The true cost of driving

What is it about traffic these days? Maybe it’s the growing number of drivers who cut me off or flash the finger as I pedal along minding the law and my own business. Maybe it’s the exhaust fumes that hover over our office in Soquel, California, hard by car-clogged Highway 1. Maybe it’s the noisy, expensive, never-ending construction project to widen the traffic-choked street leading to my workplace. And it’s all due to one thing: overuse of the motor vehicle.

Don’t get me wrong. I own a car, and have since I was in college. My current vehicle comes in real handy sometimes – quite a few times actually. Hell, you could even say my salary comes from the car industry, considering the number of automotive ads in this magazine.

No, I don’t want to get rid of cars, even if that were remotely possible in this country. We need cars. I’d just like to see ’em, well, somehow pay their fair share.

Enter Charles Komanoff. He’s an energy consultant formerly with Transportation Alternatives, a bike-advocacy group in New York City. I met him last fall in Portland, Oregon, at Pro Bike/Pro Walk ’94, a big advocacy conference sponsored by the Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation of America.

Pro Bike’s not exactly an MTV block party. Picture land-use planners and transportation officials attending workshops with such titles as “Multi-Modal Connections: Bicycles and Transit” and “Pedestrian and Bicyclist Crash Types in the 1990s: New Thoughts on the Cross and Snyder/Knoblauch Studies and Ways to Use Data in Your Community.” Sexy, no. Crucial (and difficult and thankless), yes.

Still, after 2 1/2 days of absorbing alternative-transportation-speak, I was drunk on ISTEA, maxed out on CMAQs, dotty on DOTs, and ODed on MPOs. That’s when I glanced at the agenda and noticed a workshop called “Charging Motorists the True Cost of Driving.” Speaker: Charles Komanoff.

As Komanoff stood next to an overhead projector displaying long columns of numbers, I thought, “Uh-oh, here we go again.” But his message is distinctly different. Komanoff advocates a concept called “roadway pricing,” which he contends is gaining currency among economists, planners, and activists. He defines it as “charging for use of roads and the associated pollution and congestion.”

In 1990, Komanoff estimates, U.S. roadway transportation costs amounted to $726 billion. This includes the price of accidents ($319 billion), congestion ($168 billion), air pollution ($66 billion), land use ($65 billion), energy ($60 billion), noise pollution ($28 billion), and tax subsidies for driving ($20 billion).

Admittedly those are big numbers, and subject to debate. But of the $726 billion, Komanoff estimates that only $418 billion is actually borne by drivers. The remainder, he says, is “ripe for user fees.” These could include smog fees (tracked by a car-mounted microchip that measures tailpipe emissions), congestion pricing (based on data from vehicle ID codes registered by roadway sensors or toll-booth responders), a tax tied to vehicle weight/distance traveled, a gas tax, and various fines and fees.

“The solution is not to ban the automobile,” he explains, but to charge the full cost of its impact.

What’s more, he adds in a paper on the topic, “roadway pricing has vast implications for bicycling. To begin, cities and towns would become more inviting places to bike, with cleaner air, less trafficked streets and saner driving. Not only that, cycling would make people wealthier. To the extent that cycling is substituted for driving, each mile biked would mean zero smog fees, zero weight-distance taxes, etc…. Roadway pricing is no mere nibbling at the edges – it’s a central strategy for expanding bicycle use.”

Listening to Komanoff talk, I was alternately enthralled and appalled. More bikes, less pollution and congestion, livable communities…yes! But the plan also smacks of Big Brother: social engineering, more taxes, and greater regulation. Not to mention Komanoff’s questionable numbers and the still unobtainable technology.

Yet it grows on me. Most of the money raised by the plan, Komanoff suggests, could be rebated to the public to spend as they desire (with a fraction set aside to fund mass transit and bike/ped facilities).

Pie in the sky? Maybe. But it could make the skies a little clearer, too.

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