Should we make driving more painful?
Emily Badger writes a provocative piece about the nature of carrots and sticks, and questions whether cities should employ bigger sticks to shift people out of cars:
My commuting choices — just like everyone's — are the sum of the advantages of one transportation mode weighed against the downsides of all other options. Or, more succinctly: my feelings about the bus are mediated by what I'm thinking about my car.
But why not just wield disincentives as what they honestly are? "Behavior change" sounds vaguely manipulative (whether we're talking about behavior involving automobiles orthermostats). But in this context, the disincentives are really about removing subsidies and distortions from the market. Parking isn't really free. Gas taxes don't actually cover the costs of maintaining our roads. So why is it so hard to disincentivize driving at the same time that we incentivize the alternatives, at least until they're in some better kind of equilibrium?
"Because we're afraid," Hamilton says. "Because we don't have the guts to pull the levers on what we want. We know that we want a walkable, bikeable, transit community. We're building it. But we're afraid to push the disincentive lever too hard."
This is a vital discussion, and one that deserves something longer than my own simple blog post. Emily's right in that the decision process is far different in places like New York and DC, where great alternatives to driving already exist, than it is in Peoria or Phoenix. It's also critical to preface any discussion like this with: why? Why encourage walkability or behavior change at all? Taken out of context this sounds like social engineering, even though there's an enormous amount of social engineering baked in to our current lifestyle and transportation options.
So while this merits a much deeper dive, I will say that there are other options. To a large degree, cities wanting urbanity can just deregulate much of their processes and allow it to happen. Even fair-minded people can stifle walkability with good intentions and burdensome regulations. Beyond that, I think an approach that actually makes all transportation fully pay for itself is a better platform to start from. Want that $1 billion roadway improvement? Fine, put it to a vote and let's show how it will be paid for over time. An inherent flaw of the current method of transportation funding is that all roadway-based expenses are socialized, but most transit/bike/pedestrian improvements have to justify themselves on a per-project basis. A change in that basic approach can do wonders, without going the routes of heavy sticks.
There's no doubt that a really successful walkable place is a pain in the ass to drive and park in; that reality is fundamental. The best path to achieving that, in a wide variety of kinds of places is where the rubber meets the road.