The Trump Card

This innocuous little chart says an awful lot about why the automobile continues to reign supreme in the U.S. Until that bottom line comes more in line with the others, no amount of advocacy work is going to create the kind of sea change we’re all hoping for.

How high would gas prices have to be to trigger a major change in our transportation habits?

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45 Responses to “The Trump Card”

  • brad says:

    I agree, although I do think there’s some truth to the argument that gas prices in the US should be lower because it’s such a huge country compared with the others shown here. I think that argument is more effective for commercial transport, but it’s also worth noting that in the US you can drive in one direction for a week and still be in the same country, which is not the case in Europe. Europeans always remark at how long the distances are in the US compared with what they’re used to. I think the “village” mentality has remained stronger in Europe than here, where we think nothing of driving one or two hours to visit friends or go to a favorite store; that’s especially true in the American West.

  • Alan says:

    “…where we think nothing of driving one or two hours to visit friends or go to a favorite store; that’s especially true in the American West.”

    There’s nothing like $8 per gallon gas to put a kibosh on that kind of thinking… :-)

  • brad says:

    @Alan: yep, I realized I was leaving myself open for that after I reread my comment! What I meant was that, in many places in the West, it can take an hour to get to the closest town. You don’t have that in most of Europe, except in the more remote and rural areas. We’re more spread out here.

  • jdmitch says:

    Yup, the cost for driving in the US is nowhere near the social / environmental costs associated with said “habit”. It’s because government subsidizes autos in a number of ways. What that chart shows is just one of the results of said subsidy.

  • Alan says:


    I understand what you’re saying and it’s a valid point. Even if it didn’t change our perceived need to move around so much (which I think it would), more expensive fuel would force us into investing in more efficient ways of covering those distances (i.e. railways, more complete bus systems, etc.).

  • Larey says:

    $8 a gallon gas would go a long way to focusing our efforts towards alternate forms of travel, but it would also make every single product we use everyday more expensive. I’d gladly pay $8 a gallon to gas up my car but I hate to think what that would do to the cost of toilet paper and how many teachers would have to be fired to operate school busses.

  • Yangmusa says:

    “in many places in the West, it can take an hour to get to the closest town”

    And the reason many things are so far apart in the western US? Poor planning practices that have allowed suburban sprawl. It’s all designed around the notion that everyone must drive everywhere for every purpose. Just because the country is big, doesn’t mean it has to be designed in such a people-unfriendly way. Now, unfortunately, it’s necessary to undo 60 years of bad design (the greatest mis-investment in history, according to James Howard Kunstler), which will take a while. Can we manage it before runaway climate change or peak oil raises fuel costs beyond most people’s means? Unfortunately, several generations have grown up thinking sprawl and auto dominance is “normal” – there will therefore be great resistance to the necessary changes.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Good points here. We are so dependent on gasoline/diesel that I shudder to think what even sustained $5/gal. would mean. As it stands now, the average bite of food travels something like 1,200 miles! Then there is the fuel used to plant/harvest the food. Then there is the fuel used to process some of it. Oh, and there are the petrochemicals that go into fertilizer, and, unfortunately, pesticides—go organic!

    The transition to oil-light or oil-free is going to be long, slow, and painful. Oh well. I’ve got to run to the video store to return a mediocre romantic comedy we watched last night. I’ll be on my bike–unlike 99% of my neighbors who might be doing something similar. I’m no saint. We own two vehicles (one used for special trips only), but there is so much we can easily do on a daily basis. I wonder what the US would look like if we even took, say, 15% of our trips by foot or bike? Had to imagine.



  • Chris says:

    Maybe having to drive two hours to get to the next town (as in rural parts of the Western US) is simply a disadvantage of living in that part of the world, just like frequent earthquakes are a disadvantage of living near a faultline. It’s something that you put up with and change your lifestyle to accommodate (by, say, not seeing friends who live in those towns so often). It’s not something that needs to be (or can be) overcome with cheap gas. Yes, $8 gas would suck for people in rural Wyoming. So be it. That’s the price they pay for living in low-population density land, and is offset to some degree by other advantages of living in that same part of the world.

    On the other hand, the government provides some degree of recovery assistance to faultline-dwellers who are hit by earthquakes, so maybe they should help out the rural Wyomingites too, by suppressing the price of gas. There are too many factors involved for this to be a clear issue.

  • jdmitch says:


    If they only depressed gasoline prices for Wyoming, maybe that line of reasoning is logical. However, I’m sure everyone would consider the outrage.

  • Alan says:

    We’d probably see a mass migration to Wyoming with the attendant rise in population density… LOL.

  • Sharper says:

    I had friends in the sub- and ex-urbs complaining about the cost of their 25+ mile commutes when gas first started creeping above $3. Smart friends, foresighted friends, who didn’t stop to think about gas and its attendant costs and eventual pricing. $4 started to terrify them. Bankruptcy was mentioned more than once when I starting throwing out numbers bigger than 5.

    It’s clear that the obvious benefits in buying a big house with a (smallish) yard were greater than the “hidden” benefits of being closer to work, closer to markets (farmer’s and super alike), closer to parks, and closer to good restaurants in a more urban setting. It was true for my friends and it’s true for countless others. I just wonder how we’re going to fix the errors of this blinkered mindset without a time machine.

  • aharris says:

    Very neat graph, where did you get the data? Thanks for your inspiring web site.

  • Alan says:


    That was pulled from the EIA website:


  • tim says:

    The Euro prices are higher due to taxes to support the crazy expensive social welfare states in Europe. Our gas prices are 1/3 taxes, euro gas prices are 80% taxes. We cannot pretend that these sky high taxes are some great wisdom to promote the greater good, they are just taxes, that drive up the cost of fuel. Since many folks cannot aford those artificially high fuel prices, they choose other means of transportation.

    The fac that they bike has benefits, the fact that they are nearly forced into doing so ought to be of great concern. Why should the State have the power to tax fuel, or any needed commodity to that extent? It is a taking of liberty and should not be permitted.

    Taxes are for most folks paid with earnings, earnings from time and effort spent on the job. Taxes are a taking of that time and effort, and thus a taking of some part of your life, your freedom. Excess taxes are fractional slavery.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    As I’m fond of pointing out, 50% of the working population of the USA commutes five miles or less to work. It’s the same in Germany and England. Most car journeys are short.

    The reason for this is that the built environment rewards anyone who drives a car. Municipal regulations require that urban developments provide on-site parking. I’ve read that 90 per cent of car trips in North America end in a “free” parking space.

    Montreal Gazette: There is no free parking

    Repealing these regulations would slowly re-densify the urban landscape while making car parking gradually more expensive.

  • Yangmusa says:

    “The Euro prices are higher due to taxes to support the crazy expensive social welfare states in Europe.”

    Actually, you are wrong. The taxes are to a) cover the costs of automobility (roads and other infrastructure), and b) to discourage auto usage, because it’s damaging to the planet and society.

    If you were under the impression that the American gas tax covers the cost of the entire auto-based transportation system, you’d be sorely mistaken. Most of the money needed to build and maintain roads comes from the general fund. Even the rather conservative Texas DOT release a study a few years ago saying that the gas tax only covers around 1/3 of the cost of roads in Texas.

    American conservatives are usually very keen on the idea that people should pay for the services they use. Oddly, when it comes to roads and parking, the conservatives go all socialist and want unlimited usage for free…

  • tim says:

    May I add that I am a huge fan of this site and transportational cycling. I have ridden over 4,000 miles this year so far, most of it on my 40 miles round trip commute. I am not, however, a fan of oppression by governments, and those euro gas prices are a great exemple.
    The high cost of living in Europe in general is shrinking family size, dicourages marriage, and will within 30-50 years destroy many of those same Euro cultrures as they are outnumbered by imigants with non western, often oppressive cultures. The comming implosion of Europe is well known, and not really even debateable. Those gas taxes are an example of how governments over spending and taxing destroys the family and then soon the very civilization..

  • Larey says:

    I would love to live in Europe again someday, but when I watch the TV show “House Hunters International” I’m amazed at people who have to pay $350,000 for a third floor walkup with a bathroom the size of my spare bedroom closet. The bike facilities look and sound wonderful but the housing situation, not so much.

  • jdmitch says:


    I understand you’re viewpoint, however you are missing the point. In the US gas tax pays for less than 1/3 of the automobile infrastructure we have. The rest comes from the general fund (some small amount from property taxes on vehicles). The issue is not oppressive government, it’s that government is subsidizing those who drive the most for no other reason than those people WANT to drive. Gas taxes need to approximately triple to bring them just high enough to PAY FOR THE ROAD AND THE WEAR AND TEAR CARS CAUSE. This doesn’t even begin to take into account the environmental costs of all the pollution.

    I’m not for oppressive government, but neither am I for government subsidies of certain industries unless they massively contribute to the greater good. Automobile culture does NOT contribute to the greater good of society.

  • David says:

    The high taxes in Europe pays for education and medical coverage. Just north of us in Canada there is none of this co-pay crap, they have coverage from cradle to grave. University is a given.
    In Holland it appears as if everything, every community is designed around people, not the automobile.

    The average car trip in the United States is under 5 miles. Living on Martha’s Vineyard where there are over 25,000 year round registered motor vehicles I saw traffic slow way down when gas hit the $5.00 a gallon range. Now that it is in the $3.00 + range for regular gas, motorists are up to their old habits. I bet the average trip here is closer to 1 mile but with the amount of big pickup trucks and SUVs traffic levels are high even in the off season.

    Even here on Martha’s Vineyard, this place is not designed around peoples needs but rather that of automobiles.

    If it wasn’t for the special needs of my children I would move to Holland or Germany in a heart beat.

  • jeff says:

    “I bet the average trip here is closer to 1 mile but with the amount of big pickup trucks and SUVs traffic levels are high even in the off season”.

    A co-worker and I were commenting just last week on the number of HUGE four door, four wheel drive, jacked up, loud, hemi, or smoking deisel pick up trucks rolling into and out of the factory where we work (with only the driver in them). I understand the need for these trucks in certain situations and I even appreciate the rights of Americans to drive what they want but seriously, how much vehicle does it take to your ass and a lunchbox 5 MILES DOWN THE ROAD TO WORK ????????

  • tim says:

    To Yangmusa and other proclaiming that gas taxes only pay for 1/3 of our auto realted infrastructure, I want to see your source for this data, from a creditable source. Somestimes advocates strech the truth and then others with the same passions repeat the error until all believe it.

    As for the high taxes to ‘help the enviroment’ and to ‘promote alternatives’, everyhting there is taxed like crazy. Income taxes, VAT, fuel taxes, carbon taxes, etc., that is why a tiny apartment cost $350K.

    The high taxes of Europe will soon destroy those nations and cultures as families either don’t form or don’t have children because it is too expensive. No civilization ever prospered with a declining population due to low birth rates. No babies, no future.


  • Zane Selvans says:

    I agree that gas prices have a big effect on people’s driving habits, but the connection between the two is only very loosely economic. For most drivers, fuel is only a small minority of the costs associated with vehicle ownership and use, but it is the portion of the cost that scales with use, and which is most obvious to users. If you make all the costs of driving that transparent, and make them scale linearly with vehicle use, you’ll get a whole lot less driving, even at the same gas price. Witness the behavior of Zipcar members before and after joining the service.

    Personally, I wouldn’t drive a car even if gas was free.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    I think that concerns over over-use of automobiles are misdirected, when we begin to criticise the residential choices of those who do not live in cities. Instead, we should target those who do live in cities, with perfectly good access to both walkable centers and public transportation, and over-use cars. Personally, I would be in favour of a sliding scale of gasoline prices that is proportional to population density.

    I agree with some of the comments here regarding “poor planning,” insofar as it applies to enormous stretches of densely populated residential communities that are designed without commercial and cultural centers. But I don’t agree with the sentiment that often follows – that people should avoid living in these areas because of the inherent dependence on driving, and instead should strive to live in cities. Instead of residents being criticised for choosing to live in suburbs, I think that local governments should be pressured to create accessible commercial and cultural centers. Perhaps a grant program on a federal level for this should be in place, where for every X miles of “suburban sprawl” with population density above Y, there must be a central hub. Some suburban areas already have successful, walkable “village centers”, so the model for doing this exists.

    The countryside, on the other hand, is inherently different from the suburbs, in that being spread out and isolated is part of the point of living there. Not everyone wants to be in a community, and that is their prerogative. Chances are, that all things considered, people living in these areas actually drive less than those in far more populated areas.

  • Larey says:

    It’s 12F (-11C) out and snowing. I don’t even want to go into my garage and do bike maintenance so I’m reading internet bike sites instead. Re-reading this poll question under these conditions makes it sound different than it did yesterday when it was still possible to ride my bike to work.

    I don’t want a sea-change that is forced on us by economic hardships. I want to have the freedom to jump in my car and drive to work or the store, or the emergency room without it being a big deal.

    I want to be able to maintain a car plus as many bikes as I feel like buying, without being forced to chose between the two.

    I want our country to be so prosperous and flush with cash that a law requiring a one-to-one ratio between new roadways and new bikeways would be a slam dunk.

    I want the freedom to be able to ride my bike anywhere I want without forcing my neighbor to do the same.

    I don’t see any upside to doubling or tripling the gas price.

  • Alan says:

    Here’s an interesting report related to our discussion:

    The Going Rate: What it really costs to drive

    I didn’t see that they break out gas taxes specifically, but they do look at all vehicle related taxes in relation to total expenditures (federal money only though, local roads are a part of the equation and when considered skew the numbers dramatically back toward the 33% quoted above).


  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Lovely Bicycle, I agree that residential areas should be mixed up with some commercial developments. Mixed use gives people more choice about how far they want to go for their shopping, and maybe for their jobs too.

    But when doing this, it’s important that the municipality doesn’t force developers to put in a certain amount of car parking. This drives up their costs, which they try to compensate by choosing cheaper locations further out. I’ll link the parking article again, I really think it’s worth a read for anyone taking part in this discussion:

    Montreal Gazette: There is no free parking

    Alan, interesting report. The date is interesting too: 1992. It seems they were 17 years before their time! :)

  • J.W.Lane says:

    While a lot of people are manipulated by PR firms and culture war hacks into arguing about taxes and government, here comes reality (again). Companies like Tata are now producing cars in Asia that compete with motor scooters on price. Think of a billion (with a B) new drivers. According to the Financial Times, the ten largest on-line oil reserves in the world are in decline. ALL the new discoveries pose technical and, or military challenges. Even industry shills, who don’t admit to peak oil in regards to total reserves, are admitting a peak oil problem in regards to security issues and oil field nationalization.

    I know of a stock trader who made hundreds of millions with petroleum equities. He’s cashed out and building green houses in North Carolina. Are you getting ready.

  • aharris says:

    I’m concerned with the accuracy of the impact of gas taxes as well. Sorry to be long but a “biased” answer that seems to meet the sniff test of ball park numbers, though it is not clear where all numbers came from is at
    I tried looking for other numbers and found more reports that were made by interested groups (also known as biased by knee jerk libertarians). There is this one report from Texas saying that the Texas roads would require $2.22 a gallon just in taxes to a project near Houston.

    So I tried simplifying my thoughts: Is 30% reasonable?
    The federal monies seem easiest to find, and the simplest way to look at it is to see how much money comes in, and how much goes out. Federal tax 2004 $24.2 billion (info from tax foundation report on how we are being gouged by gas taxes!)
    The federal highway funds budgeted in 2004 $29.3 billion, total dept costs 30 billion That’s about 1/2 billion per state as a very rough estimate. And the feds don’t pay for most of our roads, around here it appears to be just highways. I’ve tried guessing, since I can’t find numbers, it appears to be about 10% of the roads, but that’s a rough guess. None-the-less, even this fraction of our roads doesn’t come close to paying for itself. State revenue varies from state to state but is on the same magnitude (total of $34 billion, divided roughly equally is about billion per state – I know this is off by a bit) Again, I can’t find figures, but its clearly the minority of miles. I don’t know of other states but our fine state is nowhere near paying for its roads, trying to pay for the shortage with tolls and borrowing (which is just silly – costing far more in total, but politicians don’t get blamed for raising those oppressive taxes that are actually needed). The figure I’ve found is about cost about $1000 to $50 000 to maintain a mile per year (just pick up , cut growth, repair signs etc, but not pave) and construction can run in the between $2 and $10 million per mile. In short only a fraction of the roads get state and federal gas taxes, these don’t even pay for themselves with taxes. Other costs (protections of strategic supplies, damage to infrastructure not related to roads (acid rain and buildings) the real estate for free parking, ambulance and emergency services dedicated to traffic related events, time spent jammed in traffic, impact on health) aren’t even considered. I’ll believe the 30% figure VERY easily unless someone can show better.

  • Jody says:

    This (pdf) report from the Brookings Institute has the stat you are looking for on page 5. “User fees” however, appear to account for more like 60% of the revenues (Gas 35%, Vehicle Taxes 20%, and Tools 4.4%). Still, a 40% general revenue subsidy is pretty substantial, and those on the right should be quite upset that the highway system isn’t paying for itself.

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Of course, the roads do benefit cyclists, though not as much as we’d all like, especially when they’re choked with cars. I live in a pretty lightly populated area, but even here there are places that I avoid. I can’t imagine having to bike in an urban area all the time–sounds pretty high stress!


  • Bryan Willman says:

    First, recall the studies that point out that even if we all lived in hyper dense places, the vehicle miles travelled would not go down much. There are lots of reasons for this – many VMTs are various service vehicles (the garbage truck, the plumber) that can only go down with horrible hardships for society and its members. Many households have multiple members working multiple jobs at facilities that cannot be close together merely because of their size. (Think Boeing…)

    Second, people seem to misunderstand ‘the american west’ and the midwest- there are large parts of it devoted to agriculture. If you like to eat, you like agriculture. There will per-force be vast swaths of america where motorized transport is the only practical means for many trips. And it’s not about the last 60 years. Having most of the population in largish cities where bus routes, etc. make sense is a very recent thing. People being spread out on or near the land is actually the historical norm. With 6 billion people on Earth, the idea that we could all live off the land on little plots is naive at best, even if we wanted to. So there will per force be a large transport infrastructure, period, full stop.

    And even in Japan and Europe, where taxes/costs etc are high, very large percentages of all trips are made by cars/trucks. (55% to 75% depending on where/when/who measures.)

    So, very vast numbers of VMTs will be part of the structure of our society until, and perhaps after it collapses.

    Arguments about “subsidy” are really only useful in justifying better bike/foot infrastructure. Almost no public or semi-public facility is paid for by direct user fees in the US. (Heavy truck road taxes might be an actual exception.) Think about police, fire, libraries, parks, schools…. Roads are like those things…

    And I still ride a bike as much I can, just because it’s fun. (And cheap.)

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Bryan Willman, “many VMTs are various service vehicles”. Sure, but how many exactly? It looks to me like most of the vehicles during rush hour are people driving, alone, to and from work.

    You’re right that over half of journeys in Europe are done by car. But most of those car journeys are short. In Germany, half are shorter than six km. In the UK, two thirds are shorter than eight kilometres. It’s the same thing in the USA. 40% of all trips are made within two miles of the home, and 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work.

    It’s clear to me that public subsidies and building codes are inflating car use beyond what is necessary from a convenience or practicality viewpoint, and that applies both to Europe and the USA.

  • The Opoponax says:

    “Second, people seem to misunderstand ‘the american west’ and the midwest- there are large parts of it devoted to agriculture. If you like to eat, you like agriculture.”

    Except, of course, that an extremely tiny minority of Americans work in agriculture these days. Should the rural landscape exist? Of course – there’s really no sustainable way for human society to work without it. However, it’s a little disingenuous to claim that your average exurban paper pusher who drives 3 miles to an office park alone in an SUV should have their lifestyle subsidized in the name of a few tractors.

    There’s also the fact that rural America existed for centuries without cars. My grandmother grew up on a farm several miles from the nearest town. Her family had a truck which was mainly used as farm equipment, not as a transportational lifeline. For the most part they stayed close to home and were self-sufficient in terms of their everyday needs.

    This sort of life is vastly, EXTREMELY, different from our current car-dominant culture, where people who work in town live out in the country because the land is cheap and think nothing of driving 10 miles for a quart of milk or a video rental.

  • David says:

    The Opoponax wrote

    “This sort of life is vastly, EXTREMELY, different from our current car-dominant culture, where people who work in town live out in the country because the land is cheap and think nothing of driving 10 miles for a quart of milk or a video rental.”

    The bike shop where I work has a big window by my work bench looking out on the parking lot of one of the bigger (small by mainland standards) grocery stores here on Martha’s Vineyard.

    One very busy day in the parking lot I saw a full size Hummer going around and around and around the parking lot for over 20 minutes trying to find a space to park that extra wide vehicle.

    When they finally parked that behemoth the lone occupant, a woman no taller than 5′ got out and headed into that very busy grocery store.

    Even I on my tandem with 4 panniers wouldn’t shop there at that time of day. It was a real mad house.

    About 20 minutes later the driver comes out of the store carrying just a gallon of milk.

    I bet this driver lived less than 5 miles from this store considering the size of the island and the different places one got get a gallon of milk.

    Both my boss and i watched her get in her Hummer and fire it up and make her way out to the road way.

    My boss looks at me and says, “I wonder just how much that gallon of gas really cost her?”

  • Bryan Willman says:

    I guess I worded my argument poorly. This pertains to “how much should bike activists argue about subsidies for cars?” which is after all what the post is about.

    1. Cities need farms and forrests and mines, etc. to exist at all. The vast network of roads across the american west and all of rural america serves famers, yes, but above all it serves city people. Farms and farmers could and have carried on just fine without cities, the reverse is not true.

    => There will be a vast transportation infrastructure, and one way or another, you and I are going to pay for it. (Note that in spite of high taxes, Europe is covered with roads, which are clogged with cars and heavy trucks, at least in France.)

    2. The “policies” that support ex-urban development reflect people’s desire (that whole electoral democracy thing) and in King County (near Seattle) there have been deveopments where developers were required to pay essentially all costs (at least for the state and county budgets) and the result was a giant collection of very pretty houses on very nice lots impractically far from anything. So changing the subsidies might well have no effect at all, or an inverse effect to what you expect. Linving in high density cities is not actually the norm for humans (at least not before 1900 or so) – people left farms for cities to find work, not because they love crowds.

    What’s more, while WA state wants to “direct development into existing areas” the zoning laws more than ever make it effectively illegal to live near where you work, or go to school, or shop for anything. I don’t think this helps – large numbers of people crammed into bedroom only areas will just yield large numbers of people driving to get to things. It might make commutes longer…

    => Altering the subsidies is unlikely to be nearly as effective as one might think. Zoning sometimes seems to make it worse.

    => Issues like population growth, the need for economic growth, property rights, etc., make forcing density very difficult.

    **> So join ‘em. Argue that pedestrian/bicycle/tricycle/wheel-chair access are just as important – to free people from being beholden to licenses and cars, to encourage freer lifestyles, to reduce the burden on the rest of the system. And besides, everybody needs the exercise.

    **> Indeed, since cars don’t actually directly pay for the roads they run on, and since bike facilities are relatively cheap, we can argue that government “looses” less money on bike facilities than car facilities. In fact, having cars pay, say $6 a gallon in gas taxes might have the perverse effect of shutting down improvements in bicycle facilities, since politicians might prefer that all citizens drive a lot, and thus pay a lot in taxes, to be spent to further the politicians career. Be careful what you wish for.

    I love bikes. I love cars. I can afford any car I want. I have never figured out the bleeding hummer. It’s too big to be effective for off-roading (I am told), too big to be useful in bad weather, not well suited to towing anything, has no cargo capacity to speak of, can’t seem to carry a bike (:-(, costs a fortune to own and run. I don’t get it.

    As for “My boss looks at me and says, “I wonder just how much that gallon of gas really cost her?””

    A lot. 20 minutes looking for a parking space? I can’t think of more than a few thousand ways to make better use of 20 minutes. And since you’ve sunk that cost, why not buy everything else you need that won’t spoil before you run out of it. Does this household run only on gasoline and milk?

  • Jack says:

    The trick to efficient resource usage is to make sure consumers pay the actual cost of the resources they consume. So, I am not in favor of adding gas taxes just to discourage driving. Adding taxes to pay for the full cost or driving (roads, pollution, etc) is a sound idea. This is a economic principle called externatilites. I only took one economics class 30 years ago, but I am always surprised who little this principle is discussed.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Bryan Willman, I agree that agriculture is important to everyone. But where does road-building and sprawl occur? To a large extent, it takes former farm land and turns it into sprawl. So how do you find a balance between roads, parking and farm land?

    To me it’s obvious that we have excess road and parking capacity. Most car journeys are short, and the number one reason people have for not bicycling is the scary car traffic. Excess capacity is wasteful and generates wasteful habits. So there needs to be a happy medium.

    A higher gas tax would plug the holes in the highway fund while at the same time taming car traffic somewhat.

  • Bryan Willman says:

    (In direct reply to Erik’s last comment)

    I am not at all persuaded that any level of gas tax that could actually be done in America without starting a literal civil war, would change the existing layout of housing, or have all that much long term effect on the layout of housing. (The recent lending misadventures likely caused a bubble of ill considered house building, but after a return to the mean, the patterns under discussion will continue.) Remember that in addition to different tax structures, Europe has very different history, land rights, and culture than the US.

    I say that because of the following:

    A. There’s a huge sunk cost. Cities, even cities growing “too fast” like Seattle, are mostly full of existing dwellings. In *general* it’s much too costly for people to sell/abandon that housing stock. So person A moves closer in, but can only do so because they sold to person B. You might create even more wealth strata than you see now, but I doubt any of the lovely houses on lovely lots really far from anything will be abandoned.

    B. Pro-density rules can backfire. In Seattle there is apparently a rule designed to prohibit net loss of housing units (you canot buy two units and combine them) so a couple of people I know have choosen to build their houses outside the city limits. If the city doesn’t have what people want, they will go elsewhere. Likewise, downtown Seattle apparently contains dwellings for the very well off, and sidewalks for the very poor, and next to nothing in between. So raising density and the appeal of the city doesn’t seem to affect commute distances at all. If the only dwellings near your job are $1M condos, and you live in a modest but far away house you cannot sell, no amount of gas taxes will allow you to move near your job.

    C. People are often “pinned” in ways that make gas taxes (and the like) less effective than you might think/hope/fear. They live in a house mid way between two jobs – average commute cannot get shorter. People will be pinned by desire to be in the right school district, the right tax district, etc. In Seattle, many people (including me) will be pinned to houses with spectacular views. (Some of that may not apply to all cities, but it’s a very real thing in Seattle.) Some people will use lots of vehicle miles because they have joint custody of children and the divorced parents live far apart. I think the “statistical commuter” who could just “move closer and ride to work” doesn’t actually describe much of american society. And so gas taxes will have little effect because they’ll be swamped by other things.

    Keep in mind that for society as a whole, there is no such thing as a “subsidy” – there is just apportionment of costs to property and income taxes rather than gas taxes. Since high property and income taxes are generally paid by the well off people in the big houses with the big cars, you might argue that the current payment system is more “progressive” and fair that making every vehicle pay per mile, even the pickups carrying an entire household of low-income workers to their jobs.

    Of course, *perceived* incremental total cost ($, time, work, etc) seems to drive a lot of behavoir. When I was in college there were campus busses that were “free” (meaing part of the student billing) and they got used a great deal. I guess Seattle has “free” bus transport downtown – meaning I’ve already paid for it with my King Co. prop taxes, I might as well ride it, eh?

    Cars *feel* incrementally “free” to people. And they have high fixed costs which don’t change over wide mileage ranges. (A car that travels only 100 miles a year is among the most costly per mile devices imagineable, both economically and environmentally – think of all the steel to make the car…)

    Bikes feel “costly” not in dollars (they rule cheap), but in terms of hassle. Yes, not getting run over is one of them. So is getting hung up in bad traffic (!*#$#) while struggling to get to the bike path! So is not having anywhere to put the bike where it won’t get stolen. So is needing to take a shower and not having anyplace to do it. And, there is a SPECIAL place IN HELL for the people who built the 520 bridge without a bike or pedestrian lane. Adding one to the new bridge will cut many Seattle metro cycling trips by dramatic amounts, and would make them time competitive with rush hour traffic. And reduce the need for gym time. So I think these practical issues should be the real focus of advocacy. Even though I’m a libertarian anti-rules guy, I applaud NYC’s new rule requiring buildings to allow people to bring their bikes inside.

    So, I don’t see gas taxes as a very effective way to make it easier for people to use bikes rather than cars. (Except using more gas tax dollars to build bike infrastructure.) I see bike (and ped) infrastructure (lanes, paths, parking, showers, etc. etc.) and safety as more important.

    So I think the cycling community should push hard to:

    A. Get the infrastructure. Not just lanes and paths, but bridges, interconnects with regular streets, and paths over key routes (e.g. 520 bridge in Seattle) This includes parking, showers, repair. (There’s a gas station almost everywhere, why can’t there be a bike repair depot at hand?)

    B. Push hard for acceptance of a wide variety of cycles, with however many wheels, small electric assists, trailers, etc., to be available and accepted and supported.

    C. Resist almost all regulation, because it makes hassle that turns people away. Helmet *laws* (as distinct from helmets), registration, special taxes, tolls on bikes, etc. are all Very Bad because they make the hassles of cycling larger, and make the car seem more appealing and “hassle free”.

    D. Better zoning might help. But don’t hold your breath, the rise of the HOA has made it clear what people want….

    In summary – I don’t think any politically possible gas tax will have much effect, but having the alternatives be way more appealing would have such effect.

  • Bryan Willman says:


    For many of the people whose behavoir we would most like to change (the lady driving a hummer to a packed parking lot to buy a gallon of milk) total fuel costs are small precentage of income.

    Barring some bizarrely communist sort of tax scheme, higher gas taxes will badly punish a lot of people before they affect the silliest abuses. If fuel costs are 0.01% of somebody’s income, and you raise them 10x, they are still only 0.1%. You will not change their behavoir.

    But make it 5 minutes to get the milk by bike, and 45 by car, and *point that out to them* and some of them will change….

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    Bryan, “Cities, even cities growing “too fast” like Seattle, are mostly full of existing dwellings. In *general* it’s much too costly for people to sell/abandon that housing stock.” “They live in a house mid way between two jobs – average commute cannot get shorter.”

    That depends on what timeframe we’re talking about. People move and change jobs every so often. An article in BusinessWeek asserts that half of the American-built environment will be rebuilt between now and 2030. Combine these two factors and a even a small gas tax will have a considerable effect on commuting over a period of 10-20 years. As long as the highway fund is leaking, I think a gas tax is realistic politically.

    BusinessWeek: Cities: A Smart Alternative to Cars

    You mentioned “pro-density rules” which I think is unfair. I’m talking about deregulating the municipal rules that require a certain minimum level of car parking be installed when putting in new buildings. So to combat sprawl we don’t need new rules, we need to repeal the ones we have!

    I’ll link this parking article one more time, because it shows how the game is rigged in favour of car-driving, regardless of all the bicycle infrastructure in the world:
    The Montreal Gazette: There is no free parking

  • Bryan Willman says:

    “That depends on what timeframe we’re talking about. People move and change jobs every so often. An article in BusinessWeek asserts that half of the American-built environment will be rebuilt between now and 2030.”

    That’s an interesting point. But the rebuilt environment may not change in ways you would like. (Middle aged houses far from anything replaced by new houses far from anything will most likely be a common pattern.)

    “You mentioned “pro-density rules” which I think is unfair. I’m talking about deregulating the municipal rules that require a certain minimum level of car parking be installed when putting in new buildings. So to combat sprawl we don’t need new rules, we need to repeal the ones we have!”

    Actually, I think we agree. That particular rule was meant to *force* density, rather than *allow* it, and so it sometimes backfires. Regulations often often backfire, especially when they contravene what market forces demand. Don’t make funky minimum parking rules, because that hassles in city businesses. Don’t restrict parking, because that forces a certain class of “essential” store (think hardware) to move away. Don’t place bizarre regulations on cyclists, nor hassle people for clever parking solutions. Allow the market and use to adjust land use, and try to nudge the market by arranging sensible tax structures. Zoning and the like sure seem to have created some odd constructions…

    But I still think lots of things “pin” people into the current mode, which means it will change very slowly. But if you are talking about 2030, you are prepared to be patient.

    In the mean time, there is basic infrastructure to attend to…

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    “That particular rule was meant to *force* density, rather than *allow* it, and so it sometimes backfires.”

    Well it was implemented decades ago and I don’t know exactly what the thinking was behind it. My guess is that they said all kinds of sensible things at the time… but what they really wanted was to make it easier to drive cars everywhere! Cars were the height of modernity at the time, kind of like mobile phones and wikipedia are today.

  • Yangmusa says:

    Anyone interested in the history of parking regulations could do worse than read “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup. (

    The brief history is: as cars were becoming increasingly popular in the 1930s, cities became congested with parked cars and people looking for places to park. In an attempt to solve this problem, city planners and politicians decided to require that all developments provided off-street parking for their patrons or residents. This had the unintended consequence of decreasing density (because all that parking takes a lot of space!), which over time meant that all destinations became further apart and it was now necessary to drive.

    So, by planning only for the convenience of cars, it gradually became a necessity to use cars for every journey.

    A very interesting book, though it’s a real brick and may be a little dry for non-professional planners ;-) But if you search for “Donald Shoup parking” you’ll find that there are a lot of good articles written about his ideas.

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