The United States Senate will soon hold a vote to confirm Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as Secretary of Transportation. As with past transportation secretaries, his nomination is not a controversial one. Since I have huge moral qualms with our government’s stance towards transportation, I decided to send a letter, reproduced below, to my Senator, Dick Durbin, urging him to (symbolically) vote no on what would otherwise be a unanimous confirmation. I encourage those of you who share my distaste for our government’s automobile-centric mindset to contact your Senators as well, and soon. And also, if you haven’t yet, please consider signing my petition.
Dear Senator Durbin,
I am writing to implore you to vote no on the imminent confirmation of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as transportation secretary. I do not have any qualms with Mr. Foxx, but I believe that our nation’s casual approach to transportation policy is immoral and absolutely unacceptable, and a dissenting vote from you could begin a long-overdue conversation about the role of the automobile in this country. I hope that you will think seriously about my arguments, and if you find some truth to them, that you will take whatever action you feel appropriate.
It has been longstanding government policy to support the automobile, from President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System to President Obama’s bailout of the Detroit automobile industry. The nomination of a new Secretary of Transportation is, I imagine, a joyous occasion in the Senate, because there is so little disagreement about the primacy of the automobile in our society. But this complacency has been disastrous to our country in terms of public health, our economy, and our environment.
You have been a longtime opponent of the tobacco industry, and you have stood behind a lot of important anti-tobacco legislation. You have argued that tobacco companies should not be allowed to misleadingly advertise their products as “light” or “mild,” because the only real way to be safe from the dangers of smoking is to quit smoking. Yet when I look at the Surgeon General’s recommendations for transportation safety, I see old chestnuts of common wisdom, like advice to wear a seatbelt. Certainly, motor vehicle deaths have decreased over the past several decades as new safety features have been implemented, but this is not enough. Motor vehicle crashes still kill more than 30,000 Americans every year, and they are the single leading cause of death among children ages 1–14, children who did not choose to ride in a car or play near a dangerous roadway, but who are victims of our collective societal choice to spread automobiles everywhere. Just as you would not advise cigarette smokers to switch to a “low-tar” brand for their health, we should not just be telling people to buckle up. We should tell them to drive less, or not at all.
The fault, however, does not lie with individual drivers. Many people do not have a choice about owning a car, because most places in this country require it. I am fortunate to live in Chicago, a city with a wonderful public transportation system and plenty of bicycle lanes. Yet even in a big city like Chicago, we are faced with automobile-related tragedies, such as the recent death of cyclist Bobby Cann at the hands of a drunk driver. Tragedies like Bobby’s are one reason why many people, even if they could in principle make use of other forms of transportation, choose to drive. For decades traffic engineers have been designing our built environment with the single-minded goal of making automobile traffic flow more smoothly. It is no surprise, then, that even most Chicagoans choose to hop in a car.
But cars are not cheap. And it is not for lack of trying: the government, at many different levels, heavily subsidizes their use. From federal and state funding of automobile infrastructure, to local zoning codes requiring excessive amounts of parking, to the free pass drivers get for their pollution because we do not yet have carbon pricing. Yet despite all of these subsidies, plenty of people go into debt for their cars! And with the financial crisis, which left many struggling to keep their homes (homes that would be significantly less expensive with denser, less automobile-friendly development), the extra burden of paying for a car, insurance, gasoline, and maintenance is just too much.
The buck needs to stop with the federal government. We simply cannot afford to put another dime towards deadly, expensive, ecologically disastrous automobile infrastructure, and if you would not vote yes to confirm a Surgeon General who would push to remove cigarette taxes and warning labels, then you should absolutely not vote yes on a transportation secretary who is not committed to reversing the spread of the automobile.
I would like to thank you for your time, and thank you for your continued service on the behalf of the State of Illinois.