Thinking about what cars really cost
I've been writing a bunch about transportation of late, and I got the chance to have lunch with Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, and talk about the economics.
She proposes that we really need to make the true cost of our transportation visible to solve many of our problems (congestion, pollution, etc.) It's often been described just how much of a subsidy the U.S. and in particular California gives to the car driver, but to most people it's not too visible.
She's particularly interested in changing the rules on parking. We subsidize parking a lot. Most people are aware of the use of roadsides for free or cheap parking on public land. Robin proposes getting rid of the requirements that force building developers to provide adequate parking for their building. Most people think these are a good idea, because otherwise developers would not provide parking, and the cars coming to the building would suck up all available parking in the area and there would quickly not be any.
Her thought is: Exactly! Employers who give free parking to their staff are subsidizing their driving, unless they give an equal value payment to those who don't park a car. Same with shops and their patrons, or shops that give validated parking. The shops who validate my parking will rarely alternately give me a free transit ticket, or just plain cash if I walked, carpooled, took a taxi or otherwise didn't park a car.
The same applies to on-street parking permits for residents of neighbourhoods. The house I am in now is in a very busy neighbourhood where it is hard to find parking. I understand why people want them, especially if they have houses built before the must-provide-parking laws were in place that don't have a private parking space. But again, it's a fat subsidy. The people who decide to not park cars aren't given something of equal value. (And monthly parking in commercial garages ranges from $100 to $300 in most cities.)
Removal of these subsidies would help reflect more the true cost of a private car. Of course, this is just a part of it. We still build the giant private road networks. In theory gasoline taxes can be roughly set to charge you based on how many miles you drive on the roads and to charge you precisely based on how much you pollute, though I don't believe they currently do.
Robin's zipcars (though they are not really hers, she has left the company) are priced by the hour, and they do have to pay the price of their parking at their pick-up/drop-off points, though they get to use subsidized parking in many cases in the places they drive to. They, along with taxis and transit, would seem a lot more appealing if regular cars didn't get the subsidy.
Forgot to add: Robin also likes congestion pricing (as currently done in London) to make the costs more visible. Good idea in theory, but in practice, the means suggested to enforce it -- transponders and licence plate cameras -- are rather Orwellian. Robin wants to propose a system that's more anonymous, which is not trivial, and the problem is that even when you start with that good goal, it quickly gets suborned. Particuarly when forces, like the police, would love a database of what cars were where, when.