The Politics of Commuting
The more I use my bike for transportation the more I’ve come to pay close attention to transportation debates in Washington and Sacramento, and the more I’ve come to realize that these debates, mundane as they may seem to most Americans, have a tremendous power to shape our infrastructure for the foreseeable future.
The Gas Tax
Take the federal gasoline tax that every motorist pays at the pump. The gas tax has stood at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993, and there is a high level of political resistance to raising the gas tax. However, most Americans don’t realize that the gas tax does not come anywhere near paying for the maintenance and improvement of our massive transportation system. Indeed, the tax pays for 41% less infrastructure today than it did in 1993. That’s because Americans are driving more fuel efficient cars (a good thing), but they’re also driving more miles per year. This means drivers buy less gas but generate more wear and tear on the roads. Meanwhile, the cost of road construction and materials such as asphalt have increased since 1993 while the tax has remained flat. One 2012 study estimates that the gas tax would need to be raised more than 12 cents per gallon to offset these trends. In the meantime, transportation funding must be subsidized by general tax revenues, which includes tax money from those of us who bike instead of drive (and who put far less wear and tear on the roadways). Remember that next time someone says bicyclists don’t pay for the roads we ride on.
Another fact to consider is that the overwhelming majority of our current transportation money goes to maintaining and expanding the automobile system, road and freeway expansion and maintenance. Yet transportation engineers and urban planners have known for years that building more capacity for automobile traffic is not only extremely expensive, but it never solves the long term traffic congestion problem, because of a phenomenon known as “induced demand.” Basically, as this term implies, the building of additional traffic lanes usually does not result in less congested conditions, at least in the long term. This is a major reason why traffic delays in the U.S. are as bad as ever, despite the extraordinary growth of highway lane-miles over the past quarter century. As Tom Vanderbilt explains in his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (2010):
When more lane-miles of roads are built, more miles are driven, even more so than might be expected by ‘natural’ increases in demand, like population growth. In other words, the new lanes may immediately bring relief to those who wanted to use the highway before, but they will also encourage those same people to use the highway more . . . and they will bring new drivers on to the highway, because they suddenly find it a better deal.” (p. 155)
Put another way, if you build it, they will come.
The logic of induced demand also applies to bike lanes and bike paths, especially when those facilities go to places people want to go, such as schools, transit centers, and shopping districts. Thus, it is essential that we invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure if we are to increase the number of bicycle miles traveled and enable people to make the rational choice to travel safely by bike.
All Politics is Local
Finally, as blogger BikinginLA reminds us, the local political climate makes a huge difference when it comes to making our roads more bike-friendly. The increasing number of Americans who want to be able to bike and walk safely in their communities need to pay attention to national and local transportation debates if we are to make our communities safer and more convenient for all road users.
Our transportation debates, meanwhile, must recognize the fact that providing resources for multiple modes of commuting makes far more sense than continuing to throw money at the expansion of automobile capacity on the roadways.