Stop war.Photo: IdiolectorSomewhere along the road, the phrase “War on X” became part of standard lazy American political rhetoric (see also: “Whatever-gate”).

There are two primary ways the phrase gets used. First, the “this is a serious problem and we’re doing everything we can to stop it” usage, usually government-sponsored. It made a strong debut with LBJ’s War on Poverty and lives on in the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

The second usage is less common, and often shows up in right-wing contexts. It’s the “those bad people are trying to take away our beautiful freedoms” trope. Examples include the War on Christmas and the War on Guns (try fighting that one!).

And then there’s the War on Cars. Sightline’s Eric de Place did a great investigation into the history of the War on Cars meme as it’s been used by opponents of reform to our nation’s transportation funding system.

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Now Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, who has been accused by the Heritage Institute’s Wendell Cox of being a front-line combatant in this pernicious war on automobiles, has published a reply [PDF] entitled “The First Casualty of a Non-Existent War: Evaluating Claims of Unjustified Restrictions on Automobile Use, and a Critique of ‘Washington’s War On Cars And The Suburbs.'”

It’s a huge and incredibly wonky document. But one part of it jumps right out. In it, Litman takes on people who object to paying higher gas taxes, tolls, or parking fees (emphasis mine):

Critics are wrong to claim that raising road tolls, parking fees or fuel taxes is unfair. Does charging admission at movie theatres constitute a “war on film viewers”? Does charging for bread constitute a “war on eaters?” Motor vehicle user fees only finance about half of roadway costs and a much smaller portion of parking facility costs; the rest is financed indirectly through general taxes (for local roads), higher retail prices (for business parking), lower wages (for employee parking), and higher housing costs (for residential parking) (Litman 2009; Subsidy Scope 2009). This funding structure forces people who drive less than average to subsidize their neighbors who drive more than average. Automobile travel also imposes other external costs, including congestion delays, accident risk, pollution emissions, and various economic and environmental costs from fuel consumption. North American fuel taxes are among the lowest among developed countries and have not been raised to account for inflation during the last two decades. These low user fees exacerbate traffic and parking congestions. The pricing reforms that critics call “anti-car” are often the most effective way to address the problems motorists face.

The truth is, as Litman points out, that no one is calling for an obliteration of cars from the American landscape. Reform advocates instead want policies that give more people more choice — which might be nice, considering the way gas prices are going.

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A new study from CEOs for Cities looks at the benefits that can result from even a modest reduction in driving. From USA Today:

Some cities in the USA are better positioned to deal with rising gas prices than others because of their design and transit systems, according to a national non-profit group that works to build stronger cities.

The key factor: whether residents have to drive everywhere, or have other options.

That’s according to CEOs for Cities, a Chicago-based network of civic, business, academic and philanthropic leaders seeking to build and sustain stronger cities for the future. Researchers analyzed federal government data on vehicle miles traveled in 51 metropolitan areas that have at least 1 million residents.

It’s a timely analysis: Gas prices have eased a bit in the past few days — to a national average of $3.60 for a gallon of regular unleaded Monday — but they are still 28% higher than a year ago.

The average American driver logs 25 miles per day. Motorists in compactly developed cities that have extensive transit systems can drive nearly 50% less.

The way to cut back on driving miles in a city isn’t by reducing commutes, says Carol Coletta, president and CEO of the group.

“What adds up is all those small trips, which are much shorter and not as necessary,” she says. “The question is, how do we make the city a place where we don’t have to drive as much or as often?”…

CEOs for Cities estimates that if every driver in those 51 metro areas cut their driving by just 1 mile a day, the savings on gas and other costs would total $29 billion a year.

Wendell Cox and the others who shake their fists over the “War on Cars” don’t particularly like to look at those kinds of numbers. They don’t want to acknowledge that diversifying our transportation system and the design of our communities can simply be a sensible response to a world in which fuel prices are volatile, space is limited, and the drumroll of natural disaster and war makes the need for resilient systems ever more apparent.

Recently, The Washington’s Post Ezra Klein wrote a post (in response to the recent anti-rail screed from Newsweek‘s George Will) called “Can’t I just be pro-transportation?” Here’s how Klein puts it:

My household owns a car. When it breaks down, we will purchase another car. And yet, I think it’d be good for this country to have better mass transit and better high-speed rail lines. Why? Well, my car is good for some things and bad for others. It’s good for going to get dinner in the suburbs, or furniture from Ikea. It’s bad for driving around Washington’s insanely crowded city streets during rush hour. It’s good for picking up a used chair I bought on 14th Street. It’s bad for driving to work, as parking costs $15 a day. It’s good for getting to places an hour or two away. It’s bad for getting to New York, as I don’t have a place to park, don’t want to drive while I’m there and would like to use my transit time to get some work done.

There’s no either-or here. No endless war between the car lovers and the train enthusiasts. I come from Southern California. We have a lot of cars down there and not much in the way of alternative transit options. Driving is a nightmare, as the streets are overloaded. Living in Washington has been a vast improvement for me: The subways and Amtrak take me where my car has trouble going, and I use my car for the errands and travels that suit its strengths. And as long as my tax dollars are going to subsidize transportation networks, I’d like them to subsidize a sensible transportation network such as Washington’s, not the endless traffic that I escaped when I moved away from Los Angeles.

Of course, that all sounds so terribly reasonable. It’s not the rhetoric of war. And war — at least when it comes to politics — is what sells.