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Irrational Public Radio

July 18, 2012

NPR Cities, a new initiative from public radio, underwhelms with its nothing-to-see-here take on the “war on cars.”

Political consultant and Washington resident Chuck Thies, who has written about what he calls the “war on automobiles” for the Huffington Post, says, ultimately, that war is over resources.

“Transportation dollars are few and far between,” he explains. “If you’re a bicyclist, perhaps you want it for a bike lane or more bike racks. If you’re a motorist, perhaps you want it for more highways or the roads to be improved.”

Some cyclists, and other nonmotorists, may have a negative attitude toward cars. But Thies, a cyclist who for years didn’t own a car, says critics need to face the reality: We can’t get rid of cars. They’re essential to the economy, he says.

“[Cars are] the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it’s something that we can’t live without,” Thies says. “When you get a refrigerator delivered … they don’t bring it on a bicycle. … They bring it in an automobile. It’s easy to vilify the automobile, but it’s not productive.”

I was recently in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  In each city I stayed in an apartment.  Each apartment had a refrigerator.  Our traffic problems, of course, aren’t caused by too many refrigerator deliveries, but by a built environment that requires people to drive motorized machines in order to get food to put in those refrigerators.

But that’s not really the point.  The real problem here is the opportunity NPR missed with a story that’s long on opinion and short on facts and details.  Do they really want to rehash the same tired cyclist-versus-driver/he-said-she-said routines?   I’m a cyclist, nonmotorist, and motorist wrapped in one, so where’s the nuance that I’ve come to expect as the hallmark of an NPR report?

Imagine instead a Radiolab-style show, but for urban planning, transportation, and livable streets.*  It could focus on the science, sociology, and economics of this brave new world that we’re only now starting to understand outside of the halls of academia and government.  Why does removing a lane of traffic sometimes lead to better traffic flow while widening a highway leads to more traffic?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of BRT as compared to rail?  How can bikes be better integrated with transit?  How does the Safety In Numbers effect of bicycling work?  What are the economics and technology driving car sharing programs and bike sharing systems?  How did closing Times Square to traffic lead to some of the biggest rent increases in the country at a time of a recession?  How does queue theory affect everything from how you wait for an open tollbooth on I-95 to how you wait for an open register at Duane Reade?  The topics would be endless, endlessly fascinating, and would serve a real purpose of sating curious listeners instead of stoking the dying embers of a battle between cyclists and motorists.

*My wife has alerted me that Human Trafficking would be a terrible name for this program.

One Comment
  1. Albert permalink
    July 18, 2012 10:56 pm

    Great suggestion that NPR stick to what one might think was their mandate and provide things the public can’t find elsewhere, like real research & real science.

    But don’t expect them to. Not until, say, WNYC stops being so giddily pleased with itself over its endless “informal, unofficial, thoroughly unscientific polls”. (Enough, already!) We can already get Unsubstantiated Rumor from creationist websites and global warming deniers.

    NPR should stop promoting itself as “irreverent” just so it can attract three more teenagers with this crap and maybe instead infuse its programs with, say, an actual “formal, official, scientific poll” now & again.

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