We can too give up our cars

The high-profile launch of Paris’ Vélib’ [French] program (actually, one of several such schemes in Europe, but certainly the highest-profile implementation of a turnkey free bike-sharing system to date) has put mayor Delanoë’s strategy of reducing urban traffic — no, not reducing its supposedly inevitable growth, but actually getting people who currently drive to drop the keys and step away from the steering wheel — into the spotlight. Delanoë has promised to cut traffic by 40%, and making bicycling as easy as walking — first with bicycle facilities, now with bicycles — is a big part of that.

First, some info gleaned from Vélo’v, the pioneering bike share in Lyon. JCDecaux will launch seven new city-bike schemes [French] over the next year, with over 25,000 bicycles in Paris, Seville, Marseille, Dublin, Aix-en-Provence, Besançon, and Mulhouse. Barcelona has also launched an independent bike share company, Bicing [Spanish]. Bicycle traffic grew 44% from 2005-06. So far, Vélo’v customers [French] mostly fit the profile of bicyclists; nearly half are twentysomething, 60% are male, a full third are students. 85% of daytime trips are for work or school. More than one-third of Vélo’v users drive (even occasionally) in the city; over half of them drive less since the program’s start. 10% of Vélo’v’d trips would otherwise have been in cars. (You’ve got to love the French term for non-motorized transport: “déplacements doux.” Sweet, indeed. And the newsletter’s welcome is written by the municipal “vice-president in charge of new ways of using public space.” Now, that’s a title fit for me.)

Vélo’v Station, Lyon Uploaded to Flickr by laughtonb

Pasadena recently commissioned a report on traffic reduction strategies; the draft report and the appendices (with many case studies of municipalities that have lowered VMT or trips) are available online.

The July/August issue of New Urban News points out the tremendous success of transit oriented development in Arlington, Va. I recently had dinner in a smart new restaurant a few blocks from the Clarendon Metro, at the heart of Arlington’s booming Wilson Blvd./Orange Line corridor. In my lifetime, the three-mile corridor has added 19,000 DUs, 15 million sq. ft. of offices, and 1.9 million sq. ft. of retail, worth tens of billions of dollars — yet traffic on Wilson (at Clarendon) has fallen 16% since 1996. Over the same time, transit use grew 37.5%, with Metrorail ridership growing 43% and local ART bus ridership growing 926%. Of course, Arlington has an aggressive, holistic TDM strategy.

And then, there’s that most obvious way of dissuading driving: taxes. Another Tribune editorial endorsing a high gas tax, instead of those clunky CAFE standards:

The most efficient and straightforward way to persuade Americans to conserve gasoline would be to raise gas prices. A gas tax increase of, say, 50 cents per gallon would persuade people to drive fewer miles, without limiting their car-buying options. That’s preferable to the fix approved by the U.S. Senate: a mandated rise in fuel economy standards for automobiles.

Update 23 July: it appears that Steve Chapman wrote that one. From a 22 July opinion piece, a crisp distillation of how CAFE is not just poor policy, but it backloads economic costs and increases the social costs of driving:

Higher fuel economy standards, likewise, would have results that are not quite what we envision. The first is that they won’t reduce gasoline consumption much anytime soon. The reason is simple: The only vehicles affected by the change would be new ones…

The second is that among those people who buy the new, improved vehicles, higher mileage requirements won’t actually discourage driving. Just the opposite… A 2002 study by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies found that if Congress raised the fuel mandate to 35 m.p.g, the average new light truck “would log about 1,080 more miles per year.”

The result will be more congestion and more accidents. The more people drive, the worse the traffic jams. The higher the number of cars on the road at any given moment, the likelier it is that one of them will run into yours.

Economists almost unanimously agree that if you want to cut greenhouse gas emissions by curbing gasoline consumption, the sensible way to do it is not by dictating the design of cars but by influencing the behavior of drivers. If you want less of something, such as pollution from cars, the surest way is to charge people more for it.

A carbon tax or a higher gasoline tax would encourage every motorist, not just those with new vehicles, to burn less fuel — by taking the bus, carpooling, telecommuting, resorting to that free mode of transit known as walking, or buying a Prius.

Many people are inclined to resist a higher gas tax because it would cost them money. What they overlook is that a law requiring cars and trucks to be more fuel-efficient would not come free, either. You wouldn’t pay more for each visit to the pump. But you would pay more for a car. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over time, a gas tax would cost 27 percent less than a higher fuel-economy mandate.

None of these inconvenient truths, however, got much attention from the Senate. Raising mileage standards has great allure in Washington because the price inflicted on consumers is hidden from view, assuring that no blame will fall on our elected leaders.

P.S. two snarky phrases in my head lately: “gizmo green” and “tapas-based economy.”

2 thoughts on “We can too give up our cars

  1. Pingback: Bike share not news to City Hall « west north

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