a rant against the machine en route to a car-free culture
by Mark Sisson
the inescapable truth
The thing that kills me about cars is the hidden cost and implicit subsidy of them compared to other modes of transport. In the movie Singles, the transportation planner/civil engineer played by Campbell Scott thought that if trains had good coffee and good music, people would get out of their cars and into the trains. Unfortunately, beverages mean stains on the train and spills on fellow commuters. One person's Mozart is another person's Hasselhoff, so neither of these really makes any sense. The inescapable truth is that trains (and busses to a lesser extent) cost a ton of money to install and operate and cannot make money unless the true cost of driving is accurately determined and tolled to subsidize more beneficial modes.
level the playing field
In order to put other modes on a level playing field, drivers need to be charged for extra pollution and delay that are caused by their trip. Public transit is significantly cleaner than driving and is almost completely insensitive to the volume of users. BART can get to San Francisco from Walnut Creek in the same amount of time, whether at 8 AM or midnight, whereas if a car enters a congested freeway it makes every other car's trip longer.
- make polluters pay
In nearly all other technologically advanced countries, gas is at least $4 per gallon. At this rate, people would choose to use more transit and buy more fuel-efficient cars. Instead of pushing on a rope by trying to badger the automakers to increase fuel efficiency in spite of market demand for gas hogs, this fuel price would shift the demand to smaller cars and the automakers would follow. This being a free country, everyone would still be free to buy even the largest, most obnoxious SUV, but they would pay the price for excessive greenhouse emissions and an increased need for oil-drilling on pristine land every time they filled up.
- look at the airlines
As far as congestion is concerned, key points can be charged variable tolls via Fastrak-type technology. The Bay Bridge might cost $6 to cross in the morning peak and only $1 at midnight, for example. Crank up the tolls on all the bridges, the tunnels, and a couple of other key points until freeway speed stays above 55 mph and traffic is more spread out throughout the day. Our very expensive freeway infrastructure will be better utilized. This system is already used by airlines and phone companies with great economic benefit. People with plenty of time can save money by traveling (or dialing) off-peak, but if you need to get somewhere during rush hour (or fly somewhere on one day's notice), a market price can buy you a seat or a congestion-free trip.
- cast off those shackles!
Use all the extra cash generated by these policies to dramatically increase the quality and frequency of public transit and allow more people to live car-free, enabling them to cast off the shackles of maintenance, insurance, registration, parking tickets, moving violations, accidents, and other hidden costs of car ownership and still lead productive lives.
it could be so easy...
The frustrating thing about the whole traffic situation is the relative ease with which it could be fixed by a group of leaders with even a basic understanding of transportation economics and some real balls. I'm not holding my breath.
Mark Sisson grew up in Oregon and has degrees from Cal Poly and Northwestern University. He is currently employed by JWD, an architecture and engineering firm in Oakland. His hobbies include cycling, tennis, and solving vexing transportation problems.