If You’re Waiting for Pricing to Solve Our Transport Woes, Better Grab a Comfy Chair

Advocates for a smarter, more efficient, more sustainable transportation system cannot afford to fall into the trap of policy purism – not with all of the other hurdles standing in the way.

David King, Michael Manville and Michael Smart are out with a Washington Post op-ed today that manages to infuriate on two fronts – missing the important story from the recent increase in transit ridership while suggesting that only the Magical Pony Plan of ending all subsidies for driving can meaningfully address our transportation challenges.

First, regarding transit. King, et al. seem to be mortified by transit advocates’ ongoing “Snoopy dance” following news that ridership hit a 57-year high last year. They see it as their job to harsh the collective mellow, and boy do they not disappoint. Transit, they solemnly remind us, carries only a small percentage of the nation’s travel and ridership per-capita hasn’t increased significantly in the recent past.

None of which is news to any transit advocate, believe me. King, et al. however, fail to acknowledge two important things. First, trends in transit usage and driving are diverging and have been for some time. Transit ridership has now regained and surpassed its peak level of 2008, while the vehicle travel has not. (If you were to look at trends in passenger-miles traveled, the divergence in trends would be even greater.)

Moreover, transit has retained and grown its ridership despite recessionary headwinds that did not affect drivers, namely the severe cuts in service and hikes in fares imposed by transit agencies amid the state fiscal crises of the last half decade. Nowhere in America, I believe, were highways shut down during the recession due to lack of funding, but lots of cities saw transit service severely curtailed.

The story of transit, therefore, is one of promising changes on the margins and signs of emergence from a difficult period. But King, et al. seem to think that the collective delirium over a 1.1 percent annual increase in transit ridership will cause everyone to take their eye off the ball of solving the “real” challenge: ending subsidies for driving.

Let’s be clear from the outset: the idea of making drivers pay the full costs of their behavior makes perfect sense. Higher gas taxes, congestion pricing, pay-per-mile insurance … bring ‘em on. We’ve highlighted many of these pricing solutions in our work going back a decade. They’re great ideas.

But let’s be real: if we are going to wait for efficient pricing to address our transportation problems, we are going to be waiting a long, long time. King, et al acknowledge that “ending these subsidies will be hard work politically.” That isn’t the half of it. The very simple and sensible idea of pay-per-mile insurance has moved forward only incrementally over the last decade. I can’t think of a single mile of pre-existing U.S. freeway that has been shifted to tolling (though I’d be happy to be wrong about this). London-esque cordon tolling is happening precisely nowhere in the United States (though New York is admirably giving it another shot).

And the gas tax? In 2009, Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute estimated the external costs of driving to be 27 to 55 cents per mile in the U.S., the equivalent of several dollars per gallon. Imagine trying to recoup those costs through the gas tax, especially when, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, two-thirds of Americans oppose even a 20 cent increase in their state’s gas tax devoted entirely to their own benefit (improvements in roads, bridges and transit).

I don’t want to be seen as a pricing fatalist here. I think pricing will happen as a matter of fiscal necessity if nothing else. It will start to happen (and is already starting to happen with new capacity) as an experiment in a few places and will gradually become more well-accepted over time. Transportation advocates should invest energy in making it happen and making it happen well.

But right now, as we sit here in 2014, both parties in D.C. are proposing dramatic increases in taxpayer subsidies to drivers by shifting even more general tax revenue (in the form of receipts from corporate tax reform) to the Highway Trust Fund. Many states are considering or have considered similar measures. If you really care about ending subsidies for driving, a little bit of irrational exuberance about transit ridership should be the absolute least of your worries right about now.

What really frosts me about the op-ed, though, is something that emerged from my experience working on climate policy in the late 2000s. Advocates for clean energy had just racked up a series of hard-won victories in the states, winning renewable energy standards, vehicle tailpipe emission standards for carbon dioxide, energy efficiency standards for appliances, and a host of other policies to reduce energy waste and expand our use of clean energy.

People liked these policies! They got excited about them! They represented a hopeful future in which they wanted to invest, including with their tax dollars.

And yet, policy purists repeatedly reminded us that energy standards and vehicle fuel economy standards were so dreadfully inefficient compared with just putting a price on carbon. Working to expand and strengthen those policies was seen as a distraction from the Work That Must Be Done, which was to enact cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – regardless of the political realism of that strategy.

Guess what? Years later, those clean energy policies are delivering meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions with more to come. Cap-and-trade? We have versions of it in the Northeast and in California, and it’s working well. But if cap-and-trade were all we were doing in the United States to curb global warming pollution, we’d be in sorry shape indeed.

Dave Roberts of the online environmental magazine Grist summed up this dynamic nicely in a 2007 blog post:

Frequently, when a small, incremental measure to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is proposed, environmental commentators argue that it should be rejected. Why? Because it is a “distraction,” a way of enabling us to continue our horrid, depraved lifestyle, methadone for our addiction to iniquity, a sop to our corporate overlords, mere playing of games, a highly Unserious Frivolity, etc. etc. Instead, we should choose the Magical Pony Plan for a Totally and Awesomely Transformed World. That, after all, is the only real solution.

Advocates for a smarter, more efficient, more sustainable transportation system cannot afford to fall into the trap of policy purism – not with all of the other hurdles standing in the way.

Look, no one is under the impression that transit alone is going to solve our transportation problems. That’s a straw man. Rather, expanding and improving transit is part of a “balanced breakfast” of transportation reforms that includes land-use changes, support for biking and walking, parking reform, a cessation of unnecessary highway construction, improved multimodal integration, support for new mobility solutions that reduce the need for private car ownership and, yes, pricing.

It’s a big agenda. But we don’t get any closer to achieving it by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good or pitting one part of the solution against another.

Make drivers pay their way? You bet! But let’s also give people more options – options that most Americans desperately want – by providing high-quality, low-cost public transportation wherever we can.


Tony Dutzik

Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group

Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.