Ride Boldly!

Bikes, bicycling, and road safety.

Subsidizing Driving


old gas pumpYesterday, the House of Representatives passed yet another extension to the Transportation Bill — number seven, to be exact. Most transportation spending comes via the dedicated Highway Trust Fund.

The trust fund is supplied via the 18.5-cent per gallon federal gas tax. Per statements by members of the House, expanding that tax is not an option in the current Congress — even though the trust fund has come nowhere near keeping up with demands of infrastructure building and upkeep. The shortfall has been coming from the general fund. In the current cost-cutting fervor of Congress, this source of additional funding is likely to be cut way back, if not eliminated entirely.

Enhancements, or the ability to spend transportation funds for things other than a road, may also come under fire, although the Chair of the House Transportation Committee says he expects an 80-20 mix of roads-to-mass-transit spending to continue. Spending to encourage bicycling is expected to be attacked, for a host of reasons — the belief that cycling is recreation, not transport; claims that drivers of vehicles are “subsidizing” cyclists when the trust fund is spent on multi-modal projects; claims that cycling spending “distracts” from constitutional mandate to build “post roads.”

Here’s the thing, though: We are subsidizing driving. In a really, really big way. There are plenty of studies and numbers that make it quite quantifiable and clear:

  • The Government Accountability Office finds that freight shipping by truck — the means by which 70% of goods are shipped in the US — has costs not passed on to the consumer that are six times greater than equivalent rail shipping costs, and nine times greater than equivalent waterway shipping costs. The costs of freight shipping include road congestion, pollution, and crashes — and the costs of gas subsidy and increased roadway maintenance.
  • Gas prices are fundamentally subsidized in the US. In an article from last year, when gas prices were only averaging $2.72 a gallon, studies suggested the “true cost” of a gallon of gas should be at least $4.37 — and even that doesn’t account for many costs associated with Americans’ thirst for oil. Cheap gas encourages dependence, and also increases associated costs (like roadway upkeep).
  • Planning codes in many cities and suburbs also subsidize driving via the mandatory construction of parking lots with new buildings or projects.

At the 2011 Minnesota Bicycle Summit, former Congressman James Oberstar observed that building out 12-foot wide bicycle facilities typically averages out to about $128,000 per mile, but building urban freeways can range from $46-100 million per mile. As subsidy goes, the lower cost of infrastructure — infrastructure that doesn’t also increase use of subsidized gasoline, or cause environmental damage — can be highly profitable with a lower utilization.

Charles Marohn at the Strong Towns Blog makes a case that emphasing autos at the expense of other forms of transportation is an inefficient use of space:

When streets are auto-only, the adjacent land pattern reacts by becoming less dense and less productive (a lower rate of return). When automobiles share neighborhood space with other forms of transportation, especially in places where those other forms actually dominate, the adjacent land pattern reacts by becoming more dense and more productive (a higher rate of return). We need more productive places.

It makes sense to raise the gas tax to reflect the real cost of that energy, but that’s not likely to happen right now. It also makes sense to continue investment in transit, cycling, and pedestrian-friendly design that liberates people from being forced to choose a car as transport mode, especially for the 60%+ of total daily trips that are under five miles. We’ll just have to see if sense wins out over political posturing on roads.

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Author: julie

Julie Kosbab is an online marketing consultant and active transportation advocate living in Anoka County, Minnesota. She was one of Minnesota's only League of American Bicyclists Certified Instructors when certified in 2005. She is a past member of the National Bicycle Tour Directors Association. She has 2 children and 4 bicycles. Find her on Twitter as @betweenstations.

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