(Editor’s Note: This week Fox and Hounds is running a five part series by Norm King dealing with transportation issues based on his years of experience as a city manager and transportation consultant)
Drivers Must Pay More with “Smart” Pricing
Support policies which require drivers to pay more of the costs they inflict such as charging for parking, constructing priced lanes, imposing fees based on vehicle miles traveled, levying a per ton carbon fee, basing insurance on miles traveled.
These strategies would likely lead to increased transit demand; they will certainly make alternative transit and shared rides more desirable.
Michael Manville, the seminar presenter from Cornell, wrote in the Washington Post as follows: “Driving is too cheap. Drivers impose cost on society – in delay in pollution, in carbon, in wear and tear on our roads – which they don’t pay for. As a result, many of us drive more than we otherwise would. Ending this underpriced driving – through higher fuel fees, parking and congestion charges and insurance premiums based on miles driven – is a central challenge for local, state and federal transportation officials.”
Obviously making driving more expensive will not be popular. Politically it is far easier to sell the idea that taxes should be increased to bribe people (by heavily subsiding transit fares) to change their driving habits rather than holding those who drive accountable for the congestion and pollution costs they impose.
We will never have “smart growth” without “smart prices,” good planning will always be trumped by dishonest prices.
Transportation planners often approach their mission with a preconceived vision about how other people should live, about the desirability of a particular transportation mode and with a preferred notion of density and housing type. To overcome the “bad” choices people are making which do not conform to their vision the urban planner often advocates either subsidizing what is viewed as preferred behavior or otherwise regulating peoples’ actions.
An alternative view is that most people make good choices for themselves but sometimes these are “bad” choices for society because of the increased congestion and pollution, which they generate. Prices, which we pay to drive and consume, do not convey accurate and complete information about the real cost, including external costs and subsidies, of our behavior. These are “dishonest” prices. When prices are dishonest we can freely inflict costs on society for which we do not pay.
The penalty for not having honest prices is either suffering from the consequences of the negative impacts (congestion, global warming, certain diseases etc.) or increasing public expenditures to treat or mitigate these consequences. Our attempt to overcome the externalities of single occupant driving by spending lots of public money to force a particular solution – transit – cannot possibly succeed in the face of dishonest prices. Smart transportation policies will always be defeated by dishonest prices. Without “smart” prices “smart” growth is impossible.
For the moment transit has the edge in editorial support and is winning at the sales tax ballot box. It is losing on the ground.
People will continue to vote with their cars and Uber and Lyft are lurking along the sidewalks. Doing more of the same is a sham.