Calculating all the externalities of driving
I and many others feel the best way to set urban and transportation policy is to properly price in the "externalities" into our travel, and to remove all other penalties and subsidies. If you can do this, then everybody is incentivized to improve the public good. In particular, entrepreneurs and companies are motivated this way, and it's their job to think of the new things nobody else thought of.
It is far from simple to accurately capture these externalities, but the result is valuable enough to give it a go. Even if you can't capture all of them, you can use traditional regulation for some things, and pricing of externalities for others.
So let's look at some of these and how to price them.
This is the most common area of discussion. Unfortunately there is debate, both scientific and political, on: * What harm pollutants cause and what it costs * Whether greenhouse gasses cause harm at all (ie. the global warming political debate) * How to properly account for "well to wheels" energy use in both fossil fuels and electricity * Contested externalities, like environmental effects of fracturing for natural gas extraction
Once you can calculate these, though, it's easy to price them into the fuel or electricity. One can argue some variation based on where you release the emissions. For example, small particulates kill many people, but far more if you release them upwind of population centers, and few if you release them in the country.
While we'll never get full agreement on the exact number, any serious number should be enough to get people to want to generate less pollution in their driving (and all other energy use.)
There is specific debate on the real costs of the battery packs in electric cars -- both the costs of the mining and processing of the materials, and the cost of recycling. One would want all the components of vehicles to have their externalities priced in, so that they are automatically factored in the depreciation cost of a vehicle mile.
Roads cost money to build and maintain in ordinary use. A lot of that money was spent long ago, so one argument is not to bill for what taxpayers already paid for. Other arguments suggest that road usage is not in itself a negative externality when you factor in all the other things listed here.
Road damage requires maintenance. Road damage is very different for different types of vehicles. It goes up roughly with the 4th power of weight. So yes, a 12,000lb truck is doing 80 times as much damage as a 4,000lb car. And bicycles and pedestrians are barely noticeable. Trucks do pay a tax based on their weight, but it is completely inadequate considering the difference in road damage they cause.
Congestion and impedance of traffic
Congestion is (like most of these) tricky. If you drive at a low-demand time, you really don't cause any congestion. You don't get in the way of others. All drivers near peak times contribute to congestion. Some would argue off-peak drivers are increasing the probability of congestion a little bit each, but if the road never congests, was there an externality?
All traffic does impede other traffic, because of the need for things like stop signs and traffic lights. The more flow on one street, the longer I have to wait to cross it. That's true for pedestrians as well as cross traffic. On a lightly flowing street, pedestrians can cross almost any time. With more traffic they should stick to crosswalks or even lights. Of course, the pedestrians using the crosswalk are also blocking traffic, but there is no way to bill them for their externalities (and politically it's close to impossible.)
You can get very detailed if you want. Everybody who stops or slows is impeding traffic. They might have a purpose, like dropping somebody off or parallel parking, but they do add to congestion. Big vehicles also tend to add more to congestion than small ones, but if they carry multiple people it can more than balance out. Vehicles with slow acceleration also are well disliked on the roads for slowing them down.
All of these factors could be measured in a robocar. Doing so in regular cars is difficult, though it could also be done with a small GPS device, if designed in a non-Orwellian way.
It is hoped that robocars and smart traffic management will actually reduce congestion for all, not increase it, so the cost of this will go down -- though it is still not paid for by the driver in most places.
Degradation of experience
The presence of cars on streets used for walking, shopping or anything but driving degrades the urban experience. They make noise, and they create a barrier to movement for people who must go to crosswalks or wait for lights. When traffic volume is high, they require space as roads become wider than would be desired for aesthetic or pedestrian uses.
It can be argued we would design our cities differently without cars on the surface, or without cars at all. Certainly cities of past centuries look very different, though a wide variety of factors went into that.
There is also visual blight to consider -- not just of roads, but of overhead wires, elevated tracks and bridges, traffic lights and more.
Street level transit would incur more costs -- the noise of trolley wheels taking a turn is much louder than most other vehicles, and the tracks create a hazard for bicycles, among other things. Buses are noisy and block streets and, if diesel, have high emissions per person.
Creation of risk
Driving creates risk for other users of the road. Both the risk that you will hit them, and for them an increased chance that their own mistakes could end in an impact. (ie. because the road is full of other cars, I must drive at a higher level of caution.)
It was noted that vehicles can be stolen and used as weapons. Fortunately this is extremely rare today but our reaction to it is very strong.
Consequences of accidents
Of course the risk leads to accidents. In theory this is paid for by insurance, but estimates suggest as little as 1/4 the cost of accidents gets paid that way.
In the comments it is also added that roadkill is an externality, not just from animal rights and death of wildlife, but because it is unpleasant and may need to be cleaned up.
While I don't imagine we could come up with truly accurate and agreed upon values for all these costs, I don't think we need to be that accurate to get better policy results than just making hard and fast rules like banning certain activities or prioritizing others. In fact, in many cases we may simply start from a goal that might be a regulation and then put a price on it.
In the modern computer world, it is no longer untenable to have very complex formulae for calculating the price. There can literally be a different price per square-foot second of road occupancy for every different small piece of road, and computers can add it up, and optimize based on it. Calculations can have caps to make sure they remain roughly predictable.
Today, a large fraction of people use a tool like Waze to plan their trip. It puts a focus on travel time based on a very complex analysis of the factors on every road segment and intersection. It also considers distance and the costs associated with distance. Deeply complex rules need not impede route planning, and because they will be simpler in aggregate, they can still affect vehicle choice purposes. We can know the emissions of every kwh of electricity in every region. We can know the weight and size of every vehicle. Software will know our travel patterns and can tell us, "with your pattern, this vehicle will cost $X and that vehicle $Y, but if you are willing to change your travel pattern as such you could lower those prices as follows.
What might change?
- More energy efficient transport (per passenger) would become the norm, but the solution would be chosen by people, not policy.
- The use of tunnels might become much more competitive
- VTOL aircraft (flying cars) might also be much more competitive, except on noise
- Some transit modes would suffer from the loss of their subsidies and their noise, size and overhead wires.
- Strong incentives against congestion would distribute traffic for more efficient and predictable flows
- Most of all, things net yet imagined would get invented under the better economic rules.
So, what other externalities do you think should be priced into travel?