Dems Admit Highway Hostility
Democrats looking to the 2022 election must worry that some of their number are working so hard to alienate the vast majority of American voters. As noted in Politico, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by the Antiplanner’s own congressman, Peter DeFazio, are openly hostile to American’s favorite form of travel.
“You can’t pave over the whole country,” says DeFazio, whose INVEST Act, which recently passed the House, contains provisions that would severely restrict the ability of state to spend federal highway dollars on new highways. Yet highways occupy a vanishingly small share of the nation’s land area, and the idea that there is any danger to them paving over the whole country is just fear mongering.
Americans use highways for 87 percent of their personal travel while Amtrak and transit, which DeFazio and friends favor, provide just 1 percent of passenger-miles. There are good reasons for this: motor vehicles and highways are cheap, convenient, and fast relative to the Democrats’ alternatives. So it’s not surprising that 92 percent of American households own at least one car, 96 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and at least a third of the 4 percent of American workers who live in households without cars nonetheless get to work by automobile.
The automobile has made Americans the most mobile people on earth. In 2019, the average American traveled 16,000 miles by automobile, which is at least 50 percent more than the total per capita travel of the people of any other country. Other countries that have spent heavily on high-speed rail, urban transit, and other modes have travel haven’t come close to duplicating the mobility we have.
Take away our cars and we are not only less mobile, we will have lower incomes, much higher transportation costs, higher costs for housing and other consumer goods, and be less resilient in the event of natural or unnatural disasters. In other words, Democrats are threatening one of the very foundations of our economy.
They tell themselves that cars and highways represent “a 1950s approach” and transit and Amtrak are the “future.” But they are wrong: transit and Amtrak are the nineteenth-century approach, while the future will always be about personal transportation.
How can members of a political party be so openly hostile to something that is used and, in many cases, loved by so many Americans? A sociologist I once knew named John Finley Scott observed that people who learned to drive when they were 16 (and still considered themselves immortal) implicitly consider driving to be a symbol of freedom, while people who didn’t bother to learn to drive until they were in their late 20s or so (by which time they have experienced a few indications of mortality) considered driving to be a scary, threatening experience. (Scott also happened to be a cycling enthusiast and is considered to be the developer of the first mountain bike.)
In today’s heavily sorted world, transportation is one of the factors leading to the bifurcation of American politics. Those who consider cars to be devil machines move to inner cities where they can rely more on transit or cycling and vote solidly Democrat. Those who consider cars to be symbols of freedom move to auto-friendly suburbs or rural areas, but are not so solidly Republican and can be swayed to the Democrat side when confronted with conservative candidates who alienate them based on issues such as abortion, gay rights, or immigration.
As a result, urban Democrats can be openly hostile to automobiles and even those who (like DeFazio) represent suburban and rural areas can feel safe so long as their Republican opponents act kooky. To win, Republicans need to point out that it is the Democrats who are kooks. With the help of the Politico article, they will be able to do so.