If you want to find vigorous attacks on urbanism and sustainable transport by car-and-highway advocates, just Google for forms of the verb to coerce. The most recent one you'll find is from the reliable Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard. Called "Coercing people out of their cars," it exploits an unfortunate comment by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. As Barnes puts it:
Last year, George Will zinged LaHood as the “Secretary of Behavior Modification” for his fervent opposition to cars. LaHood all but pleaded guilty. Steering funds from highways to bike and walking paths and streetcars, he said, “is a way to coerce people out of their cars.” His word, coerce.
On May 21, [2009?] LaHood told reporters at the National Press Club that the “Partnership for Sustainable Communities’ his department had formed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing—sometimes known as the “livability initiative”–was designed to “coerce” people out of their cars.
If LaHood did describe the sustainable transportation project as coercion, even in jest, he should be more careful. Just as one doesn't joke about terrorism at airport security checkpoints, we shouldn't even joke about coercion in urban and transportation policy. The word is a primitive grenade that can blow up any and all parties present.
The idea that urbanists and transit advocates are trying to coerce people to give up cars is one of the most treasured bits of pro-car rhetoric, because it feeds the association of cars with liberty. Because so much urbanist work necessarily happens through government, the image of coercion also helps people think of government as intrinsically an oppressor, always a convenient refuge for the lazier kind of libertarian.
Coercion (pronounced /koʊˈɜrʃən/) is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force.
Almost all of the definitions refer to actual or threatened force.
By those definitions, I can't think of anything that I have done, in 20 years in this business, that would qualify as coercion. Certainly, I've never threatened any motorist with force, or advised anyone else to do so. No, Barnes would respond, but I have advised governments to adopt policies that are coercive toward motorists. For example, I advised the City of Minneapolis to restrict traffic on certain streets to create a functional transit mall, which they did in 2009. They even changed the direction of certain lanes. Something that used to be legal is now prohibited. If someone drives his private car through the bus lanes (especially in their pre-2009 direction!) police might show up and, if all else fails, might even shoot at him. Force! Coercion! Rhetorically, the coercion-victim wins. Of course, the vehicle he was driving was also a deadly weapon, so he too was threatening force, but he's already declared victory, paid his citation with an air of martyrdom, written his angry article, and gone home.
In the new year, let us all resolve not to be coerced by the rhetoric of coercion, and never to use the term, even in jest, to describe our own project.
In its impact on motorists, sustainable urbanism is all about accurate pricing. We care about pricing in two separate and non-convertible currencies: money, and the limited road space of our cities.
We experience urban congestion, and parking shortages, when road-space is inaccurately priced. As I explored here, it's as though we were giving out free tickets to a concert; when you do that, you get lots of people waiting in line, spending time to save money. Today's approach to pricing forces everyone to act like those frugal concertgoers, when in fact many could easily afford to spend some money to save time, and would prefer to do so if asked. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes are one experiment in that direction, while the downtown congestion charges of London, Stockholm, and Singapore are another. On the pricing front, San Francisco's free-market approach, which may finally liberate motorists from endlessly circling the block seeking a space, is another breakthrough.
The absurdity of underpricing scarce urban road space, and thus causing congestion and parking shortages, is simply this: It forces us all to save money, a renewable resource, by wasting time, the least renewable resource of all.
Of course, when a price goes up, some who could afford it now can't, and may blame the government. This happens when the price of anything goes up; it will always happen as long as people hold exaggerated notions about the power of government over the economy. To meet the needs of people who are dissuaded from driving by price, and ensure that they continue participating in the economy, road-pricing and parking-pricing strategies work only in the context of abundant and attractive travel alternatives, including transit. This is part of the free-market justification for transit subsidies, in a big-city context, so long as there continue to be equal or greater subsidies for the motorist.
Reduction of government subsidies is not coercion. Fred Barnes is the socialist in this debate, demanding government subsidy for his own chosen lifestyle but not for that of others. As for those of us who support more accurate pricing — of road space, parking, and all the other incremental costs of transport, including transit fares — we are the libertarians!