Thursday, April 30, 2015

public roads: payed for by cars?

Yesterday I read Dan Wuori's article on VeloNews, a partial response to Mike Rosen's opinion in the Denver Post: Bicyclists take backseat to vehicles.

There's an all-too-common argument made which is "car drivers pay for the road so have higher priority". This goes way back. It's simply incorrect: direct fees from car ownership don't cover the cost of the roadways, which are subsidized by the general fund. And in any case driving is externality-rich, so even if the fees covered the roads (which they don't) from an economics perspective they should additionally cover the externalities (pollution, congestion, road damage, CO2 emission, wildlife destruction; I could go on), and by any reasonable anslysis, especially in the United States with fuel taxes lower than they've been since at least before the 1970's in a percentage basis, they don't come close.

But it simply doesn't matter. It's all a red herring. Because we don't allocate space on public roads on a fee-for-access basis. Even defending yourself against that argument is a slippery slope.

Should a less fuel efficient vehicle, by virtue of paying more in gas tax, or a more expensive vehicle, by virtue of paying more in sales tax, or a higher-income driver, by virtue of paying more in income tax, automatically gain right of way at intersections, for example? Maybe landowners who pay more in property tax should be able to drive faster than those who rent. Maybe less affluent drivers should be forced to pull over and let those driving more expensive, less fuel-efficient cars pass at will.

If so, if the more you paid into the system the more priority you got on the roads, the world would be a more righteous place in some people's minds. Imagine vehicles approaching an intersections and bidding up the price of priority via a wireless link over the course of a microsecond or so ("12 cents from the silver Porsche, do I hear more? Yes -- 13 cents from that red Tesla... going once, going twice..."), the loser of the auction automatically activating its brakes, the winner speeding through without pause, money transferred from an account almost instantly. But that's not the system we have, so don't pull that argument against those who choose to use human-powered transport.

Every time I read "Dr. Fattymasters on his $15k Parlee with Lightweight wheels and Di2 spends more in support of the roads than Jimbob in his rusty pickup" I flinch. Don't even go there. It's implicitly accepting a form of elitism just as bad as the one you're fighting. We provide roads because transportation by all reasonable modes is necessary to a well-functioning society. That's been understood for millenia. I was recently in Pompeii. There's very nice roads in Pompeii. And they weren't designed for cars.

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