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Mass Movement: Car Culture Brings Trouble To 'Toon Town

A conversation with Andy Singer

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Living in a low-rent apartment next to a freeway in Oakland, Calif., convinced Andy Singer that cars and highways were a pestilence upon cities. That insight turned this classically trained artist into a transportation-policy devotee. Singer explains it all in his nationally syndicated No Exit cartoon series, his comic series Funk, his book CARtoons, and a new compilation that appears as the first solo edition of the Attitude political comics series (all at andysinger.com). He'll speak in Pittsburgh on Thu., Oct. 20.

 

So what's this talk about?

First, global warming and pollution are huge problems, but the biggest problem with cars is spatial. Half of [cities'] real estate is devoted to parking lots, garages, highways. It just eats up cities; it destroys them.

 

And cars are not even an efficient people-mover! A single track of train, which takes up the space of one highway lane, can move 20,000 people per hour, whereas a highway lane can move a max of 1,500 cars per hour; that's the highway industry accepted standard.

 

The evacuation of Hurricane Rita really showed the inefficiency of highways. More people died in traffic jams on the highways than in the hurricane. I think the government should maintain a strategic passenger-rail-car reserve in key cities around the country, where they put a couple hundred high-occupancy rail cars in railyards that can be used to evacuate people. That's trains' big advantage: capacity.

 

You hardly ever hear the efficiency argument; the car debate is eco vs., well, anti-eco.

The spatial uses do have pollution ramifications. The farther out people have to travel, the more time, energy, fuel, et cetera, that it takes, and that takes oil. So when you waste space, you waste everything else.

 

You're also interested in the history of transportation?

There's a bureaucrat named Robert Moses, in New York, who's written about in The Power Broker by Robert Caro. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was then governor of New York, and he shared Moses' love of automobiles and supported his highway projects. Banks quickly realized lending money to these agencies was a good investment, and became willing to lend huge sums. Guys like Moses became little kings. Controlling money in government is power -- you control jobs. To this day, I think, [highway agencies] wield ultimate political power.

 

But in 1991, there was a fairly progressive Congress, and for the first time they required that one-third of federal transportation money go to non-automotive projects. So state [departments of transportation], like PennDOT, had to come up with non-automotive projects to get at this pot of money. That paid for a lot of light-rail systems around the country, like the Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis.

 

But when the act was reauthorized, in 1997, under Gingrich, they watered it down. It just got reauthorized [this year], and watered down even more, so transit spending is only a fifth of the total.

 

My hope is that, before this act is reauthorized again, all these groups around the country -- Bike Pittsburgh, Free Ride, transit-advocacy groups, National Association of Railroad Passengers, the unionized workers for transit agencies -- would together say, 'We want 100 percent for non-automotive projects!' If the federal component reached 50 percent, you'd see changes, because these state agencies would want to [get] this money.

 

I see a lot of well-meaning energy working on alternative transportation, but until they understand this federal highway policy -- on the theory of knowing your enemy -- they're just going to be fighting losing battles.

 

People tend to focus on the imperfections of the local bus: "My bus is late!" Legitimate gripes, but ...

Meanwhile the whole agency that provides the bus is grossly underfunded and has had to cut service and raise fares.

 

In your past visits to Pittsburgh, has anyone told you about the Mon-Fayette Expressway they want to build?

Yeah, yeah. A mega-project is huge amounts of money, tons of jobs. My point is, transit creates mega-projects, too. A new light-rail line creates jobs for building it, but then also jobs to run it.

 

In other words, it's nice for people to whine for light rail and all, but don't kid yourself until you investigate this whole funding apparatus?

Yeah, because while highway agencies control the money, they're calling the shots.

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