Natasha Harper-Madison drops some wisdom on cars

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Two of my Monitor colleagues did a great interview last week with Natasha Harper-Madison, a candidate for City Council in District 1. She is one of three declared challengers to incumbent Ora Houston.

Harper-Madison clearly knows and thinks more about transportation policy than the average candidate. She’s one of the few candidates or elected officials I’ve heard actually discuss the specifics of Connections 2025, the overhaul of Capital Metro’s bus routes. Others who I’ve heard talk about the changes, including Houston, have bought into the myth that the plan has significantly reduced service to large swaths of the population in favor of better service in Central Austin. When I looked into the plan for the Chronicle a few months ago I found only tiny pockets of the city that will see worse coverage as a result of the overhaul; far more people will have better service.

What I appreciated most about Harper-Madison’s take on transportation was the economic case she made against cars. She talked about how she talks about them with clients she serves through her nonprofit, East Austin Advocates.

“When you get that income tax (refund), and I say, ‘I don’t care what you do, but what you’re not going to do is spend all $2,600 on some lemon from a cash car lot, where they absolutely count on this being re-poed in six months and selling it to another sucker just like you.”

This is an important point that needs to be made more often by supporters of public transit and biking. Car-based transportation is inherently regressive. There is no way for it to be affordable to low-income people. A “cheap” car is not cheap by any normal measure. Even the crappiest car on the lot still costs at least a few weeks of wages for a low-income person. But worse, the lower the sales price, the higher the risk of an expensive repair in the near-future.

AAA estimates that it costs the average American roughly $8,500 a year (or $700 a month) to own and operate a car. That accounts for car payments, maintenance, repairs, insurance and fuel.

In contrast, explained Harper-Madison:

“I’m going to say it: I like bikes. They are one tool in the toolbox that are actually accessible and actually affordable.”

Indeed. I got my bike two years ago off Craigslist for $120. I had my first major maintenance cost a few weeks ago: I paid $45 for new tires.

However, Ora Houston’s comments and votes on bikes have largely reflected the view that they are a silly hipster distraction, rather than things that can liberate people from the costly confines of the automobile.

I think bike advocates and bike publications are as much to blame for this misperception as anyone. Too many of them are well-to-do cycling enthusiasts who are likely out-of-touch with the affordability advantage of biking because they spend as much on their fancy racing bikes as normal people spend on cars. As a result, the economic argument for biking is overshadowed by their emphasis on health, recreation and the environment. All of those are great benefits, but they’re not as likely to lead to a major shift in attitudes towards biking as a means of transportation, particularly among people who aren’t already on the biking bandwagon.

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