There are few things more fundamental to a Strong Towns approach than the need for more direct feedback -- actual market forces -- in our transportation system.

The idea of paying for transportation with a gas tax or, even worse, a sales tax runs counter to everything we advocate for. Everyone pays a little, everyone expects a lot. That kind of approach empowers politicians and bureaucrats to provide us exactly what we want: more than we're willing to pay for. That, my friends, is how systems fail. Painfully.

Our Facebook page provides an interesting sounding board for Strong Towns thinking. We have over 30,000 people following us there and our engagement levels are really high. There's a good mix of dialogue, but sometimes I'm really surprised by the direction things go.

For example, this week the L.A. Times ran an opinion piece calling for more direct market forces -- tolls or congestion pricing -- on California's highways as opposed to what has clearly been a failure: the push for ever more capacity. There are a lot of great quotes in the piece, but I chose to highlight this one:

The reason that electrical power and air travel don’t fail every time they get crowded is that we raise prices to manage demand. If things cost more, people use less of them. We all accept that airline tickets are more expensive during the holidays. And yet we miss that this very same, simple system of pricing could solve our congestion problem.

In my Transportation in the Next American City talk, I use that exact airline example. My description of our approach to auto transportation is this: It's as if the airlines sized their fleets to handle the expected demand for Thanksgiving and Christmas and then the rest of the year ran empty flights. We'd find that crazy because it is, yet this is exactly how we go about sizing our auto-based transportation system. 

So I was rather surprised when the Facebook conversation went a different direction. Here are some of the comments:

People NEED to get to work every day, not everyone is required to travel by plan for holidays. There is a big difference.

And a related thought:

Low-income families either ration electricity or rely on income-qualified programs. Commuting is a survival issue for many, and the cost is already too high.

There is a sense of fairness here, that actually charging a price -- instead of having a general tax -- is somehow not equitable. One person made that exact point:

Congestion pricing schemes essentially auction off the space to the highest bidder at the expense of everyone else, and reserve scarce road space for those who can afford it. I completely agree that driving is over-subsidized and definitely want more ways to economically discourage car usage, I just don't think that congestion pricing is a fair or equitable way of doing it.

And, of course:

When things cost more, it is the poor and middle class that suffer...

I really like the simplicity of this last comment. When things cost more, the poor and middle class suffer. Conversely, when things cost less, the poor and middle class feel relief. Ergo, let's make "things" cost less....

....such as, things that are transported over the roadway? You know, food and clothes and things that are shipped from one place to another? Is there no relationship between the price of goods and transportation costs? Of course there is.

The same goes for services. The plumber that can reach four homes a day is going to have different cost structure than one who can only reach two or three due to congestion. Cities are complex systems; lets not pretend the only expense the poor and the middle class would experience each day is a congestion toll. 

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In January we ran a graphic from UCLA that directly refuted the notion that congestion pricing somehow disproportionately impacts the poor any more than the typical taxes that fund our roads (see the graphic on the right).

In fact, a majority of taxes have a disparate impact on poor people. Are we supposed to, as a matter of public policy, avoid using rational market forces to balance supply and demand because of concern for the poor? How is using a gas tax, license and registration fees, debt, sales tax and general revenue to fund an overbuilt, insolvent and failing transportation system any more equitable for the poor?  It's not.

The reality is that the American way of life is brutal for the poor. A small percentage of that has to do with how we pay for roadways, but if we're going to focus on the narrow silo of transportation, consider:

  • The ante that the poor have to pay just to participate. Car payments, maintenance, insurance, registration, licensing, fuel, etc... 
  • Because of how we subsidize the automobile, places to live and places to work in America are spread out from each other. There are few living and working options for the poor that do not force them to spend large amounts of time traveling to and from daily destinations.
  • For the poor who can walk, bike or use transit on a routine basis, the tax system forces them to subsidize drivers nonetheless.
  • America's poor are generally in the most tenuous and vulnerable position when it comes to employment, often working multiple part time jobs while trying to raise a family and keep other commitments. Having no option other than the "equitable" one -- to be stuck in traffic along with everyone else -- is not equitable. The poor have much worse downside potential than others they are stuck with.

I wrote an ebook called A World Class Transportation System in which I set forth a funding approach that would establish the feedback loops necessary to get us to a stable and prosperous transportation system. On interstates, I would have the maintenance of two lanes paid for with the gas tax. Where more than two lanes are constructed, I would apply a congestion price high enough to ensure good traffic flow on the extra lanes. Where prices got high enough -- indicating that there is a real demand -- then we'd have a clear signal, as well as a proven revenue stream, to expand capacity.

In such a system, the poor drivers would have a choice -- as would everyone else -- to sit in the non-tolled lanes and pay nothing more than their time or, if their specific situation warranted it, they would have the option to pay the congestion rate and travel more quickly.

The poor would also benefit -- along with everyone else -- from the rational, market-based land use pattern that would emerge as a result—one that didn't subsidize spreading everything out into separate pods but instead allowed local economic ecosystems to create jobs and housing in relationship to each other. There is far more happening here than merely the level of distortion/subsidy on our highways.

Our transportation funding system is a mess. It is already brutal on the poor and the impact of inevitable insolvency is going to be even worse. Let's not allow a simplistic reaction to a direct funding mechanism -- as opposed to our current indirect mechanism -- to keep us from doing things that will help everyone, especially the poor.

(Top photo from Wikipedia)

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