Road pricing & stuff

Sent to the CCM list, edited slightly:

1. The damage to bike paths & sidewalks comes from mother nature (rain, snow, trees, earthquakes) or from vehicles (cars, laden hand trucks), not from people. Old buildings with soft stone stairs and high pedestrian flows sometimes have a bit of the tread worn down (look at Union Station), but that’s all.

Wear and tear caused by a vehicle traversing a stretch of road increases *exponentially* with the vehicle’s weight. Let’s see how this plays out:

Payton + bicycle = 160 lbs. ^4 = 655,360,000
Ahnuld + Bummer B2 + misc. crap in trunk (steroid syringes, old scripts, Grey Davis’ scalp) = 6,450 lbs ^4 = 1,730,768,006,250,000

Toll for Payton = $0.01
Toll for Ahnuld = $26,409.42

To see how this might work out with some real numbers behind it, take a look at (and then look further to see their ideas on congestion pricing — loony libertarians, but the numbers seem somewhat solid)

2. An article I wrote a long time ago for Bike Traffic advocated a different way of thinking about gas taxes or the cost of driving: as citizens, we all have a right to move and a right to public space, but drivers use way, way more space than pedestrians or cyclists. So, things like congestion charges can be seen as a usage fee for the public space that they use. Or, think about the revenues that could be raised under a carbon dioxide trading scheme — where everyone on earth gets the same right to pollute, but we in the rich countries would have to pay poor countries that aren’t “fully using” their capacity to pollute. Pretty neat.

Gas Taxes and the Public Good
By Payton Chung

“The summer driving season” is once again upon us, and with its arrival come the inevitable complaint that gas prices, and thus gas taxes, are too high. Politicians respond by pointing out that gas taxes can’t be cut– otherwise, the sorry state of our road network would deteriorate faster, as most gas tax revenue is dedicated to ever-popular road construction and maintenance programs.

Problem is, thinking of gas taxes as a “user fee” which pays for road construction and maintenance digs the appropriate transportation movement into a hole. If bicyclists and transit riders and pedestrians don’t pay gas taxes, what right do we have to the road? And if drivers pay gas taxes, why should they have to pay congestion fees and tolls?

Perhaps re-framing the gas tax would help. Instead of recouping driving’s direct cost to the government–building and maintaining millions of miles of roads–gas taxes also help to recoup its indirect costs to government and, by extension, to society at large. Drivers use an inordinate amount of public resources: publicly owned space on the ground, airshed and other natural resources, and dollars for the maintenance of infrastructure.

General tax revenue has long provided publicly owned space for the common good, from common pastures to today’s parks. Streets that provide basic access have long been paid for out of general revenue, since only land with road access can be economically productive, and since all people should have the right to movement. However, the tentacles of automobile domination have stolen millions of acres of prime real estate from the tax rolls– highways, arterial roads, expressways–largely for the purpose of providing transportation which could easily be accomplished with less infrastructure-intensive modes.

Bicyclists and pedestrians, for example, take up a modicum of public space–and further, don’t demand much of the public spaces they’re provided. Neither mode wears down pavement quickly, neither mode creates much noise or air or water pollution. And as many shop-keepers will attest, heavy foot traffic is even better for commerce than heavy automobile traffic. Governments would do well to ensure free passage for pedestrians and bicyclists within cities.

Cars and trucks, on the other hand, don’t contribute much more to the city economically or socially — but they place far greater demands on the city’s public infrastructure. Their weight ruins roads in short order, their girth displaces productive human uses (as when parking lots replace homes and shops), their exhaust ruins the air. The road space squandered on “the non-movement of vehicles”–or, better yet, rendered unuseable by double parkers –are an economic waste for the city. They serve few people at a very great cost; they are, as William H. Whyte said, “a huge reservoir of space yet untapped by imagination.”

Cyclists’ use of public space — i.e., the streets — is usually what people fight about when they wrongly claim that cyclists don’t have a “right to the road.” Yet cyclists use that space so much more efficiently than cars (witness the yield of on-road bike parking) that such arguments should similarly be non-starters. After all, any tax levied proportional to cyclists’ public-space burden would either be laughably small (as above) or result in stiff penalties for road-hogging drivers.

3. Captain Pank wrote: “I think that that driver’s odometers should be hooked up to a system where their miles can be tracked and a tax levied upon how many miles the driver have driven (perhaps at which speed you drive too).”

This is called a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, and I have some paper at home that estimated that a 8.5c/mile fee on driving in the Chicago region only during peak hours would raise $787 million annually and cut total miles driven by 12% (think one of every eight cars on the road gone, just like that). This would raise more cash and cut travel far more than an expressway-only toll three times as high, since it would keep people from shifting from expressways to arterials. Yet the same study found that a $7/day regional parking tax (levied only during the morning rush) would raise $3.3 billion a year!

Another idea for a tax on driving is to set up pay-go car insurance. Instead of buying insurance separately, drivers would pay a surtax on gasoline (estimated at 20-30c/gallon) that would go into a common insurance fund. The nightmare of crashing with an uninsured car would disappear, bad drivers would still get penalized through the justice system, occasional drivers wouldn’t have to pay high fixed costs, and the higher cost of driving would discourage driving and thus make the roads safer for everyone.

4. The most obvious way to levy these taxes is via an I-Pass like system of transponders, not through toll booths. London does its charges via cameras. Remember the day after the London charge went into effect: “Tower Bridge, which critics feared could be damaged by the weight of extra traffic, carried hundreds of extra bicycles but unusually few cars.” (Andrew Clark, writing in The Guardian)

5. Just to underscore how expensive driving is for everyone, various studies attempting to estimate the “social cost of driving” (the cost that American society pays to drivers to clean up their pollution, secure their oil supplies, wipe up their blood after crashes, productivity lost to traffic jams, etc.) range from $3 to $7 per gallon of gas or $2,000 to $5,000 per car per year. (Cites available upon request.)

6. An alternate argument could be made that the social “cost of cycling” is either negligible or negative, largely due to the public health benefits of having a physically active population.

7. Past experience with tearing down freeways or otherwise removing road capacity does indeed point to something called “induced demand” (some studies peg it at 10-15%). A certain percentage of traffic will take a road more or less just because it’s there — because it makes doing the trip just convenient enough that it gets done. When the road disappears, so do the trips.

Anyways, as I like to point out, the Champs-Élysées carries as many cars a day (200,000) as Lake Shore Drive, and moves many more people (since millions throng its sidewalks or use subways along its length, and since carpooling is more common there). Yet ground-floor retail there is among the most valuable real estate in the world, while the most expensive real estate on LSD is high above it. Also, the Champs- Élysées can be crossed safely on foot along its length. Maybe we just need a better design, one that better balances cars with people.

8. Pedways are stupid. I was just in Atlanta, where they’re called “honky tubes” — a way for white office workers in downtown high- rises to avoid interacting with the dangerous (presumably black) people down below. Grade separated pedestrian paths were quite a fad in Modern architecture, and they can still be seen in areas like Illinois Center but were removed from other places, like UIC.

As much as I look forward to the opening of the Bloomingdale Trail and a Western Avenue subway, I still believe that most surface traffic belongs at surface level. In some very well monitored or busy locations, as at Rockefeller Center or maybe in downtown Toronto, they work okay, but otherwise they can be difficult to maintain and suck needed viability from the real public realm of the streets.

I would rather have great bike access from door to door on the entire street network, thanks to slow and light and courteous traffic everywhere (which better utilizes a street network already in place), than to have to go a mile out of my way just to reach “the bikeway” — a “separate and unequal facility.” (As one traffic guy I know says, “50,000 cars a day can’t be wrong — every street should be walkable and bikeable.”) Sure, I use paths when they go where I’m going, but not for the sake of them — and duplicating our entire street network just to have grade-separate bikeways (and how would you get up and down?) seems foolish.

Also, the CTA tracks currently in some place barely have room for trains to pass at speed, much less accommodate additional traffic in proximity to the third rail. The Green Bay Trail (the north shore equivalent of the IC) works fine as a rail with trail, but it’s kind of narrow. The SkyTrain through suburban Vancouver has a trail underneath it that’s kind of nice, although it does cross at grade..