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).

Updating peak travel

Chart - MN VMT 2011

Chuck Marohn has a new post at 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.

David Alpert on driverless cars

I’ve been meaning to write a “how this urbanist stopped worrying and learned to love the driverless car” post for a while, but I’ve finally been spurred into action by this piece in the Atlantic Cities by Greater Greater Washington founder David Alpert.  Right up front I want to say I still have a lot of concerns about how we plan and incorporate robot cars, but on this issue of competing road users, I take a different view.

Alpert’s contention is that in our society’s haste to adopt driverless cars, we will “intensify current tensions” between drivers (more accurately called passengers in a robot car-filled world of the future) and non-auto users, such as pedestrians and cyclists, who are trying to use the same right of way.  I think this case is overstated for a number of reasons.

The author’s main evidence for the idea that tensions will be increased is reference to an animation done by some computer scientists that showed how to optimize an intersection when most of the cars are driverless, thus increasing flow.  According to the article,

[H]uman-driven cars would have to wait for a signal that would be optimized based on what everyone else is doing. And the same would be true of pedestrians and bike riders.

And to that Alpert reacts:

That certainly sounds like all other users of the road will have to act at the convenience of the driverless cars, under constraints designed to maximize vehicle movement instead of balancing the needs of various users…

The video even depicts an intersection with a whopping 12 lanes for each roadway, at a time when most transportation professionals have come to believe that grids of smaller roads, not mega-arterials, are the best approach to mobility in metropolitan areas.

Driverless cars, therefore, are poised to trigger a whole new round of pressure to further redesign intersections for the throughput of vehicles above all else.

I’m not sure how this one animation demonstrates why driverless cars would trigger a gush of road-building or elimination of non-auto facilities.  Setting aside the fact that I’m sure this animation was developed as a proof-of-concept (I can hear the research team now: “If we use 12 lanes in each direction, it will look even more impressive!”), this leads me to my first objection to the premise that driverless cars will increase tensions.

Driverless cars don’t make bad roads, people make bad roads

As Alpert himself states, “Already, cities host ongoing and raucous debates over the role of cars versus people on their streets. For over 50 years, traffic engineers with the same dreams about optimizing whizzing cars have designed and redesigned intersections to move more and more vehicles.”  Yes, and we’ll continue to have this debate into the future whether robot cars are adopted or not.  Given that gradual adoption of this technology is the most likely scenario (more on that later), I don’t see auto users getting more vocal (than they already are) about road capacity because there car has a few more widgets.

Building a balanced transportation system that looks at the full picture of quality of life rather than just mobility and speed will continue to be a challenge, although we seem to be making some progress in that direction.  Issues of public health, environmental impact and land use impacts will probably always take some extra effort to incorporate into transportation decision-making, an effort organizations like Greater Greater Washington should continue to make.  I view this as an institutional problem, failing to bring full information about transportation systems impacts to the design table, and it should be addressed in our decision-making processes.

12-lane at-grade intersections would make any cityscape pretty awful, but that leads me to my second objection:

Driverless cars can do more with less

Maybe the computer scientists at UT Austin should have showed a 2-lane 4-way intersection with driverless cars instead of a 12-lane intersection.  They also should have showed a comparison with a present day intersection.  One of the potential benefits of driverless cars is squeezing more flow or capacity out of the road systems we already have.  Cars can drive closer together, and yes, maybe intersections can look more India-like.  Potentially, we’ll get more from our existing concrete without having to widen or reduce non-auto infrastructure.

There is also this nagging funding issue.  In Minnesota for example, we already can’t pay for all the roads we want.  So 1) a huge explosion of more road-building probably isn’t likely and 2) driverless cars give us kind of another way out: if we’re intent on adding more capacity, maybe we can make our vehicles smarter rather than our roads wider.

And finally:

Driverless cars are safer

The first forays into “driverless cars” are about collision detection and avoidance (see a long list of existing implementation here).  Google’s driverless car has driven 200,000 miles and been involved in two accidents (both while being driven by a human).  Before any cars are driving themselves around, their computer brains will just be allowed to stop us from having accidents.  This is good for auto users and others alike.   And their adoption will happen gradually (they’ll be pretty expensive at first).

It seems obvious that driverless cars will be programmed to not hit pedestrians and cyclists.  Driverless cars will never (or very rarely) drive in a bike lane or right-hook a cyclist.  And for the next fifty years, they’ll probably be operating on roadways that look very similar to what we have today, pedestrian cross-walks and all.  The dys/utopian future where we have streets with tightly-spaced driverless cars traveling 200 mph is quite a ways off, and when that happens, why shouldn’t they be limited access and/or grade separated?  Wouldn’t we require the same of high-speed rail?

Again, there are lots of other potential negative impacts we need to be aware of as driverless cars become common (see my summary here), but I think these can be addressed by human policy decisions.  We also need to take some drastic action on emissions from transportation that contribute to climate change, and robot cars will likely not have a measurable impact there for some time (it’s also possible our action, if we take any, may actually delay their deployment).

Robot cars could offer urbanists a myriad of benefits that Alpert doesn’t address (but which others have covered in detail, but that should probably wait for another post.

Using bikes for serious emissions reduction

Bicycles in a square

According to the European Cycling Federation, if the whole of the EU cycled like the Danes, they could achieve significant emissions cuts.

If the EU cycling rate was the same as it is in Denmark, where the average person cycles almost 600 miles (965km) each year, then the bloc would attain anything from 12% to 26% of its targeted transport emissions reduction, depending on what forms of transport the cycling replaced, according to the report by the Brussels-based European Cycling Federation (ECF).

This figure is likely to be a significant underestimate as it deliberately excludes the environmental impact of building road infrastructure and parking, or maintaining and disposing of cars.

These figures are for the EU’s 2050 emissions reduction target.  The figures are even greater for 2020 targets.

Bikes are not a new technology that would require long adoption periods and high initial capital costs.  Almost everyone knows how to use them, and they are cheap.  They also have myriad co-benefits, not least of which is increased physical activity.  To get serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should take a close look at the bike as a potential solution.

Using ECF’s study as a model and making some estimates, the Twin Cities metro could see some significant emissions reductions if we biked like the Danes, but getting there would be tough.  I’ll get to that, but first some initial thoughts on the Europeans. Continue reading

Not really Streetless in Seattle

A better movie

City Journal, a creation of the Manhattan Institute, has a profile of Mike McGinn, Seattle’s newest Mayor.  What really grabbed my attention was the reference to Seattle’s Bike Master Plan and what City Journal claims is it’s call for converting 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes.  This little tidbit is getting this article a lot of play, at least in my planner-nerd circles.  However, I can’t find any evidence to back up this 3 percent figure.

City Journal is anti-McGinn, calling him “anti-car” and painting his transportation initiatives as misguided.

Sure enough, when McGinn became mayor, he began pursuing anti-car policies. He’d like to levy an $80 fee for registering a car in Seattle, and he has raised taxes on parking in privately owned garages. He now plans to raise parking-meter rates downtown to $4 an hour from $2.50, which would make it costlier to park in Seattle than in any other American city except Chicago. He also supports maintaining the so-called head tax, which docks businesses $25 annually for every employee who drives alone to work.

But McGinn’s road diet, which went into effect in July, is probably his most audacious idea. As the centerpiece of the city’s $240 million “Bicycle Master Plan,” which mandates the construction of 118 miles of bike lanes and 19 miles of trails by 2017, the diet will convert 3 percent of Seattle’s car lanes into bike lanes. Even major freight routes, including one that leads to Boeing Field, will see car and truck lanes converted to bike-only use.

Then there is this:

Factors both meteorological and topographical make Seattleites unlikely to forgo cars as their primary means of transportation. Rain falls more than 150 days a year in this famously gloomy city, rendering cycling both unpleasant and unsafe. And Seattle’s ubiquitous steep hills make San Francisco look like Des Moines. It’s hardly surprising that, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, a mere 2,600 people—out of a total downtown workforce of 230,000—commuted downtown by bicycle in 2009.

They forget to mention that citywide, Seattle is now tied for second among the 70 largest cities in the US in terms of bicycle commuter mode share and that cycling to work has grown 93% since 2000 and 22% since 2009.  They also forget to mention that (auto) vehicle miles traveled has been basically flat in King County since 2005, and VMT per capita has been on the decline in the region since 1999.

What about that 3 percent figure?  That seems substantial if true.  It wouldn’t totally surprise me given the other press I’ve seen about McGinn and his opposition to new auto lanes or facilities (see Deep Bore Tunnel and 520 Bridge), but this is taking away lanes, not just not creating new ones.  However, on my  brief scan of the bike plan, I can’t find any explicit reference to converting car lanes.  Is City Journal taking liberties, or did I miss something?

Appendix F, “Guidance for Retrofitting Seattle Streets to Create Dedicated Bicycle Facilities“, which includes guidance for arterial (high-volume) roads, does say “Implementing some of these facilities will require a change to the existing roadway configuration.”  However, it goes on to lay out a process for analyzing existing roads to see how a bicycle facility could be accommodated.  The process includes considering how the changes in the street cross section will effect traffic volume, speed, heavy vehicle traffic and on-street parking demand, among other things.  This seems like pretty typical engineering stuff.  The plan says where generally the city would like a bike lane, and then the engineers look at the details to see what might be possible.  Sometimes, it might not be possible at all, and the plan admits this.

If analysis finds that the target bicycle facility type is feasible, the project can move forward to implementation. If there are constraints that would prevent the target facility from being achieved, alternatives should be developed with the goal of improving bicycle safety and access to the highest degree possible, given the constraints of the particular corridor.

The process of developing alternative designs should always be informed by the recommendations of the Bicycle Master Plan, which identifies a facility type for all segments of the proposed bicycle network. Other alternatives should be explored as well, again with the goal of improving bicycle safety and access, and providing the most suitable bicycle facility given operational and environmental constraints within the corridor. If the city decides not to proceed with implementing the Bicycle Master Plan recommendation on a particular roadway, it will document the reason for its decision to choose a different alternative. The burden is on the city to explain why it is not implementing a recommendation in the plan.

Later, the appendix actually says if the desired cross section can’t fit because of “operational or environmental” factors, roadway widening should be considered.  That part didn’t make it into the City Journal article.

Here’s my guess about the 3 percent figure.  City Journal writer Epstein looked at the total miles of planned on-street bike lanes yet to be built (118).  Then he found the total number of lane miles of Seattle surface streets (3,745).  Then he assumed that each mile of new bike lane equals one less lane mile for cars (there are a lot of things wrong here, the biggest being that the plan prefers reducing lane widths in order to add facilities, which wouldn’t reduce car lane miles at all).  Then he did some long division, and presto: 3.15%!  Remember, City Journal is “the nation’s premier urban-policy magazine“.  If anyone, including the editors of City Journal or writer Ethan Epstein would like to explain an alternative calculation, let me know and I’d be happy to post it.