Streetsbloggers Respond to the Times’ Buy Here Pay Here Series

First, let’s state for the record that Ken Bensinger and the Los Angeles Times did a public service by shining a harsh light on the largely unregulated “Buy Here Pay Here” used car dealership industry.  Too many dealers in this industry and preying on poor people desperate for a car by intentionally driving up their debt so that in the end the “dealership” ends up with the shoppers money and gets a chance to sell the car all over again.

Because taking advantage of people of lesser means is patriotic.

In the third part of the three part series, Bensinger and the Times recommend finding ways to make car ownership more affordable for people of lesser means.  Not wanting to dismiss this solution without a better one of my own, I asked a group of people who regularly appear on Streetsblog as authors or as sources in our stories for their thoughts and solutions.

The narrative is what you would expect, that subsidizing car ownership (or further subsidizing car ownership) is not the answer that’s going to make vampire industries that prey on the poor’s transportation needs go away.  We had a burst of good answers, many of which are outlined below.  Full articles by Occidental College Professor Mark Vallianatos and Eastside Bike Club Founder Carlos Morales will be published tomorrow and Thursday.  Some of the other answers are summarized below, and full text of these answers can be found here.

Joe Linton, Streetsblog Board Chair and CicLAvia consultant: Many public subsidies to reduce the cost of owning a car are already in place: from free parking to subsidized gas to huge public investments in expensive car-centered infrastructure (and those are more direct subsidies – there are externalities like environmental and health care costs that are caused by and not paid for by the driving public.) No Los Angeles driver today ever pays the real cost of their driving. They’re already getting a bargain.

I think that if we’re looking to subsidize transportation in ways that are good for low-income people, it’s better for the public to invest in a balanced system that gives people choices.Subsidizing transit, walking, and bicycling will yield mobility that’s affordable for all and accessible to all. If low-income people have many viable choices, then they are less at the mercy of loan-shark car dealerships.

Roadblock, Midnight Ridazz “organizer” and Neighborhood Council Member: I sent a letter to the Times asking to know which broken down underfunded city agency Ken Bensinger expects to absorb the increased cost of road maintenance and traffic gridlock when the surge of hundreds of thousands of (taxpayer subsidized) 4000lb pavement destroying machines hits the roads as a result of the proposed “cars for poor people” program?

I suggested that Instead of proposing a program that destroys public infrastructure, it’s time to seek ways to reduce wear and tear on our roads and actually produces a better ROI since the gas supplies little to no funding for infrastructure in our cities.

Adrian Martinez, at NRDC Switchboard: We have to question whom the current transportation accommodates.  The third article mentions that the Department of Transportation spent $71 billion this fiscal year on roads and bridges, $22 billion on public transit and more than $8 billion on rail projects.  In places like Los Angeles, where our clogged freeways are known internationally, why do we continue to funnel billions of public dollars into projects that either A) benefit solely private industry like the freight industry or B) do not accommodate efficient and diverse transportation options for residents?

Damien Goodmon, Director of Citizens Campaign to Fix the Expo Line and Crenshaw Subway Coalition: Six words: Implement the Get LA Moving plan.

Allison Mannos, Former Director of LACBC’s City of Lights Campaign and staffer with LAANE: I would just say how important it is to increase bus headways in these low-income neighborhoods, especially the ones that connect them to job corridors, say, Wilshire.

  • Juan Matute

    The historical justification for motoring subsidies has been to democratize access to the automobile transportation network. As the article points out, this network can be a lifeline in accessing and retaining employment opportunities.  The 20th Century saw rising levels of auto ownership and declining levels of transit ridership as more individuals at lower real income levels gained access to the automobile network amidst falling real costs of of automobile ownership, maintenance, and operation.  In the past few decades, subsidies for constructing and maintaining motoring infrastructure have increased because of escalating costs and stagnant user fees.  In the past decade, the real cost of automobile operation has increased with rising gasoline prices along falling incomes and net worth.

    After reviewing this combination of factors, the LA Times concluded that additional subsidies for auto usage is an attractive policy option.  I come to a different conclusion: that the current system of motoring subsidies is in a downward spiral which will require ever-increasing subsidies to achieve the competing goals of democratized automobile network access in addition to good state of repair and a level of service which does not hinder local economies.
    In my opinion, the problem is not that the costs of accessing the automobile network have become too high, it’s that our transportation system has become overdependent on the automobile transportation network to the point where alternative networks do not serve all users, especially the poor.  A better policy option is to increase subsidies to public transportation, walking, and cycling networks which have lower individual access costs (as opposed to the costs to own and maintain a vehicle) and thus require far less subsidies to democratize access.  Complementary policy options include those which reduce the cost of providing and accessing transit service: concentration of land use near transit nodes (transit-oriented development), dedicated rights-of-way for transit vehicles (which reduce operations costs imposed by congestion and attract additional ridership), and legislation and enforcement that supports actual and perceived safety of those who choose to use the bicycle and pedestrian networks.  

  • MarkB

    @ Allison: I could be wrong, but I think you mean you want to reduce the headway (more frequent service) rather than increase the headway (less frequent service). Headway is the distance between the same point on sequential vehicles (road or rail), so isn’t it better to have less?

  • Lil Lebowski Achiever

    Why is an (yet another) automobile subsidy a “good idea” to head-up-their-asses flat-earther-pseudo-environmento-populist-libertarian-tards?

    It is easy!

    In “poor” neighborhoods we have systematically removed every single viable transportation option! It is simple. Electric street cars? Gone. Vibrant commercial zones? Destroyed by happy motoring policies. Bus system that works? Impossible with all the subsidized cars in the way. Bikes? Not gonna happen with all the roadway dedicated to cars. Walking? Good luck.

    In this completely debased urban landscape, a car is the “only option”. Good grief, we are so f&*ed. I read every day about how the Occupy Wall Street protesters don’t have a clear message for the future they want. When the intellectual and political elite of our country can’t figure out how to get us out of this mess, how can you expect the formerly disengaged citizenry to provide all the answers?

    So, yes! More subsidies for private cars! Let’s just throw it all on the bonfire. It is not like we are billions behind in road and sidewalk maintenance. It isn’t like we’re drowning in obesity, poor air quality, and a debt-backed consumer economy that is collapsing in on itself. No, this is 1945 and we’ve just emerged from WWII victorious. Let’s get out there and consume!

  • Lil Lebowski Achiever

    You sexist pig!

  • Well stated Juan! Car subsidies = downward spiral into ever-increasing subsidies.

  • I missed that too…