The Problem Isn’t Automobiles—It’s Subsidizing Automobile Dependency

A common refrain from people who don’t want to see change in the way we handle our transportation system is that “people have cars and they won’t get rid of them.” Or, “it’s impossible to live in Denver without a car.” Or my favorite, “you can’t force people to walk and bike in some socialist utopia, they want to drive!”

All these arguments boil down to missing the forest for the trees. I put it forward that we don’t need to do anything so drastic as making cars illegal in order to affect commute share, only that we need to stop subsidizing one particular transportation mode—driving.


Driving and car ownership are subsidized in a multitude of ways, from expenditures in the general budget for street maintenance, to the zoning code that forces all housing to include car storage. We subsidize driving by designing our neighborhood streets to allow fast driving while discouraging walking and making bicycling dangerous. Our whole city has been configured to move cars at speed, store cars at every location, and generally make the lives of car owners easy and cheap.

I say that if we simply remove the many subsidies we provide to car drivers—that is, if the full cost of street damage done by cars was borne by drivers, if the necessary amount of parking was decided by the market instead of the city code, if neighborhood streets were designed to move people around their neighborhoods instead to move cars through them at high speed—then people would make rational decisions in response. They would live closer to work, walk and bike more to their needs, and neighborhoods would be developed with services that support nearby customers instead of giant parking lots and high speed arterials.

Increasing car-specific taxes to cover infrastructure maintenance holes currently plugged by general revenues would cause more people to re-examine their choices. Decreased opportunities to park would cause them to consider alternate travel modes more often. Lower speed limits or differently configured streets would cause them to look for conveniently placed services and jobs nearby instead of focusing their desires on huge driveways and tiny lawns.

Some people would inevitably choose, as is their right, to continue with their daily 15-mile commutes and drive to every necessity, but others would decide that maybe driving and searching for parking aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Maybe they’d look for neighborhoods that support their lives instead of their driving habits. The best part is, we don’t have to force anyone to do anything; we simply build a city that works for people instead of for cars and then watch as our citizens make rational decisions regarding their own needs within the newer, more efficient system.

By | 2017-02-21T13:10:10+00:00 November 23, 2016|Categories: Infrastructure, Motor Vehicles, Urban Design, YIMBY Denver|Tags: |30 Comments


  1. Jim Nash November 24, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    People will continue to drive until they have a real alternative, which is mass transit, aka urban rail. Its expensive and politically difficult to fund and build, but until the average commuter can walk no more than a mile to a transit station — and no more than a mile max on the other end — the car is simply the only option for getting to work, especially in and out of central Denver.

    Social engineering, through restricting parking, zoning and HOV lanes only penalizes automobile transportation, without offering a better mode. Why so many bloggers here who hate cars, and think bikes and walking are the answer for suburban commuters? Why not more advocacy for mass transit?

    A century ago, most people got around the Denver area on streetcars, and very few could even afford a car. Now, the cost issue is reversed, with multi-car families, while urban rail is costly to the entire region. But until people are willing to pay for a lot more urban rail, especially in the city of Denver, whining about the car culture and traffic and parking is just talk.

    • Colin November 27, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      “Social engineering, through restricting parking, zoning and HOV lanes…”

      This article is making the point that our reliance on cars is the RESULT of social engineering, and if we REMOVE that social engineering we’ll get a society where cars are used a lot less. For example, we don’t have to restrict parking, we just have to stop subsidising it.

  2. John R November 26, 2016 at 9:04 am

    Urban rail is no panacea and unnecessary for most daily activities in a well designed neighborhood. We don’t need a build trains on every street to end car culture, we only need to stop designing city streets to serve as miniature highways and forcing developers to provide enormous amounts of parking at every destination. People will find or demand alternatives when we stop supporting their city-destroying driving habits.

    As for suburban commuters, I’m very unsympathetic to their needs. They chose to place themselves in an area that required them to drive everywhere for everything. That doesn’t mean I have to design my neighborhood to support their life choices. In fact, as I argue above, my neighborhood and my city will be economically and socially stronger if we stop doing that and let the suburbs and the people in them decide how they want to handle that.

    • Edward Brennan November 27, 2016 at 4:06 pm


      I hope the airports and interstate highways go away. I hope any sort of infrastructure to bring water, food, power, as well as internet access and sewers for the waste, so that John can live in his bubble urban community in utter disconnect from the rest of the world and probably reality.

      I have no sympathy for urban dwellers who are unable to see wider alternatives to lifestyle and the necessities of the modern world to their quaint naive one size fits all solution.

      I am all for getting rid of parking minimums, I am all for decent mass transit. I also know that Downtown Denver ain’t nothing without the surrounding communities as part of the package. Those who have no sympathy to the need of others, and can’t see that just breaking the eggs of their lives for the sake of your own personal ideals is what happens when people like John take good ideas to grotesque extremes.

      Sympathy is the first step. Otherwise they should tell you to go to hell

      • John R November 27, 2016 at 7:10 pm

        The reason I argue for discontinuing subsidies for driving is *because* I am connected to the rest of the world. Connected by foot, by bike, by daily social interaction within my neighborhood. I explicitly point out wider alternatives to my lifestyle, as mentioned in the last paragraph in the article, I simply put forth that subsidizing those lifestyles at the expense of a more economically efficient and socially connected lifestyle is crazy.

        Downtown Denver would survive just fine with more housing and less commuters. In fact it would be better off as our neighborhoods wouldn’t be cut by impassible rivers of commuter traffic. It would be better off with more businesses supported by more locals.

        The only grotesque extreme in place is that we’ve destroyed such a vibrant and valuable area to support suburban commuters with no other interest in our neighborhoods than how quickly they can drive through them.

      • Philip November 27, 2016 at 7:32 pm

        Quote: “I also know that Downtown Denver ain’t nothing without the surrounding communities as part of the package.”

        Among other things, downtown Denver has a large concentration of office space, jobs, services and cultural amenities. I have my own ideas, but I’m curious just what crucial elements you feel the surrounding communities bring to the package.

        • Edward Brennan November 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

          Lets see the tax base for the SCFD depends on the entire metro area. So lets just say many of those vaunted Denver institutions depend on that funding. Further, when one looks at who attends, guess what? Yep. those people from the suburbs. To the point that the majority of the attendees come from beyond the city of Denver Proper.

          University of Colorado- Boulder- Nobel prize winning science?
          University of Colorado- Anshutz Medical Campus- Aurora…
          National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Colorado School of Mines -Golden…
          National Ice Core Laboratory- integral to studying global warming– yeah among the many things at the Federal Center in Lakewood. Or for lakewood, Casa Bonita.

          Arvada Center- Great art center…

          Hyland Hills Water World in Federal Heights..

          Centennial is mostly residential..Dove Valley training facility for Broncos is there though.

          Littleton… Colorado Center for the Blind, Hudson Gardens…

          Further out, “locally grown” colorado produce. The only thing Denver grows is pot indoors with high energy usage, which yes, comes from power generated elsewhere. In fact, Dairy is possible from the state, but not from Denver. Meat, if thats your thing, likewise.

          Need I really go on.

          The Metro area is amazing when one explores it. It is also best when it comes together in things like the SCFD and yes RTD. There would be no light rail without region cooperation.

          I could also go on that Denver depends on the jobs provided by the state government, which is provided by statewide taxation. If you hate the suburbs, I’m sure we can move those jobs to someplace that doesn’t.

          You do also realize that the economy of the metro area depends upon people commuting around it? If people who don’t live in Downtown can’t effectively commute there, those jobs will leave.

          I have lived in many parts of the Metro area in my life. Can we do better? Do we need every street to be a road for commuting cars? No. Are we better off establishing mass transit that works regionally? Definitely. Do we need bike trails across the metro area? Definitely. Does it all connect into wind farms north toward Wyoming? Yep.

          Is a go it alone, screw everyone else, attitude from people who demand only one lifestyle, one solution going to do it for Denver? Nope. It never has, and it never will.

          • TakeFive November 28, 2016 at 10:49 pm

            Apparently anybody that chooses to commute more than John thinks appropriate should no longer lease office space in downtown or support any of the cultural or sporting events. In other words take your 1000’s of employees and go where you’re appreciated or back to the suburbs. Never heard of anything so crazy.

          • Philip November 29, 2016 at 11:54 am

            “The metro area is amazing [and] it is also best when it comes together in things like the SCFD and yes RTD.”

            I agree. And as envisioned, the current rail transit system has the potential to benefit parts of the metro area beyond downtown so long as citizens grasp the value of mass transit and integrate it into their lives.

            I asked, though, what crucial elements the surrounding communities provide to Denver proper, what it is that Denver lacks and they provide. Nearly everything you mentioned is available–concentrated–in either downtown or central Denver: a performing arts center and other “vaunted Denver institutions” that are supported to varying degrees by the SCFD (a significant number of which were created before the tax). Denver has fine institutions of higher education and hospitals within its boundaries, and the center city hosts a significant number of federal and state jobs.

            Fields of fresh produce, not so much. (But thankfully the gastronomical delights of Casa Bonita shine like a beacon from the fertile fields of West Colfax.) And if only Denver could produce its own electricity it could truly stand shoulder to shoulder with each of the surrounding communities that produces their own electricity. Where’s that list….

            The most significant resource you mentioned–the one that Denver seemingly lacks based on your answer–is people (as a tax base and patron supply). And yet, by population Denver is the largest city in both the metro area and the state. True, that’s a big fish in a small pond when compared to sizable metropolitan areas elsewhere in the nation, but it is notable given the number of jobs and amenities contained within its 155 square miles–not to mention within a two-mile radius of 17th and California. I haven’t lived anywhere else in Colorado, but I have lived in several other U.S. cities. The City and County of Denver has it good.

            But more to the topic of this board, it’s a choice: where people rest their heads at night, and consequently, how they then transport themselves to all the places they want to go when they awaken. And within that choice is a staggering number of factors and decisions, both conscious and subconscious. But in the end, it’s a choice. And for many years our government has, on many levels, disproportionately favored one choice–one industry and one mindset–above all others: auto manufacturers and the go-it-alone road warrior. The disproportionate devotion to that mindset is unsustainable due to, among other things, environmental degradation and the topsy-turvy, “Guggenheim Museum,” cost-benefit result of concrete above all other options.

            Driving is a choice, but it’s well past time it shares the funding/zoning/incentive road (I giggle) with other valid transportation choices, including rail–and feet.

      • TakeFive November 28, 2016 at 10:20 pm

        John R… Superbly stated, I couldn’t agree more.

      • TakeFive November 28, 2016 at 10:26 pm

        Edward Brennan… Superbly stated, I couldn’t agree more.
        Cancel my reply to John R. It was a very bad Oops.

  3. Erik w. November 26, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I think the key point here is very strong. It isn’t necessary to “restrict” anything. Simply make the decision to not spend public dollars supporting automobile use and stop forcing developers to build automobile convenience and the free market sorts it out.

  4. David Montoya November 26, 2016 at 7:16 pm

    The problem right now is that everyone, whether they desire to or not, has the option to live in a community where they can drive their car. But for those who desire to live in a community where a car is not necessary, the options are very limited. There is likely a latent demand for this choice but with not enough supply. This is to say that not every suburban commuter today has truly chosen that lifestyle, because it is likely they had no other suitable choice. So yes, stop subsidizing driving through city codes.

  5. Irene Allen November 27, 2016 at 10:04 am

    So “social engineering” that encourages and subsidizes cars and sprawl is fine, but “social engineering” that removes these subsidies and incentives is a problem?

    And, although transit in the US is generally inadequate, we need to stop arguing for wildly expensive and impractical urban rail in areas that are too spread out for it to ever be practical. People certainly have a right to choose to live far from everything, but they should also bear the costs and consequences of that choice.

  6. Eric V November 27, 2016 at 2:16 pm

    As a committed urbanist that also happens to live in one of Denver Metro’s more suburban cities (Littleton), my observation has been that people drive first and foremost because they have nowhere to walk TO. Most suburban areas have decent (if not great) sidewalks, trails, etc, and lots of residents that would love to walk to the store. But current suburban zoning laws prohibit two key things: (1) the density that’s necessary to create walkability and (b) mixed-use/TND zoning that would allow for things like a corner store, restaurant at the end of the block, etc.

    I agree that cars are unfairly subsidized over public transportation. But if we make it more expensive to own/drive a car without addressing how our neighborhoods are structured, people will continue to drive as much as ever, just at a higher cost. Like all complex problems, the solution to car-dependent cities will need to be multi-faceted and holistically-minded.

    • Jim Nash November 27, 2016 at 6:44 pm

      Glad to see that all sides are once again pounding the table about the current state of virtually every US city — but how do we get from our general AGREEMENT that cities need to be more walk-able, bike-able, transit-ride-able, and less car-dependent? John Riecke’s essay is simply preaching to the choir, stuff we all pretty much agree on, as “urbanists.”

      Let’s move the debate forward, from what’s wrong with our city, to ways to make it better. My suggestion, if you want to move thousands of people out of their cars, then build an alternative system. Stop whining and get behind STREETCARS on Denver’s big streets. Twenty other US cities are already building new lines, so why isn’t Denver?

      Hint: It’s about political leadership, aka the mayor. He’s hiding behind endless “studies.”

      • Mark W November 28, 2016 at 11:07 am

        As a person who works downtown and supports the local scene, I believe it is worthwhile to point out something that hasn’t been mentioned in any of the threads above. Which is the reason my family, and many other families I know, live in the suburbs. That reason is the pathetic school system that is currently in Denver. My family moved out of Park Hill in 2001 when our oldest was going into High School. There was truly no comparison to the Cherry Creek School district High Schools and DPS. Until that situation is fixed, I fear that a lot of the millennial generation will also move out of Denver once they start having kids. Do I like my commute? No, but it is worth it for my children’s education. Lastly, where are the best private schools? They are also in the suburbs. Denver needs to work diligently on this issue or the attraction to the suburbs for families will continue.

        • Paul November 28, 2016 at 3:13 pm

          Heck, you should have waited 15 years until the Stapleton schools took off. They’ve basically kept those families with social mobility and means in Denver and DPS versus heading out to Cherry Creek. Not that the barren households of Capitol Hill would fundamentally understand the incentive of providing for ones progeny. There’s a reason the schools there rank somewhere between pathetic and sub-standard.

          Of course, if you lived in Park Hill, you’d be part of the problem as it is also a distinctly automobile-dependent neighborhood. Anything outside of Capitol Hill and downtown falls under this category at the moment.

          • TakeFive November 28, 2016 at 10:58 pm

            Being well familiar with CCSD and how people who choose to live there feel about their kids and schools I suspect you fail to grasp the importance. It actually goes beyond (just) academics to the full range of opportunities that Cherry Creek Schools have to offer.

      • John R November 28, 2016 at 11:52 am

        Hello Jim, my article proposes many ways to move forward, from removing parking minimums to redesigning city streets to support non-driving transportation modes to allowing more services to be built within neighborhoods. All these things would cause changes in the way people choose to commute and live.

        • Jim Nash November 29, 2016 at 4:58 pm

          John, thank you for your thoughtful article and vigorous defenses of it. For those who want to further restrict parking and travel lanes, in favor of pedestrian and bike space, please consider that the streets of every neighborhood are not just for cars — but also service vehicles, trucks, school and transit buses, and critical vehicles, like fire trucks and hazmat tankers.

          Bigger, essential vehicles need more street space than just cars. If you love living in your downtown high-rise, then you’d better love that big trash truck that hauls away tons of rubbish and recyclables every week. Please appreciate the big moving vans that often block driving lanes, to move tenants’ furniture in and out. Think about where your cable guy, the UPS van, an ambulance can park, to service your building. Where does the hook-and-ladder maneuver on a street with a single driving lane, to rescue people on the 12th floor when your building’s on fire?

          John R, I respectfully suggest that railing against cars and parking is easy pickings. As a planner, you’ll find advocating for actual, workable transportation alternatives for masses of commuters takes a lot more than bike lanes and better sidewalks. Real change is hard to make happen, and there are just as many NIMBYS Downtown as out in the burbs.

          • John R November 29, 2016 at 9:41 pm

            I will simply reply that none of the concerns you raise are insurmountable and I believe the best way to start working through them is to stop subsidizing car ownership.

  7. Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog Denver November 28, 2016 at 7:25 am

    […] Subsidizing Car Dependency Is a Giant Waste (DenverUrbanism) […]

  8. DD November 28, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Right on the focus of the conversation should be that the current state is socialism for cars, at the expense of everyone else. The next step would be to end those direct and indirect subsidies so our cities can start approaching fiscal sense and normalcy.

  9. Norman November 28, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    I share the writers goal but question if this will be a “more efficient system”?

    The fact is that the investments we make in our transportation systems serve with the delivery of products in an industrialized country. Making this less efficient will reduce the wealth of our society. History has shown us that capital flows towards the most efficient transportation systems not necessarily the ones with the best parking.

    • John R November 28, 2016 at 8:13 pm

      I would argue that capital flows to where it can produce the most return rather than where it is the most efficient, which is why we end up with bubbles and crashes. Since we’re subsidizing car ownership capital finds great returns providing services for it. If we subsidize walking we’ll see more capital flow towards providing services for walkers. The additional upside is that non-car-ownership is already much less expensive than car ownership and allows the capital of non-car-owners to be invested in things besides maintenance, insurance, and storage of cars. Cheaper for cities too, with better ROI when they build walkable districts.

      • TakeFive November 28, 2016 at 11:17 pm

        Well not exactly but I don’t need to get into a pointless debate about the economy or investment returns.

        I vote we stick with the tried and true tradition of letting the citizens who choose to vote decide what they want and are willing to pay for. God bless our Democratic Republic; let the great experiment continue.

      • Norman November 29, 2016 at 4:26 pm

        My point was not to start an debate about economic theory but to highlight that the investment we make in our transportation infrastructure is more than just for commuting.

  10. Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog Denver December 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    […] Subsidizing Car Dependency Is a Giant Waste (DenverUrbanism) […]

  11. Mark Richardson January 17, 2017 at 7:57 am

    Why isn’t Denver building streetcar lines? Because RTD is so broke that they can’t build any new line let alone responsibly-maintain their aging buses, and do remember that two promised Fastracks lines are still unfinished and now projected to be 30 years behind-schedule before the necessary funding becomes available to complete them too.

    In-fact, the DRCOG 2040 Fiscally-Constrained RTP shows RTD to be almost 80% short on projected needs funding through 2040 given a projected increase of another 1.1 million people across the Metro-area by 2040. DRCOG also shows CDOT to be 68% short on projected needs funding and even bike route needs funding is 58% short too. It is hard to believe that our regional economy is on-fire and yet infrastructure needs funding is so woefully short.

    So what roads in Denver are designed like speedways anyway? I personally can’t think of any on the scale of Detroit’s major divided boulevards that handle up to 120,000 vehicles daily on 8 lanes at 55 mph, and yet if we grow to DRCOG’s projected population forecast for 2040 Metro-Denver will be just as-populous as Metro-Detroit was in the 1970s. DRCOG has also forecast a more than doubling of congested roadway miles and a 50% increase in commuting times too. The only roads that come close to my definition of a speedway are in our suburbs. Speer is no speedway nor is Auraria Parkway. No other road in the city comes close. Colorado is a gridlocked nightmare as is Colfax most of the time.

    What roads are you whining about? Santa Fe? Monaco? 17th and 18th east of downtown? Broadway? Federal, Alameda, Sheridan? Not one of these roads qualify as an urban speedway. Denver in-fact does not have any urban surface arteries with a speed limit of above 40 mph. In my own opinion which includes 30 years of national fresh food transport Denver is woefully under-designed from a roadway standpoint, with much of the problem being that early city designers did not leave enough right of way to accommodate much traffic.

    Detroit’s early designer was French and he laid-out wide boulevards of 120 feet to 180 feet just like in Paris, and even his neighborhood arteries were 65 feet wide, just about perfect for a 5-lane road plus sidewalks, while Cleveland’s early planners designed 54-foot right of ways for arteries, which were only good for 4-lane roads plus sidewalks. Things could be much worse too.

    Did we all read that 2014 study that found that 70% of all Denver metro-area employment is not in the city but in the suburbs, or that other 2014 study that found that minority Americans have 250% greater access to employment if they live in a suburb and own a car than they have living in the inner-city dependent on public transit?

    Perhaps the problem is commuting, as if many of us could work from home rather than having to commute to work then we wouldn’t need to spend huge amounts of money on roads shared by commuters, shoppers, buses, trucks, and emergency equipment as well as on multiple parking spaces for every car lest anyone can’t find a parking spot.

    Before anyone gets the idea that major urban freight routes should be slowed down to a crawl to push neighborhood walkability do be aware than the USDOT and CDOT both are stuck with Federal rules seeking to reduce congestion on designated highways and primary arteries due to the cost that congestion imposes on freight movement. These regulated highways include most of Denver’s major arteries. Worse yet, if CDOT doesn’t responsibly move to reduce freight congestion on Federally-designated arteries the Feds have the legal authority to use Colorado’s share of Federal highway funds to force compliance, and if you want to keep increasing density do expect considerably more freight congestion considering both RTD’s and CDOT’s current fiscal positions too.

    You want to do your part to reduce congestion live in a high-rise and work in the same building that you live in or within a few block walk, hopefully on the same side of the road. One big problem that Denver neighborhoods are facing today have been very high felony crime rates, with many city neighborhoods suffering 10 times the same rates in our suburbs. Of course, when home prices and rents in neighborhoods like Virginia Village double since 2007 to considerably more than the median income there can afford local residents must make ends meet somehow too. The fact is that today it is $100K cheaper to buy a brand-new built green house in Brighton than it is to buy a smaller 1950s rambler in Virginia Village, which leaves plenty of income left over to buy a car with too.

    So until RTD catches-up on its thoroughly exhausted bonding capability an entire side of Metro-Denver won’t have their promised trains and doesn’t even have bus service that RTD promised long before FasTracks was even thought of either, so I am afraid that if Denver wants north-side residents to come downtown to work and spend their money the last thing that the city wants to do would be to make such commuting a lot more-difficult, as right now restaurants downtown are already 50% more-expensive than the same restaurants in the suburbs.

    So how do you advocates of over-priced, overly-cozy, overly-smoggy, and overly-violent inner-city living feel about doubling RTD fares so that us north-side residents might get our promised trains and buses a lot sooner than 25 years from now, (if we are lucky and there aren’t any more giant recessions), considering that we have already paid just as much or more in RTD FasTracks sales taxes as anyone else in Metro-Denver has and yet have nothing to show for what we have already paid except broken promises, and now anger out of some who have already seen their trains built over having to subsidize our only viable form of commuting?

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