By Dom Nozzi, AICP
Many cities admirably seek to promote a reduction in car use. Often, this entails a voluntary program such as “Bike to Work” Day or “Leave Your Car at Home” Day or “Car Free [name of city]” Day.
While such programs are a needed community acknowledgement of the desire to reduce car travel, I would be even more impressed if they used effective strategies rather than voluntary techniques. After all, studies have shown for decades that voluntary programs (with the possible exception of such simple actions such as curbside recycling) are almost entirely inadequate in achieving desired changes in undesirable behaviors.
Indeed, use of voluntary programs is a good sign that the community is not serious about correcting a problem. That there is insufficient leadership in the community to enact effective correctives.
Certainly we have learned that rigid “command economy” or other forms of authoritarian government edicts can be spectacular failures, and severely restrict human freedom and choice, as we were horrified to see in the former Soviet Union.
There is, after all, some merit in using market or price signals to retain freedom of choice, and to efficiently, sustainably allocate resources.
After reading the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, I have learned that there is, indeed, a way to effectively shape community behavior without losing freedom of choice. Thaler and Sunstein call this method the oxymoronic “libertarian paternalism.”
The concept suggests that the fairest, most equitable way to “nudge” community behavior in a more socially desirable direction is to allow most all behaviors (even the undesirable ones), rather than prohibit them by law. But while undesirable behaviors are allowed, they are also made less convenient, more costly, or both.
An example the authors cite is a grade school cafeteria. Rather than ending the sale of high-calorie, fatty foods in the cafeteria, healthy foods are placed in the most visible, convenient locations in the cafeteria line, while less healthy foods are placed in less visible, less convenient locations.
To appy libertarian paternalism to the societal desire to reduce car use, then, many communities opt to use market economics (price signals) to more effectively achieve this goal. Some of my favorite tactics include:
- Market-priced parking for both on-street and off-street parking. Donald Shoup, the nationally-acclaimed guru of parking, points out that about 98 or 99 percent of all parking by American motorists is free, which means parking is the biggest subsidy in the US. Free parking is not free, because someone must pay to buy the land, and construct and maintain the parking spaces. We are therefore sending a “price signal” that you should drive a car as much as possible, since you will have a free parking space waiting for you (and paid by others). Charging for parking (with, for example, a parking meter) does not prohibit car parking, but does nudge some people (via an equitable “user fee”) to consider other, more societally desirable behaviors, such as carpooling, parking at non-peak periods, or opting to walk, bicycle or use transit.
- Parking cash-out for employee parking, if paid parking at the jobsite is not possible. Nearly all employees in the US park for free. Parking cash-out tells the commuter they can keep their free parking (they retain this choice), or they can get more money in their paycheck instead. Why do we subsidize people who drive alone to work but don’t provide a subsidy for those who bike, walk or use transit to get to work? Again, a price signal nudges some to opt to carpool, walk, bicycle or use transit to get to work (over 40 percent in national studies). But they retain the freedom of choice to drive alone to work, if they are willing to forgo the financial benefit of doing otherwise.
- Increase the local gas tax so that gas is not so heavily subsidized. Gas prices are artificially low because they do not take into account the externalized costs associated with providing gas: military expenditures to protect overseas oil, air/noise/water pollution associated with emissions from car tailpipes and engines, injuries and deaths due to car travel, reduced property values near roads, etc. Most communities have the ability to increase the tax charged for using gasoline locally. Increasing that tax does not prohibit car travel, but it nudges some (with a price signal) to consider traveling in a more sustainable way.
- Convert free roads to toll roads. Free roads are another big subsidy to motorists because only a small fraction of road costs are paid by the gas tax. Most of the cost of roads is paid for by such sources as property taxes, sales taxes or income taxes. Again, driving on tolled roads does not prohibit the use of such roads, but it does send a price signal that nudges some to consider other ways of traveling (or other times of day or week).
- Put “overweight” roads (roads with an excess number of lanes) on a diet by removing those lanes. The most popular, common way to achieve such “road diet” conversions in the US is when a community humanizes a road by slimming it down from four lanes to three. Such a conversion often results in a quick, dramatic increase in retail health along such dieted streets, an improvement in residential property values (due to increased livability), and a dramatic reduction in crashes and speeding. All of these important benefits occur, typically, without a loss in the number of cars the street carries (and at very little local government cost). Once again, driving on such roads is not prohibited, but some will opt not to drive on the road because they are unwilling or unable to use an alternative route to avoid a loss of a few seconds of time on the dieted road (many others, of course, are more than happy to use another route or have a few seconds added to their drive).
- Provide car insurance at the gas pump. Currently, motorists pay the same car insurance regardless of how much they drive. Paying for insurance at the gas pump creates more equity, as those who drive more pay more for insurance (studies show that the more you drive, the more crashes you experience). Another example of libertarian paternalism, where driving is not illegal, but is more costly for those who opt to drive more often.
- Unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, office or retail space. Currently, one is forced to pay more for housing, office space or retail space because the cost of parking is bundled into that cost. Instead, use a price signal by providing people with the option of not having to pay extra for parking. This would be particularly fair for those who have a location or life situation where they do not need to use a car much, if at all (for example, in a downtown with good transit, or proximity that allows more walking or biking).
There are other tactics, but this is a good start. All of the above strategies retain freedom of choice by not prohibiting undesirable behavior (in this case, excessive car travel), but do nudge some to consider other, more socially desirable ways to travel.
What can be more American than using the market to retain freedom of choice, yet at the same time promoting the pursuit of happiness?
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.