New York Times Invitation to Dialogue: Our Addiction to Cars

Last week, the New York Times invited readers to discuss our addiction to cars. RMI transportation experts Greg Rucks and Jesse Morris weigh 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 travelled) 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 decongest 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.