Two Simple Ideas For Solving Our Addiction To Cars

by Greg Rucks and Jessie Morris, via Rocky Mountain Institute

Last week, the NY Times invited readers to discuss our addiction to cars. RMI’s Rucks and Morris weighed in.

Greg Rucks: Consider Alternative Rational Pricing Approaches

In spirit, a gasoline “user fee” charges drivers in proportion to the benefit they receive—the revenues are used to build and improve the nation’s roadways through the Highway Trust Fund. In reality, however, a large portion of gasoline tax revenues have historically been diverted away from general road use and used instead for infrastructure improvements—often unrelated to roads—that benefit a select few. Mr. Salzman’s proposal of a “rational gas user fee” thus hinges largely on the “rational” part.

An alternative rational pricing approach promises to deliver proportional benefit to users that is directly linked—and proportional to—the extent of their contribution: a VMT (vehicle miles traveled) tax by which drivers are charged by the mile, not by the gallon. As the Oregon Department of Transportation found in 2005, this approach can also help de-congest roadways since rates can be adjusted to reduce driving during peak times (thus reducing traffic), avoiding the need for costly new infrastructure so we can focus on fixing the roads we already have.

Another benefit of a VMT tax is that it provides a pathway to a future where gasoline no longer fuels U.S. transportation. As the U.S. adopts increasingly efficient—and ultimately electrified—vehicles, gasoline revenues will dwindle and infrastructure funding will need an alternative source. Why not lay the groundwork for that future by establishing that source now?

Jesse Morris: Make Better Use of Our Existing Infrastructure

“Stop pedaling … start driving”—that’s the headline from a recent ad by a major U.S. auto manufacturer trying to convince college students to get off of their bikes and into new cars. Although the company quickly backtracked on the message due to widespread criticism, it did highlight a reality: a majority of Americans are more accustomed to driving from point A to point B than using other means. As a whole we are slaves to our cars, and, as suggested by Mr. Salzman, an additional user fee or tax on gasoline could be one way to start changing this dynamic.

But policy-oriented changes aren’t the only way to get people out of their cars. As highlighted by MIT professor Donald Sadoway in a recent talk on energy storage, when presented with resource-oriented challenges, our society has solved problems the good old fashioned American way: by inventing our way out. Business-led innovation can help to transform our transportation system by making better use of existing infrastructure—including our cars—without the need for all-encompassing federal policies.

For example, right now, most urban dwellers (80 percent of the U.S. population) can use their own car, hop on a bus, walk, take a train or subway, use a vehicle in a carshare program, carpool, or pedal a bike in a bikesharing program to get around. But there’s really no way to take advantage of all these mobility options as a whole, integrated service. People have to call a cab, use a computer to sign up for a carshare program, buy a ticket for public transportation, and—importantly—pay to use all these different conveyances separately.

Enter the innovators: forward-thinking companies, progressive local governments, and even car manufacturers who recognize that driving may not always be the best way to get around. Many are stepping into this space to develop integrated applications that let individuals plan their trip from point A to point B by selecting one or many of the options above and paying for the whole trip in a single transaction. If executed successfully, an innovative approach that utilizes existing transportation infrastructure could negate the need for personal car ownership and sidestep politically charged battles over federal transportation spending and taxes.

Simply encouraging politicians to have an “adult” conversation with Americans about our unsustainable use of oil, as Mr. Salzman writes, won’t move the needle in the near term. Instead, its time for enterprising, innovative businesses and organizations to step up to the plate and start capturing the dozens, if not hundreds, of transportation-related business opportunities available today.

Greg Rucks is a consultant and Jesse Morris is an analyst with the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI’s blog and was re-printed with permission.

7 Responses to Two Simple Ideas For Solving Our Addiction To Cars

  1. Mark E says:

    Maybe I read it wrong, but it sounds like RMI is presenting the gas tax and miles-traveled tax as either-or options. They are not. The per-gallon gas tax

    A punishes guzzlers and
    B rewards drivers of clean tech cars

    If we are talking rational taxes, then the gas tax revenues should fund global warming related programs (earth science, R&D, deployment incentives).

    For maintaining the highways, that’s an entirely separate issue quite apart from energy units that went into one’s vehicle. A rational tax plan would simply tax this directly, though we’d need tamper proof odometers and the infrastructure to collect the readings. Not all states have mandatory inspections.

    Repeat, don’t repeal the gas tax…. double it! And call it the “Automotive CO2 Tax”.

  2. speakoutforscience says:

    I am all for reducing the time we spend in our cars. However, in some areas, public transportation is difficult or nonexistent. In addition, this idea punishes those who have gone the “extra mile” to purchase a hybrid or an electric vehicle. What we need is to end federal oil and gas subsidies.

  3. wili says:

    Or the tax on toxic fuels, or the death fuel tax, or the American Energy Independence Tax…

    Patriot Tax?

  4. PeakVT says:

    . In reality, however, a large portion of gasoline tax revenues have historically been diverted away from general road use and used instead for infrastructure improvements—often unrelated to roads—that benefit a select few.

    Not buying this. The federal gas tax doesn’t cover the cost of transportation spending (transportation bill plus transfers to the states) and hasn’t for a while. The shortfall has been made up out of the general fund. And the money that has been diverted at the federal level has gone largely to transit or long-distance rail, which very much is related to roads. Given the unpopularity of the gas tax, I doubt massive diversions are happening at the state&local level.

    Aside from that, the explanation of how VMT fees will not be diverted is totally non-existent. All that is provided is an underpants gnomes-style assertion: 1) VMT 2) ??? 3) beautiful, traffic-free roads.

    I don’t see why people have the urge to invent a new system of revenue collection when the only thing wrong with the current one is the level of the gas tax. Sure, at some point in the future we’ll have to figure out a way to collect revenue from electric cars, but in the mean time we want people to buy them. When EVs get to be 5-10% of the total vehicle fleet then it will be the time to address the problem.

  5. Jena says:

    Gas tax should be HIGHER than it is, STOP SUBSIDIZING OIL!!! No we dont want people to buy more EV’s. It takes energy and produces waste to create these vehicles. We don’t want people buying any cars. We need to increase the public transportation availability and design safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. EV’s are still cars and don’t do anything for physical health…GET OUT OF YOUR CAR AND WALK OR RIDE A BIKE! Its that simple…the more people that do it the safer it will be and cars will be secondary on the roads.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obviously, in the end we must reduce private car use and ownership to as low a level as possible. Public mass transit, bicycles, walking, taxis and mini-buses for the aged and infirm, must be preferentially financed, and electric and other modes of propulsion put before internal combustion. It is simply a matter of deciding not to continue the mass suicide pact to the end.

  7. fj says:

    Just like we’ve created this terrible crisis by taking natural services for granted, it is very easy to underestimate the extreme value of net zero mobility.