Last week, the White House announced a proposal that would change a previous administration’s regulatory stance towards automakers. Depending on what type of news sites you read most often, the hook to the story might have gone something like this:
President Trump has proposed a rollback of key auto emissions standards designed to combat global warming, including a rule that would prohibit the state of California from instituting stricter standards in their own state.
Or maybe it went like this:
President Trump has proposed a rollback of restrictive regulations on automakers. The administration argues that these regulations suppress the sales of new cars with up to date safety mechanisms, encourage increased driving among the owners of fuel efficient vehicles, and potentially cost up to 13,000 lives in increased traffic fatalities.
Chances are, one of the two statements above got you a little angry—and which one depends on which values are most core to how you view our political landscape. If environmentalism is a core value to you, you’re probably saying in your head just how reckless this all seems—with the fate of the planet at stake, why wouldn’t we use every regulatory tool we have available to us? If safety issues are more salient to you, you’re probably saying to yourself that reduced emissions aren’t worth the cost of human lives, and there has to be a better way.
Or maybe you’re somewhere in the middle. Maybe you care a little about both traffic safety and the environment. Maybe you have some quibbles with the means, but you like the ends.
You’ve still got to make a choice. Right? Pick a team. Dead people in piles of twisted steel or a dead planet. Shirts or skins. If this bill was on the ballot today, would you be for it or against it? You’re a jury member in the court of public opinion, after all.
I bet you’re reading this right now and wondering: what does this author think? What does Strong Towns think?
I’m not going to tell you that today. But I hope I’m going to tell you something better: how to get beyond the false binaries that our dominant development pattern puts in front of us. Because underlying both sides of this issue are a set of assumptions about the automobile-centric design of our cities and towns—assumptions that we need to challenge if we ever want to move our stalled national conversation forward.
How should we evaluate a policy choice framed as binary?
When this news story floated across the internet last week, the Strong Towns staff sat down to talk about it, like we often do when we’re not sure how to proceed. A lot of our readers were asking for our comment, and we could all see why. Because the justifications the administration had given for its proposal had everything to do with something we talk about quite a lot at Strong Towns: how to keep people safe on our roads.
Specifically, the major argument the Trump administration made was this: that these emissions standards, if they aren’t downgraded or reversed, will bring about as many as 13,000 traffic fatalities over the five years the bill would be in effect.
The EPA is asserting three reasons for this claim: 1) the drivers of fuel-efficient cars have a clear incentive to drive more often, 2) because fuel-efficient cars cost more, tighter emissions regulations discourage drivers from buying newer, safer cars, and 3) fuel-efficient cars tend to be constructed from easily crumpled aluminum rather than sturdier steel.
Argument number one is what conservationists call “the rebound effect.” And it’s not entirely inaccurate. While the size of the effect is debatable, it’s almost certainly true that some drivers will take advantage of the fact that their fuel-efficient car costs them less at the pump. And, while there’s no proven relationship between the number of cars on the road and the number of car crashes—if anything, those two things have an inverse relationship—yes, you’re more likely to get into a car-to-car crash if you are, y’know, driving a car.
Argument number two has less widespread support. Car sales have been dropping in North America, even before these rules went into effect—and there’s been no dedicated study conducted on whether fuel-efficient drivers are more or less likely to head down to the dealership. The third argument, I suppose, is true: a less fuel-efficient vehicle with armored steel encasing the whole shebang is likely to fare better in a high speed crash than a zippy little mini car powered by hummingbird wings and whale songs.
We talked it out as a staff, shared some articles, tried to think about where we stood. But pretty quickly, we all realized something: none of these arguments are part of the most important conversations we should really be having if we want to make our streets safer or our emissions levels lower.
Sure, a rebound effect may exist when we make cars more fuel efficient. But you know what would disincentivize driving even more? If streets in the middle of our neighborhoods weren’t designed around the car and the car alone.
Yes, an older airbag system might perform slightly less well than the latest, state-of-the-art model. But you know what would keep you even safer in a crash? If the road you were driving on were designed to lower your perceived comfortable speed, so that traffic would flow more slowly, and any impact you might get into would occur at 20 miles an hour rather than 50.
Absolutely, when you’re driving on the highway, you’ll be safer in a gigantic, armored tank of an SUV than you’d be in a Mini Cooper. But on the streets in your neighborhood, an easier way to make yourself safer is to just slow down, no matter how big your ride is. We simply shouldn’t need a tank in the vast majority of driving situations we encounter in our daily lives. The fact that we feel that we do is a symptom of a problem.
And while we’re at it? Yes, strict fuel emissions standards on automakers would be a great thing to help curb vehicle emissions. But you know what would do a better job? Designing cities in which cars are a truly optional mode of transportation, not the necessary prosthetic device we need to navigate a dangerous road system they so often are now. Why should driving be mandatory for every trip: to get to work, the grocery store, or just your kids’ school?
As an organization, Strong Towns has one core value: securing the financial health of our cities forever by building and developing in a strong way. Luckily, the things that have been proven, again and again, to make our cities financially strong also happen to have some pretty awesome side effects for society. When we design the streets in the neighborhoods where we live, work and play to function as streets—not as roads, which are meant to move cars between places, without stopping to linger—our cities get richer and pedestrian fatalities plummet. When we make walking a viable option in our neighborhoods, we have less emissions, because there isn’t as much incentive to drive.
If we all lived in cities for which a Strong Towns approach was simply a part of the fabric of our culture, our conversation would be very different. And I’d be willing to bet we wouldn’t be fighting over safety features on cars or vehicle emissions standards at all.
Beyond Column A or Column B
Look: I’m not asking you to give up your core values that don’t align exactly, at all points, with the Strong Towns conversation. And I’m certainly not asking you to abstain, nobly, from voting on ballots that don’t fit neatly into the world Strong Citizens wish we lived in. Every member of our staff is a real, human person with their own political opinions, and at the end of the day, we all line up to vote in our local precincts, often choosing between imperfect candidates and ballot measures with no easy yes/no answer.
Heck, as I write this, I’ve just returned from my own local polling place in St. Louis, where I had to vote yes or no on a bond measure that would keep my city’s basic fire and police services running in exchange for 50 million dollars in debt. There were just two little bubbles on that ballot, and no option for “I would rather turn back time and figure out how we got into this mess in the first place, and maybe choose a development pattern and planning process that don’t make our city so insolvent that we can’t afford to keep the lights on.” I had to make a choice—for or against—and while I won’t tell you what my choice was, I can tell you I didn’t feel happy leaving that voting booth.
Our world is messy and imperfect, and when it comes to being a voter, or a politician—or, let’s be real, even just an armchair analyst who wants to signal a clear, cohesive identity to your pals on Facebook—we often have to perform a little calculus. We accept trade-offs. We don’t allow ourselves to get paralyzed by our own righteousness. Basically, we flatten the world down. And choosing not to flatten the conversation can be really frightening, and sometimes legitimately risky. I would be lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m a little scared that my friends will read this article and wonder whether I, personally, am a climate change denier, or someone who’s comfortable with traffic fatalities, or whatever unfair judgement someone’s totally understandable passion for a core value might lead them, instinctually, to make.
But if that’s the direction that your instincts are leading you, I want to ask you a favor. Stop thinking of me as a fellow jury member on the court of public opinion, about to deliver a verdict, and start thinking of me as your fellow citizen.
At the end of the day, jury members vote: yes or no, for or against. But real conversation happens the other 364 days of the year, after the balloons have been dropped and the winners have moved into the capitol building. That’s when we become citizens, not voters. That’s when we can start building relationships and having conversations, instead of limiting our communication to a simple “I’m with you” or “I’m against you.”
A Strong Citizen says that the conversation we need to have most today is a fundamental one: are our cities financially strong? Is our road network meeting our needs, and can we actually afford what we build? Do we have high emissions levels because of how engines are being built, or because we’ve accepted a world built around the advent of the internal combustion engine? Do we have traffic fatalities because our cars aren’t all outfitted like super-tanks, or because we’ve designed high-speed streets in city centers that all but guarantee that people will die?
I know it’s scary to step outside of a binary. But do it with me. Call your legislators after the election is over, and demand that they ask themselves a different set of questions. Ask that person on your newsfeed if they've ever considered this—and then share one of our articles, and help them see the world through a new lens.
We can change our national conversation together. If your core value is the Strong Towns approach, that’s beautiful. And if it isn’t yet, you might just find a gathering place here that will allow you to talk to people who don't share your core values—but you do share Strong Towns, and Strong Towns might help you both achieve your goals. And you might not believe me, but at some point, you might even find yourselves working together.
Give it a shot. You'll still have that ballot box at the end of the day. What have you got to lose?
(Top image source: Lars Plougmann via Flickr. Creative Commons license.)