Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Traffic


The LA Business Journal printed a letter I wrote commenting on a reported study about how to reduce traffic problems in LA. The text as it ran in the March 2 edition is as follows:

"If we really want to reduce traffic, we should all figure out ways to drive less. If for some reason we can't expect ourselves to do our part voluntarily to reduce traffic, then we should recognize that the best thing the government could do would be to incentivize all of us to drive less. That would certainly cost less than paving every available inch of the city, and might actually make this city, and the planet, more livable.

To reduce congestion, all we need to do is charge the drivers using the streets what it actually costs to set aside that much real estate for automobiles, plus the other associated costs of pollution and congestion.

If we required city drivers to install a transponder and charged appropriate tolls for using the most congested city streets, as has been done very successfully in London, or if we substantially increased charges for parking, or if we substantially increased the taxes on gasoline, we would easily be able to reduce the amount of traffic to whatever level we desire."

Unfortunately, somebody saw fit to title my letter: "Pay Us to Park Our Cars." This title seems completely contrary to what I was suggesting. Also, the same day the paper ran an op-ed piece suggesting that the way to deal with freeway congestion is to add more lanes to all of the most congested freeways in LA. That seems like adding fuel to the fire.

We need to move away from the idea that are entitled to cheap gasoline and free parking. We need to reduce the number of cars on the road, not encourage more of them by widening the freeways. What we don't always realize is how much it costs to us to live this way: air pollution that is making us sick; delays that are making us late; urban sprawl that is destroying our landscapes; the loss of public and private space that is now given over to crowded streets and freeways; carbon dioxide that is going to make our planet uninhabitable. If we want to create a more livable world, we ought to think about reducing our dependence on automobiles, and investing more in public transportation. The first step toward that goal is to make drivers pay for all of the negative externalities they are creating, which would reduce many of the above costs created by our over-dependence on cars.

Of course increasing gas taxes or tolls or parking charges would be a hardship for many people, but those costs of driving are already a hardship for many people now. Punitive taxes on cigarettes are also a hardship for smokers, most of whom are not wealthy people, but that hasn't stopped us from jacking up the taxes on cigarettes to exorbitant levels. It is politically difficult to tax gasoline to the same extent as cigarettes, only because more of us are addicted to oil than to nicotine. Also, we don't always recognize that our oil addiction is at least as harmful to our health as smoking. But, like smoking, people are capable of reducing the costs of driving by driving less, by car-pooling, or by buying more fuel-efficient cars. When gasoline went up to $4 per gallon, ridership on the buses and trains increased tremendously. When gas prices went back down, we should have seized the opportunity to increase taxes on gasoline, which would have reduced the shock of those new taxes, and which would have generated a tremendous amount of revenue that could have been used for the benefit of everyone.

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