Tag Archives: auto

An exploration of gas tax revenues

I got into a twitter discussion the other day about mileage-based user fees versus gas taxes as a useful future revenue source for funding transportation.  There was an argument that the failure of gas taxes to keep up with funding needs is not about new alternatively-fueled vehicles coming online, but rather that the tax hasn’t really gone up for a decade and therefore, hasn’t kept up with inflation.

I don’t disagree with this as historical reasoning, but I was curious how this might play out in the future.  After all, we’re told the increasing numbers of vehicles fueled by stuff other than gas and diesel will lead to increasing shortfalls even as mileage (and therefore wear-and-tear on roads) may increase or stay the same.

In my twitter discussion, this argument wasn’t convincing to @sumnums.  After all, even by 2030, electric and other non-gas-taxable fueled vehicles will make up a small percent of the fleet.  According to the EIA 2012 Energy Outlook, electricity and natural gas (the only two non-petroleum alternatives worth measuring), will only make up something like 1% of the energy used for road transportation.

However, gas-taxable fuel (gasoline, diesel and E85), will see an 8.5% drop in BTU usage between 2013 and 2030.  So it’s not just alternative fuels, but fleet fuel efficiency that will impact gasoline consumption.  In the meantime, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) on roads will increase 28% (27% if you just look at light-duty vehicles) in the same time period.

What does this do to gas tax revenues? If rates remain the same (I’m using $0.20/gallon federal taxes as a compromise between gasoline and diesel rates), revenues will decline by 7.5% through 2030.  If you index gas taxes to inflation, as was suggested in my twitter conversation (say 1.4% annually), revenues will climb 17% through 2030.

Leaving aside for the moment the political hurdle of indexing gas taxes to inflation (not minor), would an increase of 17% be enough to support a 28% increase in VMT?  You could always bump the current rate to something you thought more acceptable and peg to inflation from there, but that’s an even steeper political hill to climb, plus it leaves you with the same mismatched rate of growth between VMT and revenues.  Maybe that’s not an issue, smarter people can decide, but I wanted to point it out.

Other issues with the figures could be argued: will VMT really grow that much?  If not, then perhaps the revenue issue isn’t as important.  On the flipside, is it really realistic or acceptable to have only 1% of road transportation energy delivered as electricity or natural gas in 2030?  If we started being adults about climate change in the next few years, couldn’t incentives/disincentives change that figure dramatically?  If electricity is providing 10% of the fleet energy in 2030, an inflation-indexed gas tax will only bring in 5% more revenue in 2030 than today (with EIA AEO VMT assumptions intact).  At 15% electrical energy, revenues are dropping even with an inflation-indexed rate.  In the meantime, the cost of road maintenance and materials will likely continue to climb.

Very local control of urban parking spaces

David King makes an intriguing case for ceding control of on-street parking spaces to local businesses and residents, rather than relying on centralized management to make the best decision.  He mentions this in the course of describing a NYC program that allows businesses to petition to replace a parking space with on-street bike racks.

Here is a link to the city’s webpage that explains the program. The way it works is a partner (usually a business but this is not clear) petitions to convert a car parking space into a bike parking space. This is good! The partner is responsible for clearing snow and trash, and can add planters if they wish. While I think this is progress, I have two points:

  1. the city should maintain the bike spaces just as they do all auto spaces. Placing the onus on partners to clean spaces just because they are bike spaces shows clear favor toward autos. Why should bikes be held to a greater standard of private responsibility?
  2. New York City is admirably allowing businesses to take over curb parking for non-auto uses. Here is a report from 2011 that explains the effects of restaurant seating in curb spaces. The competition for curb spaces in parts of the city suggests that planners and business need to be thinking more broadly about what curb spaces are worth. Their value as spaces for cars is low, but parking spaces are extremely valuable for goods movement, food trucks, bicycle parking (which is a major headache in many parts of the city), emergency services, restaurant seating, etc. Perhaps one way to manage the conflicts that arise is to let businesses and residents manage all of the parking spaces locally. Even the latest RFQ from the city to enter a contract for management of all of the city’s parking meters only considers that one company will run the whole show. Why not let curb parking be a flexible (or “programmable” in planner’s lingo) land use that is controlled by the building or block? Dense urban areas need these types of flexible spaces more than they need cheap parking for cars, not to mention dudes like this guy. You can’t make the argument that cities have been managing curbs spaces successfully under centralized control. Very local control may prove a better option. It is at least worth considering.

Empty lots

Empty Lots in a photo project of Chris Keimig documenting all the empty parking lots in downtown Minneapolis.  He recently ran some numbers on a section of 5th Avenue South (think Metrodome/Downtown East area).

Well, over the weekend, we finally took the time to crunch the numbers, and—to say the least—they are pretty staggering. Along a single stretch of 5th Ave. South (a stretch that occupies ten entire city blocks and spans three-quarters of a mile), drivers have their choice of no fewer than 7,401 parking spots. This number includes all parking lots and parking garages that can be accessed along this stretch of 5th Avenue and includes 2,666 surface parking spaces as well as 4,735 garage parking spaces spread between 5 above-ground garages. Most of these lots can be accessed for an entire day for five or six dollars (or less than it takes to get to and from downtown via an express bus), and most of them also don’t reach capacity even during the busiest times of the day.

EU to require autonomous braking on new cars

One for the gradual-takeover-by-autonomous-vehicles file via Wired:

New European regulations have passed that will require new cars to have autonomous emergencybraking (AEB). From 2014 onward, the Euro NCAP will include AEB in its assessment of new cars, which will make it impossible for any model without the tech to achieve a five-star safety rating.

Philippe Jean of the European Commission said that all commercial vehicles will need to be fitted with the technology by November next year.

AEB uses radar, laser, or video to sense an impending collision. The software then primes the brakes, or applies them if the situation is too far gone. The hope is that the safety tech will be particularly effective with front-end impacts, such as in heavy traffic. Besides stopping rear-ending crashes that clog up freeways, the required systems will also sense pedestrians in the roadway and apply the brakes before impact.

The European Comission carried out a study that found vehicles fitted with this technology reduced traffic accidents by 27 percent, which translates to 8,000 deaths prevented and between £3.9 ($6.05) billion and £6.3 ($9.7) billion saved each year.

Philippe Jean said of the Euro NCAP crash test organization, “Our studies indicate that the resulting reduction in congestion due to accidents would represent an economic value of about €100 million in Germany alone.” The NCAP also said that 79 percent of the cars currently on sale in Europe are not fitted with the technology. You can read the full report here (PDF).

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Updating peak travel

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Chuck Marohn has a new post at streets.mn lamenting the long-term inaccuracy of modeling and projections – in this case, traffic projections.  Without commenting on his critique (ok, maybe a little: I think projections can be useful in many circumstances, especially when paired with scenarios), I wanted to update my old peak travel post from 2011.

The peak of auto travel in Minnesota is still 2006, with per capita travel peaking one year later.  For 2011 total auto travel continues to decline, although the decline is slowing (-0.15% versus -0.37% for 2009 to 2010).  2011 population estimates for Minnesota aren’t out yet, but I imagine the flatline trend is the same for per capita miles.  I’m told the Metropolitan Council (and MnDOT?) project growth in VMT in the 7-county metro to increase 1.5% annually through 2020.

Have we reached peak travel?  I’m not sure, but it sure is interesting to think about the reversal of an assumption (ever-growing auto travel) that’s been held for a generation or more.

I sold my car

Today we sold our family’s second car. Since taking a new job last year, my car mostly sat in the driveway. I can get to work really easy on the bus or on a bike (and the same for my wife, to a slightly lesser degree) and parking costs made me think twice when I considered driving to work.

The sale was an emotional experience. I loved driving the car, and I’ve always liked driving. I got my learners permit when I was fourteen (Iowa let ‘em drive early) and as with most teenagers (at least back then) , the car signaled freedom to me. My feelings about driving have moderated some since, but I’ve retained much of the original nostalgia and excitement, especially when starting a road trip. I’ve learned a lot about the impacts on our cities and climate reliance on the car creates since that initial love affair, but in the end, the strongest reason we had to ditch the second car was cost.  Hundreds of dollars a week is a strong motivator.

But this wasn’t a simple matter of deciding to ride the bus more. A large number of factors has to converge to make it possible for a family of three with two jobs outside the home to make do with one (private) vehicle.

  • Working in the hub of a hub-and-spoke transit network. We have lots of bus routes that are fairly competitive with a car because my wife and I both work in or near downtown. This wouldn’t be the case if we worked in the suburbs, inner ring or outer.
  • We found a great daycare nine blocks from our house.  You can walk there easily in most weather from our house or take the bus/bike.  The location and density of daycare centers should not be overlooked if your goal is to encourage alternative modes.
  • Minneapolis is walkable and fairly bikeable.  The city does a pretty good job making it feel safe and easy to walk and bike places.  Destination density (stores, food, etc) is tolerably high in some neighborhoods, although it could definitely be better.
  • New technologies.  We feel better with one car knowing their is a car-sharing service that parks a car a few blocks from our house.
  • We have the resources to rent a car when we need it.  Even if we do this once a month for a week, we still save a lot versus owning.

We really depend on automobiles a lot.  If we want to change that for whatever reason, or if we want to be sensitive to the needs of those who can’t afford a car, then it’s about way more than providing transit.