County Supervisors Endorse Transportation Fairy Tales

Published February 1, 2006

This article originally appeared in the Ventura County Star

“The growing congestion problems on County roads and highways cannot be solved solely by building our way out of it by adding and widening roads …” stated a resolution passed by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on January 24. The resolution intends to move county transportation policy away from cars and toward alternatives like bicycles and carpooling, but the result will likely be more traffic. Moreover, as traffic slows down, there is more “stop and go” driving which, in turn, causes local air pollution to intensify.

Irrational opposition to highway and roadway expansion is making Ventura County and other areas around the country far more congested than necessary.

The board of supervisors anticipates somehow improving mobility by adding more transit service to Santa Barbara County, particularly rail service, as well as a network of bike lanes. In fact, none of these strategies has the slightest hope of making any difference at all. All are based on little more than ideology and wishful thinking.

The basic problem is providing a real alternative to the automobile. This requires a system or service that can actually convince people to voluntarily get out of their cars. But a big part of the car’s appeal is being able to go where you want to go, whenever you want, with minimum delay. Even in the world’s most congested urban areas, cars tend to be the fastest, most convenient form of transportation.

As a matter of fact, there is no evidence that drivers are abandoning their cars in any material way anywhere in the world. Take Tokyo, for example. Tokyo has arguably the best transit system in the developed world, with an annual ridership that exceeds that of the entire United States and three times as many miles of rail as Los Angeles has freeways. Nevertheless, virtually all its increased demand for transportation since 1990 has been met with cars.

Moving drivers to mass transit systems in Ventura County, or for that matter in suburban Milan or Copenhagen, is simply futile. But that doesn’t mean a lot of money can’t be wasted in the process.

Consider this. Mass transit currently supplies less than one-quarter of 1 percent of all transportation in Ventura County. That means for every one mile traveled by mass transit, more than 400 miles are traveled by car. If Ventura County doubled its mass transit market share tomorrow, which would more than double the its cost, the impact on traffic would be imperceptible.

No transit system has yet been conceived that can provide a realistic alternative to the automobile, with the exception of a few small trips. Studies have shown most people will walk no further than one-quarter mile to or from a transit stop. So most trips people make in their cars either cannot be made by transit at all, or would require a time-consuming transfer. No community, no matter how wealthy, can provide the high level of quality transit service that would be sufficient to attract a noticeable share of automobile drivers.

Transit is really only effective at providing mobility to and from the world’s largest downtown areas, none of which is in Ventura County. People who work in Manhattan or Chicago’s Loop are more likely to use transit to get to work. But whether in New York, Chicago, Paris, or London, most jobs are not downtown, and so most people will still rely on cars to get to work.

It is no more appropriate to characterize our reliance as a “love affair” with the automobile than it would be to suggest people have love affairs with refrigerators, air conditioners, or indoor plumbing. People simply prefer products that improve their standard of living, and very few inventions have had as much influence on the quality of our lives as the automobile.

Despite Ventura County’s efforts, the overwhelming choice of travelers will continue to be the car. Ventura County traffic volumes will rise at no less than the rate of increase in the driving-age public. There is only one way to accommodate this inevitable growth, and that is to provide sufficient highway capacity. If the board of supervisors follows through with its muddled plan and ignores this reality, Ventura County will become a more congested and polluted place.

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. He was appointed by the late Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.