I’m always thinking about how to get people out of their SUVs and onto the streets. Getting cars off of the streets could do so much for our society. Imagine a city free from the hum of engines, the dopplared displacement of the wind as cars rush by street facing windows. It would be pretty amazing to navigate a city free from cars, not to mention the landscape opportunities.
Why do people drive cars? They are cost effective. The opportunity cost of owning a car to move from point A to point B far outweighs the cost of not having one. In this world time is money and the amount of time saved and convenience earned by owning a car pays for the car itself. This is the rational that runs through people’s heads when they answer “NEVER” when posed with the question “would you ever give up driving?”, whether or not they realize it.
Lack of vehicle ownership has a myriad of implications, such as populations moving closer to their basis of livelihood, densification of city centers, vertical oriented architecture trends, and rapid development of edge cities within suburban growth centers, to name a few. So what could separate the population from its prime mode of transportation? Tip the cost/benefit scale. There has to be net value in not owning a car.
That currently doesn’t exist. Gas is still too cheap, freeways, though congested are still more efficient than taking a bus (from say Napa to San Francisco). Ultimately people have to feel the pain of their vehicle ownership. Vehicle owners in America pay for the various costs of owning their vehicle: insurance to pay for accident risk, gas to pay for locomotion, gas and property taxes to pay for the roads being actively destroyed by driving. The tax that is missing is the ecosystem service tax.
Nowadays, it’s hard to read the news without hearing about a natural feature that isn’t being in some way directly affected by emissions uptake. The world’s largest carbon sink, Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is reaching its saturation point. Lake Tahoe is slowly turning green due to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen, And the glaciers are melting at a rate faster than global climate models can account for.
How can drivers pay for these ecosystem services?
I’ll list a couple of ideas. Lets see how many we can come up with.
1) Direct Mileage Tax
Large industrial businesses in America are only allowed to produce a set amount of pollution a year. The amount of pollution allowance that is not used can then be sold to other companies on the open market. Businesses can then buy and sell pollution allowances, creating a market for unused pollution. Companies are fined if they go over their budget. This gives companies an incentive to reduce their pollution and improve efficiency, because they can sell the unused allowance and make a profit.
What if drivers were given a monthly driving allowance? The US government could set up checkpoints on major bridges tracking car mileage and taxing the owner’s use. A web based system could then be set up for mileage barter. If someone needs to drive across country, they would have purchase mileage ahead of time to make it past all the check points. It seems oppressive, but its not much different than paying a bridge toll.
2) Gas Tax
Of course this is a no-brainer; why not tax people on the gas they use? This taxes people on the amount of gas used and could be assessed as a direct carbon tax. It takes into account car size, fuel efficiency, amount driven, etc. The problem with this tax is that its hidden in the gas price. People don’t know that they are paying for ecosystem services, and ultimately blame the gas company for inflated prices. Its not very educational.
3) Employer Accountability Tax
This is perhaps a unique proposal. Under this taxation method, companies would be required as a part of their business license renewal to register their employees mileage to and from work, where their employee lives (why can’t a city favor a local workforce? The US does!), and the type of car they drive. The employer would then pay a tax at the end of the year for carbon emissions related to doing business, including employee commutes, and receive breaks if their employees use public transportation.
This method of taxation has a lot of benefits. Employers could reward employees for living close to work or using public transportation. Employers of lower income employees would have an incentive to hire locally and pay commensurate wages. Local governments would have incentives provide more high density and low income zoning, in order to keep businesses from leaving. Businesses would have incentives to place their businesses in urban centers to attract local employees. Businesses would have incentives to allow their employees to work from home to eliminate commutes. People would be walking more, lowering obesity rates. More money would be available to improve and research public transportation
This taxation method has a lot of flaws, of course. Higher taxes might push businesses to other cities/states/countries. How does the employer reward its employees? How does the government enforce this sort of taxation. What is the penalty for cheating.
Can you think of any other ways of tipping the cost/benefit driving scale? Comment away!