By on June 15, 2009

In yesterday’s NYT Magazine [sub] (theme: Infrastructure: it’s more exciting than you think), Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks bridges, behavior and Buick Regals in a short interview entitled “The Road Warrior.” And at the risk of reigniting an overly-political discussion, the man’s opinions are indicative of where public policy is headed (regardless of where the debate here at TTAC ends up). It’s easy to take LaHood’s talk of “livable communities,” and praise for light rail and one-car families as proof that he (per George Will’s judgment) is the “secretary of behavior modification.” But it’s important to remember a few key points . . .

First, LaHood is a Republican working on the Obama team. Partisanship isn’t the issue here. Second, LaHood drives a ’98 Regal. This is not your everyday eco-poseur we’re dealing with. Third, as my carless-and-proud neighbors might argue, LaHood’s basic vision isn’t as unrealistic or utopian as you might think. Like it or not, America’s much-vaunted love affair with the automobile seems to have aged out of infatuation, into a more utilitarian, late-life relationship. Meanwhile Ray LaHood and light rail are in the next booth at the Country Time Buffet, fluttering their eyelashes. This is going to be interesting.

NYT: As the newly appointed secretary of transportation, would you agree that America’s crumbling infrastructure has become an acute embarrassment?
LaHood: The way I characterize it is America is one big pothole, and Americans are ready for their streets and roads and bridges to be fixed up.

NYT: Do you worry about bridges falling down?
LaHood: I don’t worry about it because we have bridge inspectors whose job it is every day to make sure that bridges are in good repair. I do think that the Minnesota bridge collapse was a wake-up call to bridge inspectors.

NYT: The Department of Transportation, which opened shop in 1967, isn’t known for having done anything great.
LaHood: I think we’re doing great things right now. We have 13 billion times more money for high-speed rail than we’ve ever had at the department. That is a big deal.

NYT: President Obama has talked about his desire to wean Americans off automobiles.
LaHood: What we’ve talked about is getting to a concept that we call livable communities, where people don’t have to get in a car every day. You can use light rail, you can use buses, you can use walking paths, you can use your bike.

NYT: Do you think G.M. can really produce smaller, fuel-efficient cars?
LaHood: Yes. They know that if they want to be viable and sell automobiles to Americans that they have to produce cars that Americans want to drive, and they’re starting to do that.

NYT: But if Americans increasingly get around by rail, bus and bicycle, as you’ve planned, who will be buying cars in the future?
LaHood: I think everybody will have an automobile. I think it’s amazing in America when you drive around and look at new homes that are being built, there are three-car garages. I don’t think you’re going to see families with three cars. I think you’re going to see families with one car, possibly two.

NYT: What do you drive?
LaHood: I have a 1998 Buick Regal here in Washington.

NYT: What kind of mileage does that get?
LaHood: Terrible. Probably 15 or 16 miles per gallon. If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t be driving a 1998 Buick Regal. I’d be driving a more high-tech automobile.

NYT: There are inexpensive cars that get better mileage. What about a Toyota?
LaHood: I bought this car in 2000 from a friend of mine in Peoria.

NYT: Do you own a motorcycle?
LaHood: Absolutely not.

NYT: What about skateboards, which are especially fuel-efficient?
LaHood: Nope. Not coordinated enough.

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38 Comments on “Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on the Politics of Car...”

  • avatar

    If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t be driving a 1998 Buick Regal.

    Um… you make $191,300 a year.

  • avatar

    The Secretary of Transportation should be familiar with all forms of transportation. He should be using all types so he can determine the advantages/disadvantages of each. A 1998 Buck Regal wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art in 1998. In Washington DC, he should be using the public transportation a lot. Of course, in central Illinois( his former congressional district) public transportation is confined to buses. When you want to get from Pekin to Mattoon, you use a car. Public mass transportation will never be provided for such a trip- there aren’t enough “masses” to justify it.

    How many garages in my house is no business of the Secretary of Transportation.

    I suspect he’s “provided” a car. He’s a cabinet officer.

    When you are “dealing” with billions, a $191,000 salary is like pocket change.

    So far, he seems favor raising revenue by raising taxes and tolls.

  • avatar

    NYT: Do you think G.M. can really produce smaller, fuel-efficient cars?
    LaHood: Yes. They know that if they want to be viable and sell automobiles to Americans that they have to produce cars that Americans want to drive, and they’re starting to do that.

    AMERICANS DON’T WANT SMALLER, FUEL EFFICIENT CARS! Jeez people, who really thinks that every Chevy, Ford, and Dodge dealership’s showroom is full of salespeople with guns to prospective customers’ heads, saying “Buy this Silverado/F-150/Ram, or else.”? Americans want big, comfortable vehicles, by and large, and as long it’s cheap to fuel them, that’s what they will buy. Sure, there are people out there that want a small car to commute in, or people that don’t go for all of the excess that a Suburban or the like provides, but the best selling vehicle in the U.S. has been a pickup for a very long time. Going small would be a huge change for a lot of people, and many of them may never make that change if they’re given the option.

  • avatar

    LaHood: “We have ways to make you ride a bus.”

  • avatar

    superbadd75 :
    June 15th, 2009 at 11:42 am


    That’s not precisely accurate. Things like Corolla, Civic, and Prius all sell very well. Not quite as well as the F-150/Silverado, but very close.

    What is accurate is that Americans don’t want smaller, fuel efficient cars made by GM, Chrysler, or Ford, mainly because they suck at making smaller, fuel efficient cars. The Detroit 3 are decent at making huge pickups and SUVs, but simply don’t know how to build a good small car. That’s not going to change.

  • avatar

    “as my carless-and-proud neighbors might argue, LaHood’s basic vision isn’t as unrealistic or utopian as you might think.”

    It’s realistic only to those incapable of performing (a) basic math and (b) cost-benefit analysis.

    George Will hit the nail on the head. The car haters have been at this game since at least the 60s. It’s not going to work.

  • avatar

    Doesn’t really matter if his name has (R) after it. It clearly stands for “RINO”.

    (And I’m not even a Republican; but then again, not a Democrat either).

    Can anyone else see where this administration is clearly going to go?

    This country is going to look like 1960’s communist eastern Europe.

    We’ll have “projects” (big gray concrete apartments) within walking or bussing distance of make-work at state-supported/run businesses.

    I can foresee the day when country folk are “forced” to move to these just as they were in Soviet Russia, by diktat.

    “Sorry, only real farmers get to stay in the country. There is not enough fuel to allow you to buy gasoline to go back & forth to work. We have a nice apartment for you, on the 13th floor in town, though.”


    Every car nut should be voting these imbeciles out in the next election. And I don’t necessarily mean voting Repugnican, either.

    Otherwise, later on at the bus stop? Don’t you dare complain to me… I knock your block off.

    I lived in the UK where my car was a luxury. I know what it’s like. NOT NICE.

  • avatar

    There is some applicability to what he’s saying, but it really only works in metro areas. Even in my native pittsburgh, I know couple who haveone car, or jsut a ZipCar account. However, we have decent commuter transportation for wokring downtown, and nearly every neighborhood has a “main street” with some restuarants, dry cleaners, post office, etc. a few blocks away.

    I think also that the generation my age and below, say mid thirties and younger, is more likely to take public transit or bike to work. I’m a “car guy” and I bike to work as much as weather permits. Beats running on a treadmill at the gym. Friends of mine in their late thirties and forties have no interest in biking, and look at the bus system as beaneath them (they wouldn’t say it like that, but that’s what they are thinking.)

    Anecdotal yes, but hey, who want’s to commission a study?

    In rural PA, where I grew up, this ouwld never fly. Why? Because it’s takes at least a 15 minute drive to get anywhere.

    The difference really rasied their ugly heads during a state vote on raising tire/gas taxes and registration fees to fund mass transit. The middle of state solidly said no, Philly and Pittsburgh leaned toward yes. The center of the state doesn’t want to pay for our mass transit; needless to say we already pay for roads and highways to small towns and boroughs that could never fund them with their own tax bases.

    I expect many parts of the country, at least in coastal states, are similar.

  • avatar

    High speed rail? How are they going to get enough straight line areas of track to get trains up to speed? Going to start bulldozing towns that stand in the way of the Great Rail Plan?

    Look, it’d be great if the US had viable high speed rail. New york to Boston in 2 hrs flat would be great. But unlike Europe, Japan and China, the US didn’t have the reset button pushed on its infrastructure from 1939-1945, so we couldn’t just start over. Honestly, I would love to see a detailed blueprint of how these folks want this to happen.

    I’m lucky enough to live in an area with tons of public transportation so I usually only drive on weekends. But I also know that most of the country just isn’t set up the way the NY-metro area is. How do they plan on changing that? Giant elevated tracks over entire towns?

  • avatar

    I have no desire to use public transportation of any kind. I, unlike most, enjoy driving and don’t like to be shoulder to shoulder with the “unwashed masses”.

    Oh and my next house will have a 3 car garage, at minimum.

    In the future we’ll just need to jack into the matrix to do most things anyway so no need to commute by any means.

  • avatar

    If cars were used less for commuting, my “freedom” wouldn’t be negatively impacted, we’d have more time to do stuff (I take the train now and read so much more than I used to), and since we’d drive fewer miles a year we could get thirstier cars!

    The ideal situation would be for cars to be weekend vehicles. Purely recreational. And then we wouldn’t need them to be reliable, so we could all buy Chrysler/Fiats without a problem.

  • avatar

    revolver 1978–

    You’re absolutely right. Most towns and cities in America, at last post-WWII, just aren’t designed with pedestrians (let alone public transportation) in mind. In 95% of post-war suburbs you can’t get life’s necessities (the workplace, grocery store, post office, drug store, recreation) within walking distance. Or, even if it is technically within walking distance, it is extremely unfriendly and unsafe to walk to.

    If you don’t have a car, you quite literally will not eat.

  • avatar

    It’s a tad hyperbolic to comment that LaHood’s strong support of trains in our transportation mix will lead to the U.S. resembling “1960’s communist Eastern Europe.” The U.S. has been using trains for transportation since the early nineteenth century, so I’m fairly certain they aren’t a trojan horse for communist takeover.

  • avatar

    @BDB: Most towns and cities in America, at last post-WWII, just aren’t designed with pedestrians (let alone public transportation) in mind

    Luckily, we aren’t locked in a post-WWII urban-planning stasis, and continue to change and evolve our urban environments. Many, many developers have already discovered the demand for tighter communities that rely less on auto transportation and are building them.

  • avatar

    While we all love our cars, Ray LaHood’s vision faces the reality that, as our population grows, the model of one (or more) car for every citizen is no longer realistic for the increased population density in urban centers. Cars will always be the transportation of choice for rural and semi-rural dwellers but those who live in cities have to face the congestion, smog and parking hassle, an alternative may be nice. I love my car as much as the next guy but I have also lived in Europe for a while where they have a great public transport system and taking the train to work was a superior option to facing the traffic.

    If “behavioral modification” is to offer an alternative that people may actually prefer then that is a good thing – right?

  • avatar

    @menno: this country doesn’t look so great as it is.

    “I would love to see a detailed blueprint of how these folks want this to happen.” Sad;y, all your $13B will buy is studies, consulting contracts, and studies. I’d be happy if we got a detailed blueprint or 2 for that cash, but I doubt it.

    I really wouldn’t get all bent out of shape over this stuff. NOTHING the gov’t does happens quickly, most of it doesn’t happen at all. Nobody’s going to confiscate SUVs or start digging up I-95. If Obama’s as big a disaster as many claim, he won’t be re-elected, and all this talk and the big plans will simply go away. It all needs massive, ongoing funding. Even if he does get a second term, I doubt he could accomplish a small fraction of what he wants to. The only things a President can do quickly are the things he can do by executive order – start a war, suspend the Constitution, launch a torture program, institute domestic spying, and create offshore political concentration camps. What’s there to worry about?

  • avatar

    NYT: Do you own a motorcycle?
    LaHood: Absolutely not.

    Absolutely? Absolutely? How about: “Just not my cup of tea?” Why do I get a feeling my sportsbike days are numbered? And it isn’t because I am 55, I just did a 2000 mile trek in 5 days and would do it again tomorrow if the rest of my life allowed for it. National health care (ooh, my neighbors can’t afford my inevitable high side), nanny state regulators (too fast and too dangerous), internal combustion engine, etc., etc. Hey bud, it gets 45mpg and will do 150+, and you get to use the HOV lane. Try it! The Ray LaHoods of the world are why Honda won’t end up building that V-5 215hp VFR uber-bike. Oh well, he has a limo that picks him up everyday and drops him off, so he doesn’t have to give a crap about us proles. We are just faces on the sidewalk he glimpses as he gets driven to his veddy veddy important job.

  • avatar

    I voted for the guy, but when I hear them blubberin about high-speed rail, we really gotta ask whose gotten ahold of the crack stash. You cant have high-speed rail until youve mastered low-speed rail. That means eliminating grade-crossings, ie building bridges. That takes money and political will and follow-thru. We are way short on all three. We dont have the nuts to raise fuel taxes a measly dime or quarter. I doubt those people in MN were feeling very patriotic as they plunged to their deaths because of nickel-pinchers. Sadly, Im afraid theres more ahead. Here in Chicago, there are concrete rail bridges that are pushing 100 years and look like they could fail any day, no terrorist attack needed. Surely there are thousands across the country.

    The US auto industry needs to make a competitive GLOBAL(exportable)product. Look what happened since last summer. One whiff of 4,5$ gas and the whole stinking stpile collapsed. It took a worldwide recession to bring fuel prices down.

    As has been said many times, we need a longer attention span…complacency or panic wont cut it.

  • avatar

    I can see us going to more rail lines as soon as cars are outlawed, hard to obtain, or just taxed heavy. What fun that will be!

  • avatar

    Remembering that it cost $60 million per mile to create a single light rail line in Minnesota a few years ago, you have to be concerned about how much light rail you can afford. Think of the right of way costs in the most built up areas, the ones that could most benefit. Twin Cities construction expenses may not be cheap, but compared to the BosWash corridor, I think they are, relatively speaking. At Twin Cities costs, you could have 160 miles of light rail for each of 100 cities – for a trillion bucks. I think that you’d need that average 160 miles per city to have a genuinely useful system rather than a PC showcase. (In the Twin Cities, the daily ridership is 32000, out of a population of 3 million.) Let’s not even consider how much your trillion buys when factoring in Big Dig style overruns.

    In this scenario, you’d still need to fix the major roads. Light rail will not deliver the goods that trucks deliver now.

  • avatar

    Well, BuckD, I’m just extrapolating the obvious end-conclusion of what these people really truly appear to want for we, their subjects.

    ‘coz we sure aren’t free citizens of a Republic any more. Not by any definition that I have available to me, anyway.

    If you think I’m wrong, and think you really do own your own home or car or both, just try not paying your property taxes for a few years, and don’t bother buying license plates for your car any more and see what happens to said property.

    As for cars, well – we import 70% of our oil. If this stops flowing into the country, then we have no means of fuelling our vehicles, have we? Perfect scenario for total control of the populace, isn’t it? It’s not a case of “they can have my car when they pry my dead fingers off the steering wheel” at all, is it?

    Kind of like the 2nd amendment folks – this administration is doing an end-run around the Constitution on them by trying to restrict the amount of brass for ammo – and it wasn’t even 3 months into the administration before they tried it. No ammo means guns are simply good for throwing at folks coming through your window in the dark of night, eh?

  • avatar

    On the matter of mass transit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, I’ve interviewed several experts recently, and they say, unequivocally (even the guy in Europe) that outside of densely populated cities, the cost per ton of greenhouse emissions avoided of getting people out of cars, into mass transit, is far too high to merit consideration on this basis alone, although Sperling says there are other reasons to do mass transit.

    If Obama and LaHood really want to wean Americans off of automobiles, they need to start by zoning us into Manhattans.

    Mind you, I’d love to see TGVs between Boston and DC, or even Portland ME and Raleigh-Durham-RTP, NY-Chi, and various other routes, because I really don’t like flying when I don’t have time to drive. And I think urban mass transit is great for taking a little pressure off the roads, and giving people who hate to drive an alternative. And I don’t necessarily think steering new development towards Manhattans or New Urbanism would be a bad thing. But the notion that the US, as currently developed, could have more than a small fraction of one car families, is, well, it would be funny if this weren’t coming from the Sec’y of Transportation.

  • avatar

    And by the way I think this particular interviewer (in the NYT) is a real lightweight.

  • avatar

    NYT: There are inexpensive cars that get better mileage. What about a Toyota?
    LaHood: Oh you mean like the Sequoia, the Tundra, the 4-Runner, the Land Cruiser, or the FJ cruiser gas guzzlers that your “fair and balanced” newspaper raves about? No thank you.

    Huh, what? Oh, I must have been day dreaming, sorry.

  • avatar

    @Buick D–

    For every Seaside, Florida there are 10,000 sprawling cul-de-sac Green Acre Hill Flats, Heightsbottom Estates, Applepear Gardens or whatever vaguely Anglo-Saxon sounding oxymorons they use for subdivisions these days.

    New Urbanism isn’t a bad thing. The market agrees with this–New Urbanist communities have some of the highest property values in the nation, and are the most desired new developments. Its just that our zoning laws are so screwed up there aren’t many of them.

    Hell if we all lived in them people could drive their gas-guzzling Lincoln Navigators again since they would be driving many fewer miles to work and back.

  • avatar

    I think the future of commuting will to be replace as many freeway miles as possible with mass transit. In other words, drive to the train station – about as far as you’d drive to your local onramp – and then get on the train. It’s that freeway portion of the trip that’s stupid, wasteful, and boring.

    The tough part is that you need to get from the other end of the train line, to your office. I work downtown, so I walk 2 blocks. For less dense office areas, something Segway-like might’ve been the right answer if they didn’t look so stupid. However it’s done, it’s that middle part of our commutes that we should focus on changing.

  • avatar

    So much of this assumes that highways and auto infrastructure was just there- like at the dawn of time or something.

    It was created by a concerted government policy. GM also bought up many public transportation systems and dismantled them.

    I love cars but the price being paid for the oil we need is war and lives of other peoples children.

    After 9-11 didn’t it seem reasonable to consider an alternate national transportation system?

    Is there no cause and effect? So we give up something to gain something – not so bad.

    And maybe we can get some of those fun small cars the Europeans have and we can rediscover actual pleasure in driving as opposed to numb aggression.

  • avatar

    Hello, department of Redundancy Department ?…

  • avatar

    Hello, Las Vegas ? What is the line on a revolution in the U.S. within ten years ?
    No kidding ? The odds just dropped THAT MUCH ? Well, I want to place a wager…

  • avatar

    @menno: And that’s why menno is a Trabant guy. (I got your back.)

    @probert: “GM also bought up many public transportation systems and dismantled them.”

    This has been refuted more than once on here. I know that the search feature doesn’t exist for comments, but “GM did it” is a dead meme.

    Found on Wikipedia as Great American Streetcar Scandal.

  • avatar

    OK, let me offer a concrete example of why spending money on light rail doesn’t fix infrastructure, it just creates a lot more to maintain.

    Lets say you have a 5001 vehicle traffic volume in one hour on a roadway. 5000 are 2 ton sedans and one is a 40 ton 5 axle heavy truck. Which damages the roadway more, the 5000 cars or the one truck?

    Answer, the truck is twice as damaging as all the cars combined.

    Assuring that freight rail can fight fair against heavy truck traffic is a better use of resources than getting passengers on light rail or similar people movers.

  • avatar


    +1 for freight rail. It is downright ridiculous how much oil is wasted and traffic impeded by transporting so much of our stuff on trucks.

  • avatar

    With some of these comments, I wonder if some people mistakenly hit TTAC after searching for The Truth About Trolleys.

    If you want the government to tell you how to live your life and to “offer” goodies, move to Europe. If you want your trains and buses, build them with your own money. Trolleys and trains cannot survive on their own, unlike roads paid for by the gazillions in taxes levied on drivers.

  • avatar

    @Richard D–

    Suburban sprawl and being completely car-dependent wasn’t the result of laizes-faire. It was planned by the government to be that way, from the federal down to the local level. So the government is already telling us how to live, and has been for a long time.

    Changing that doesn’t mean your car gets taken away. It just means that you can, if you want to, get the bare necessities of life without a car, and use your car for long trips and pleasure driving. If you want to keep driving everywhere, you can do that, too.

    Getting the people who hate driving (they do exist) off the road would improve the amount of fun I have driving, I know that.

  • avatar

    The idea that you can create an urban environment that people will willingly flock to seems to neglect a big, big reason people like me left. That reason is kids – who need schooling and a safe place to play. And their parents need to be not paying through the nose for expensive poor-performing public schools and corrupt, expensive and poor performing local government. The jobs have left also because of the same high taxes, expensive facilities and poor services. You really will have to coerce people; they won’t choose this alternative willingly. Cheery and convenient light rail isn’t nearly enough.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Politicians and car haters tend to rhapsodize about European and Asian high speed passenger trains. In the US we have optimized our railroad system for freight, and are better off for it.

    “EU Looks to Cargo Trains To Ease Load on Trucking” by John W. Miller in the Wall Street Journal on June 5, 2007 at Page A6:

    Europe’s dependence on trucks stems from the failure of its vaunted passenger-rail network to provide a cheap, efficient alternative for cargo. Between 1995 and 2005, the percentage of European goods shipped by truck rose to 73% from 68%, while rail’s share fell to 17% from 20%. The rest goes by canal or, in the case of oil and gas, pipelines. In the U.S. in 2005, 42% of freight was moved by train and 33% by truck.

    We are doing the right thing, even if idiots like LaHood don’t appreciate it.

  • avatar

    They will spend $Billions on studies and light rail… but the simplest thing, that would actually increase vehicle occupancy, is to allow for the creation of “dollar cabs”, or otherwise reduce the barriers to entry for taxi vehicles.

    Imagine a simple setup where you pay $50 a year to get your vehicle licensed as a taxi. Riders in the taxi get limited ability to sue in the case of an automobile accident (or maybe the add’l insurance wouldn’t be that much anyways).

    You set your own route and charge a flat rate for it.

    That would immediately bring the suburbs and even some rural areas into having some kind of transportation that doesn’t require you to own your own car.

    Now Granny can get to her doctor’s appointment and go to the grocery store twice a week without getting in my way and tying up traffic since she doesn’t want to go over 25. etc. etc.

  • avatar

    Leave it to a guy of Lebanese decent to manage traffic and transportation in the US.

    Have any of you taken a look at the public and private transport infrastructure we have in oh dear Lebanon? there are a few traffic web cam’s online, which i will share sometime.

    however, Lahood does seem to be down to earth, i met him in 04 at my graduation, where he gave a speech about Civility, again relatively redundant in a country which lost most of its civil society to immigration….

    in any case, i like the 98 regal despite it being a boat. and i do agree that Americans do know what they want and GM and the other 2 were building what the Americans want, but they were building too many similar models, and not enough choice.

    in a world of what ifs, what if Chrysler didn’t kill off the Neon post 2006, and that car was on offer last year when Civics and Jazz’s were running out of showroom doors? I’m not saying the Neon is better or necessarily more efficient than the japs, but if you wanted an American car, which was efficient, you had it, but some Americans chose to kill it.

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