Pleasure, practicality, and petrol

To talk of liking cars in the current environmental and economic climates sometimes seems outdated, even heretical in some circles. I recently discovered an excellent Youtube channel called Petrolicious, which captures the essence of classic and exotic cars lovingly preserved, restored, and imbued with fantastic histories and feelings through their owners. I appreciate the beauty and spirit of classic and exotic cars. Yet I am also an ardent supporter of alternative transportationdense, walkable neighbourhoods, and congestion pricing – all of which are antithetical to limitless automobility. How can this be so?

Beyond the argument that at least some art and aesthetic is necessary (human nature demands that not everything can be practical and utilitarian), these classic and exotic cars are less environmentally damaging than at first glance. In many cases, these cars are not driven often, so they essentially emit much less pollution than even the most efficient modern subcompact, driven tens of thousands of kilometres every year for commuting and numerous other trips. And restoration gives new life to worn-out exotics, saving the energy which would have been expended in scrapping, expending less than in producing new vehicles.

What cars were, and are

Exotic cars are many things – expensive, powerful, exciting, artistic – but above all, they are rare. They embody some of the qualities that even ordinary cars had decades ago. Prior to mass vehicle ownership, cities were less sprawling. Cars were originally about pleasure ahead of practicality. People commuted and made most of their trips through public transit, cycling, or walking. Cars were expensive, relatively unreliable, and only for a small, wealthy elite. The act of driving for pleasure – whether auto racing or a drive in the countryside, was similarly limited to this demographic.

Fast forward to the present, and we have effectively lost this sense of pleasure. Despite marketers’ attempts to sell us on the “fun” aspect of new vehicles, driving is often done out of necessity. Traffic congestion, urban sprawl, and the burdensome expenses of owning and operating vehicles for lower and middle class people takes the pleasure out of driving. Many would prefer to drive less, if only more practical transportation options existed in modern environments.

What we have lost, and what we can regain

Petrolicious, and similar channels and publications, remind us what we have lost. They can even explain the dichotomy of driving for pleasure rather than necessity. Driving was originally intended as an occasional and pleasurable activity, not a tool for daily living. It has become more affordable as vehicles have become more widespread and reliable and standards of living have risen, but at its inception, and at its core, it was and is expensive. Current pricing methodologies and the proliferation of mass-produced vehicles in spatially finite cities means that the open road is a thing of the past: traffic congestion will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Economic realities mean that most of us will only ever own mainstream, relatively utilitarian vehicles, though we may be fortunate enough to drive an exotic. Vintage Ferraris and Porsches are soulful works of art as much as they are vehicles. By remembering the past as we move forward, it is possible to imagine a world where it is feasible to drive our own vehicles as these exotics are driven: occasionally, and for pleasure.

 

(Great) Leap Ahead: a 7 year plan for transit improvements in Metro Vancouver

With great enthusiasm, I read Gordon Price’s synopsis of a new proposed plan for transit in Metro Vancouver, and more crucially, the funding methodology required to achieve it. Paul Hillsdon and Nathan Pachal recommend a 0.5% sales tax devoted to funding the region’s share of the $21.5 billion required to implement the transit improvements over the next seven years. (Almost) everyone pays; everyone benefits.

Benefits

There are clear benefits to an improved public transit network, with frequent routes throughout the region. The authors cite reduced congestion and productivity losses, improved housing and transportation affordability, and social, health, and environmental benefits as examples.

Funding options

Hillsdon and Pachal have clearly demonstrated why a sales tax is the most prudent solution. It is linked to the movement of goods and services through reducing congestion, and has been a demonstrably successful solution for funding transit in other regions, such as Seattle, Denver, and LA. It is acceptable given that the GST has been reduced by two percentage points in recent years.

The sales tax is also the most equitable, as it is applicable to everyone over the age of 15 who purchases goods and services in Metro Vancouver (about 84% of the population, according to the document). Stephen Rees rightly asks “why an ever more regressive tax system is supposed to be a good idea”. However, the negative impact of the tax on the poorest residents could be ameliorated with a tax rebate, similar to the current GST/HST rebate. It could be made even more palatable by removing less effective taxes, such as the gas tax (see below).

Other funding sources are unworkable at present. The gas tax is showing diminishing returns because of increased fuel efficiency and reduced driving. Regional mayors are rightly unwilling to increase the property tax burden on homeowners. Transit fares cannot be increased – many lower-income riders would not be able to afford the increases, and some riders would abandon transit; this is the opposite of what the plan is trying to achieve. A vehicle levy was previously rejected by residents in 2001, and is unlikely to be popular now.

Road pricing as a funding solution?

The report’s authors reject road pricing at present, arguing that it only applies to drivers, rather than all residents – despite drivers constituting a majority transportation share. However, in a comment on one of his recent posts, Hillsdon notes:

Once the tax is introduced and the transit system is “completed”, I think passing road pricing is realistic. But people need alternatives available first and the funding for those alternatives need to be stable and sustainable, not based on the mode we are trying to discourage.

I agree. While I am in favour of road pricing for encouraging a shift to more sustainable, less costly modes (transit, cycling, walking), and away from driving, the scheme would be more acceptable when the alternatives are essentially already built. It would be unfair to punish drivers with an additional cost when they do not have viable alternatives to driving in many regions of Metro Vancouver – specifically South of Fraser. We can reexamine road pricing/congestion pricing as a longer term funding solution, once the core frequent transit network, as envisioned in the plan, is built.

The time is now to Leap Ahead

Deftly dismissing the specious arguments about improving fiscal prudence within Translink (already achieved), and paying for transit through eliminating fare evasion (a comparatively miniscule amount, outstripped even by the cost of the new Skytrain faregates), Hillsdon and Pachal argue that the funding solution, and subsequent projects, must be implemented soon.

The provincial government, architects of a problematic structure within Translink (it is responsible for the conflicting needs of both roads and transit, with limited funding) and a disingenuous upcoming referendum on transit, are not taking the lead on implementing solutions. A modest sales tax to fund the transit improvements Metro Vancouver desperately needs is as affordable and straightforward a solution as we’ve seen yet.

Lexus lanes: the relentless pursuit of perfection in road pricing

As I have mentioned in a previous post, language shapes the way we perceive ideas. Different words connote different meanings, and can alter our opinions towards an idea.

For example, while a “fat tax” on certain processed foods high in sugar or fat might be an effective method of limiting consumption of these foods, and achieving public health gains, the word “fat” is heavily stigmatized in Western society (no pun intended). Such a negative connotation means that the idea is less likely to gain widespread support, and anyways, the desired outcome is the complete opposite of what the term suggests: by taxing foods high in sugar or fat, the goal is to minimize the proliferation of fat foods (and by extension, public obesity.) It’s more of a “fat avoidance tax”.

This brings us to one of the suggested methods for raising badly-needed funds for transit in Metro Vancouver – congestion pricing. As Jarrett Walker rightly suggests, the term “congestion pricing” implies paying for a negative condition – traffic congestion. I imagine few people would be in favour of such an idea; what they would rather do is to pay to avoid traffic congestion.

This of course elicits elitist impressions of road pricing: recall the “Lexus lanes” in California, so-called as wealthier motorists pay a premium on certain freeway lanes to avoid traffic congestion.

Instead, congestion pricing should be a free-market, demand-responsive system where the toll or price for using a particular road varies based on the traffic volume, or demand on that road at a given point in time. It recognizes that the traffic capacity on a given road is finite, and should be priced accordingly. By pricing the available road space appropriately, to goal is to achieve maximum throughput on a given road, while avoiding gridlock conditions.

What should congesting pricing be called then? While decongestion pricing is a more accurate label, I propose that “variable road pricing” may be a better fit. (Also, while I agree with the basic term “road pricing”, I take issue with the CBC describing road pricing as “controversial”, since it arouses negative suspicions before there can be an informed public debate on the idea.)

Although there are certainly many details to explore, variable road pricing is a program that could be popular across the political spectrum. The revenue from variable road pricing could contribute to both road maintenance and transit, which is an egalitarian approach, and appropriate given that many major roads have dedicated transit lanes. It is also a cheaper solution than building additional road capacity, which in the absence of road pricing, would soon become congested (induced demand).

Variable road pricing does constitute an additional cost to driving, so it should be coupled with the elimination of the gas tax specific to Metro Vancouver, which has been demonstrated as an unsustainable and outdated source of funding.

A new variable road pricing scheme could address several of the transportation issues we face in this region. Appropriately named, it could shape an honest and informed debate on the details and implementation of the program. We should be relentlessly pursuing perfection in both areas.