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A Conservative Transportation Policy

by Daniel Convissor
Auto-Free Press
November/December 1990

This was reprinted in
Solar Mind
March/April 1991

The way we move ourselves and our goods has far reaching effects on our society and our planet. As odd as it may seem, influencing our policies so they favor older transportation modes will improve our environmental and economic situation.

Transportation works in the 19th Century enhanced our mobility through rail technology. People and goods could traverse the country in a fraction of the time it would take to do so with a horse.

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, bicycles were the forefront of personal transportation, providing individuals freedom of movement. The bicycling group League of American Wheelmen reports that in the United States during 1897 two million bicycles were produced in 300 factories. The League also was the lead organization in the movement to pave roads. Improvements in technology such as pavement, pneumatic tires, and production lines were developed by the bicycle industry and opened the doors for automobile production.

Beginning in the 40s, transportation policy began to focus on the automobile, bus and truck. Several corporations, including GM, Firestone, Phillips Petroleum, Standard Oil, and Mack bought up and dismantled the bulk of the nation's light rail systems. With construction of more and more roads leading to lower and lower densities of development, the automobile has since become the primary mode of personal transportation, accounting for 79% of our passenger miles in 1988 (derived from The New York Times, 9/24/90).

But what's wrong with our current policy?

Every place a transportation facility is installed becomes a sacrifice zone. The areas around the transportation facilities can be either kind of place, but the facility itself is not. We sacrifice two types of spaces: public and private. Public spaces are those such as wilderness and open space. Private spaces include where economic transactions such as property taxes, rent and purchasing things take place.

Open spaces between and in urban areas -- essential for our planet's survival and our sanity -- end up getting crushed by the transportation facilities, destroying everything in their path and permanently altering the surroundings. According to the May/June issue of Greenpeace Magazine, 10% of the arable land in the United States is covered by roads and parking lots.

Economic centers are places of movement. If things move slowly, less things get done. If moving things takes up too much space, there is not enough space for transactions. A commonly referred to fact is that 40% of urban surface is dedicated to use by automobiles.

So in essence, both the environmentalists and the business people lose in the sacrifices for roads. Therefore we need to move the most people and goods as possible through each cubic foot of transportation facility in order to minimize the amount of area we have to sacrifice for the transportation facilities themselves.

Energy use is heavily effected by the transportation sector. Using data provided by the US Department of Energy I determined that in 1989 transportation accounted for 63% of the 17 million barrels per day that America used (the remainder was 24% industrial feedstock, 8% residential and commercial heating, 5% electricity production). Energy efficiency mitigates environmental devastation from extraction, refining, transportation, and use of the fuel; while also reducing our trade deficit due to importing 47% of our petroleum.


Auto in mixed traffic        170
Auto on highway              750
Bicycle                    1,500
Bus in mixed traffic       2,700
Pedestrian                 3,600
Suburban railway           4,000
Bus in separate busway     5,200
Surface rapid rail         9,000
United Nations, Transportation Strategies
         for Human Settlements in
         Developing Countries


PER MILE BY EACH MODE (in calories)
Auto    1,860
Bus       920
Rail      885
Foot      100
Bicycle    35
Marcia Lowe, The Bicycle: 
Vehicle for a Small Planet,
World Watch Institute, 1989

Derived from:
Transportation Energy Data Book: Edition 9
and the President's Council on Fitness and Sports

What can we do to improve our transportation efficiency?

Many transportation officials have stated it is necessary to reduce Vehicle Miles of Travel produced by automobiles. In 1988 1 trillion miles were traveled by automobiles in the United States (derived from The New York Times, 9/24/90). The most attractive incentives that could encourage people to use other modes of transportation are to: improve land use, stop catering to the automobile while we continue improve amenities for other modes, and charge drivers the true cost of driving.

The easiest way to get between point A and point B is to place point B at point A. The joint planning of land use and transportation is essential. The most efficient layout is to build high density nodes of mixed use, including residential, commercial and retail spaces. The nodes should be focused around rail lines. In all densities of development, zoning ordinances should be amended to permit the integration of all 3 types of units. The result will be places where no one would have to travel further than walking distance to get basic supplies or 3 miles to do most anything else. This means we don't all have to live in cities if we create places where activities could be gotten to by bicycle or walking, while long distance travel could be done by rail. If a person or household needs major goods moved, they could be delivered by a parcel or moving service. In addition, working at home by telecommuting and cottage industries are an excellent way to reduce the necessity to travel (while providing child care to boot!). Any ordinances restricting these practices should be removed.

In transportation, as with most things in life, people use whatever mode is the most convenient. Our society makes time a precious commodity. A major reason so many people depend on automobiles is because other forms of transportation are less convenient. If it is easiest to drive, then they will. If it is easiest to take light rail, they will. A survey mentioned by Kenworthy and Newman showed that 17% of bus passengers and 11% of train passengers would begin to drive if roadway congestion was eased.

Cars already have the ability to drive wherever they need to go. On the other hand, passenger railroads are not in existence in areas or not properly utilized; while cyclists and pedestrians are often barred or hindered by unsafe or unappealing conditions.

Where congestion dictates capacity increases, our already pervasive roadway network should not be expanded. Energy conservation also demands other modes of transportation. The solution is to broaden our mobility options by constructing new and improved facilities for mass and human-powered transportation in the area.

All redevelopment projects should take advantage of the vast rail system by adding new trains, reactivating lines, and making junctions between lines, creating regional transit systems in order to reduce instances where it is necessary to drive. Where it is necessary for new facilities to be constructed, new technologies like high speed rail, magnetically levitated trains, and personal rapid transit should be considered.

Many people live in metropolitan areas within a bikeable distance of a mass transit line and their destinations are within bikeable distance as well. The New Jersey Department of Transportation calculated that 69% of train users live within 4 miles the station. Bicycles need to be granted access to all mass transit facilities. On demand access is also needed for handicapped persons as well. In most instances, these two necessities can be met by the same accommodations. Bike lockers must be installed at each station. Agency policy for bicycle access and how to get lockers should be placed on schedules and maps, providing wide dispersal of the information at low cost. It is important to encourage local people to walk to the rail stations.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 63% of all journeys in the United States are under 5 miles, and with improved land use this percentage will increase. Therefore, all barriers to cycling need to be eliminated. Bridges, interstates and freeways should be opened to cyclists and walkers. Roads should be revised to include shoulders. Open corridors, such as unutilized rail beds and utility lines, should be used for trails. As reflected in the table above, deautomobileizing streets in densely urbanized areas increases person carrying capacity so a network of greenstreets should be designated for human-powered transportation.

These capacity expansion projects should only be implemented after land use regulations have been put into place. The necessary regulations would prohibit further low density, sprawling, autodependent development. The goal is to make sure that the room created on the road network by the people who have switched from their car does not get filled by new automotive travel, permitting further destruction of the served region.

The policy of providing efficient systems can result in favoring any position along the spectrum between the environmental community and the business community. The efficiency could lead to more activity with the same resources, or preferably, leading to the same activity with less resources.

Our public budget is heavily impacted by transportation. Automobile drivers create various social costs by driving, the vast majority of which the gasoline tax and registration fees don't even attempt to cover. In the mid 1980's, local, state and Federal governments paid $600 billion per year, which automobile owners directly paid for 45% of (FHWA), while only adding minuscule funds for the other social costs. To top that off, on average, drivers pay over 60% of those costs in flat fees (derived from FHWA data), meaning that except for the small gasoline tax, once the owner of a vehicle pays the licensing, registration fees and sales tax, driving becomes virtually free, regardless of how many miles they travel. America does not need a gas tax at all. What we need is to charge the full costs of driving. The charge would include the costs of roads and the costs of the type of fuel used. There needs to be separate fuel and road charges because if they were charged solely through a gas tax, fuel efficient autos would pay less for their use of the road.

The expenses for roads in a region need to be calculated. The cost of road use should include the costs of construction, maintenance, lighting, signaling, property tax, security, rescue, administrative costs, Federal tax breaks for work related parking and auto use. The above roadway costs were calculated by Stanley Hart to result in gasoline costing $4.50 at the pump (Greenpeace Magazine). Other more subtle costs arise from noise pollution and rainwater runoff -- leading to drinking water problems -- which picks up road salt, lubricants, rubber dust worn off from tires, and silt. The costs of health care related to motor vehicle accidents must be paid for too. This regional cost of roads should be divided by the vehicle miles traveled in the region by each weight class of motor vehicle, resulting in a regional cost per vehicle mile of travel. The regional cost per vehicle mile of travel should then be charged to each vehicle depending upon the vehicle miles it travels. As the weight per axle increases, the charge per mile fee should be escalated in proportion to the stress on the road.

The mileage driven by each vehicle could be determined at annual vehicle inspections. In states without inspection programs, a potential system to determine the distance a vehicle is driven would be to have the vehicle owner fill out a mileage card -- much like is done when getting an insurance policy -- which would be mailed to the department in charge of motor vehicles in the states' government. In order to ensure honesty, roving inspectors could be used. This would be much like drunk driving road checks.

The costs of fuels should consider expenses for people with illnesses and injuries from the production and burning of fuels, crop damage, property damage, trade imbalances, potential effects of sudden fuel shortages, and the corporate socialism provided by the Federal government -- including geologic surveys, military protection and tax deductions for resource depletion. In a report titled A Comparative Analysis of Future Transportation Fuels, Mark DeLuchi calculated that the above fuel costs could be an extra $1.56 per gallon for gasoline and $3.89 per gallon of diesel fuel. Habitat destruction and greenhouse gases released present additional costs which are virtually incalculable, but need to be factored in somehow.

In analysis of fuel costs, we somehow need to take into account that capital costs and initial subsidies for petroleum and natural gas have already been laid, meaning new power sources such as hydrogen or solar are at a short-term disadvantage because of immediate capital costs.

Other miscellaneous charges: 1) Parked vehicles should be charged the average cost of per square foot of floor space (including tax) in the neighborhood times the square feet the car takes up. 2) CFC's used in automobile air conditioners deplete the earth's protective ozone layer presenting the costs of skin cancer, crop damage and global warming. 3) The Valdez's worth of oil spilled every 2 1/2 weeks by mechanics (Greenpeace Magazine).

Including these charges would allow the free market to direct us to a rational transportation policy and would absolve many of our governments' budgetary ailments. Even if we include the full costs of mass transport into the fare box, since its social costs are far less, it would still be the motorized mode of choice. The costs created by the motor vehicle-industrial complex need to be paid by the motor vehicle users. Whether we call it gas taxes, or the free market, automobile drivers need to be paying at least $6.06 per gallon at the pump so these costs are not willingly going to be included by petroleum corporations or paid by drivers, so they will have to be set and enforced by legislation.

But the automobile economy provides so many jobs, won't this policy hurt industries?

The autocentric economy can not sustain itself. The capacity of many roads and parking facilities are at or rapidly approaching their maximum. The ability to maintain and expand our automotive infrastructure does not exist. The automobile dependent economy is reaching a plateau, never will it be able to go further. Automobile workers are already feeling the brunt. Using statistics from the Motor Manufacturers of America I calculated the manufacture of autos in the US during 1989 is 29% less than the 1973 peak and 11% below the average for the past 21 years. Economies which are dependent upon the automobile to deliver their customers and workers are limited by the inability to quickly move large volumes of people and goods.

Any workers displaced by transportation innovations need to be retrained for productivity in more positive fields. Road construction workers could repair our crumbling infrastructure. Job fields which need to be expanded are teaching, rail transit drivers, renewable energy, child care...

Efficiency is the key to our physical and economic survival. Opportunities presented by all new projects must be used to improve efficiency. If in future projects we make it easier to get there by rail transit, bicycling and walking, people will do it. We have the ability to shape transportation habits.


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Last updated: 4 April 1999