way that makes things better for a much greater number of people, the poor included, we need to demolish that existing framework and build anew, from scratch.

The following paragraph from Lindeke's post is where I think that reconstruction might begin (emphasis mine):

We've demolished affordable housing to make room for freeways and parking garages. We've eroded government services through municipal fragmentation, civic tax shelters, and fostered spatial segregation. We've abandoned our transit systems, relegating them to the margins. We've refused to accommodate transportation alternatives in ways that foster deep inequalities.

This is just a small part of the overall problem, but it highlights the choice we have when making local spending decisions, a choice that always exists even if we don't always acknowledge it: do we spend this money on making driver cheaper and easier, or do we spend it on increasing the supply of affordable housing (like the Yesler Terrace redevelopment, for example)?

 Choose: more of this...

Choose: more of this...

Right here in Seattle, for example, we have the Pacific Place parking garage. In 1998, the city bought the garage for $73 million, and it has been losing money for more than half that time. Now the city is looking to sell it for $55 million rather than continuing to bail it out year after year. 

 ...or this?

...or this?

The city did not need to build or operate this garage. They did it because they wanted to encourage business downtown by making it easier to drive in the city. This was a choice to prioritize ease of driving over affordable housing, whether they thought about it in those terms or not (and you can be sure they didn't). It made it easier for people to get downtown by car, poor people included, but the basic problem of having to own an expensive personal automobile was unresolved. And, let's be honest: the people shopping downtown, on average, are not the people pro-car populists are concerned with.

The root of the problem, and what drives the pro-car populist's argument, is that poor people generally can't afford to live in the parts of the city where transit access is best. As long as that is true, owning a car will be necessary, or nearly so, for many of those forced to live in the suburbs. Instead of trying to reduce driving costs for lower-income car owners, why not just spend that money on providing them with housing in the city where they don't need to own a vehicle?

The problem with the pro-car populist's position is that it doesn't contain a solution. You just keep pouring money into services and infrastructure that keep driving costs as low as possible for the poor, but driving is always going to be problematically, if not prohibitively expensive for some people. And it's only going to get worse. 

The pro-car populist understands that allowing more people to live in the city is good for health, environment, access, and, if affordable housing is available, the pocketbook, too. In combination with other housing supply policies (like reaping greater incentives from developers by relaxing height/density/parking regulations), we should consider the long-term return on each dollar spent on driving subsidies versus affordable housing. By doing so, we can start to actually address the root cause of the problem and shift the paradigm of poor = suburbs = car dependence = poor, give people a greater array of choices, and save people some money and commute time in the process.