Originally published as a Facebook Note at my Facebook Engagement Page (which you can "Like" at: https://www.facebook.com/SudburySteveMay)
I've put together this Note in response to feedback I've been receiving related to my latest column, published in the Sudbury Star (published online as "We need pay-as-you-go driving", the Sudbury Star, December 28 2013). In that column, I brazenly propose that the primary users of our road systems should be the ones who pay for the privilege of use - through a GPS based user pay system adapted for time of use to resolve congestion issues. I argue that savings can be achieved for property taxpayers and income taxpayers (by shifting maintenance costs off of property tax bills and reducing the provincial costs of road maintenance funded by income taxes). I also argue that such a system would be better for the economy and the environment, as it would lead to smarter trip-making on the part of commuters (fewer cars = less congestion, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions).
One of the primary criticisms I've received has to do with the notion that shifting to user pay models actually ends up impoverishing us a society. As examples, our health care system, schools and libraries are often cited - and concerns are raised that my example of having users pay their own road fees is the same sort of initiative. In these situations, lower income wage earners are disadvantaged. Picking and choosing which services we collectively pay for will only lead to a reduction in service quality. I think that those are all fair comments.
I think it's fair to say that critics and myself are likely in agreement that hospitals, schools, recreation centres, parks - all fall broadly under the category of "public good" and therefore are things that we, as a society, like to have - and agree to support through taxes. We all benefit from the education that individual children receive (through their enhanced economic contributions later in life). We benefit from health care (getting sick doesn't end up bankrupting an individual, or leading to further expensive public supports). We benefit from parks (places to play and recreate - for our personal growth and well-being). Clearly, these are all public goods.
Roads - well, at first blush, it might seem that roads are also a "public good" in that they facilitate transport of people and products. Getting around easily is in the public's interests.
However, consider that our current road system is really designed with one primary goal: to move personal vehicles about efficiently (meaning: as fast as possible). Achieving this goal has shaped the design of our road system to the exclusion of all other forms of transport: public transportation, walking, cycling, etc.
Consider how a transportation system with different priorities might physically appear. You need look no further than to many cities in Europe - designed without the prioritization of cars. The shape of transport systems also led to the way in which our cities have been built - in North America, we've sprawled outwards - in many cities in Europe, cities have grown upwards, leading to the more efficient (spatially - and economically) use of infrastructure.
Further, more efficient transportation systems - those based on non-motorized vehicle use or on public transit - contribute far fewer climate changing greenhouse gas emissions to our atmosphere. Given that we have failed to internalize the costs of climate change (we, as a society, continue to choose to pay for those costs - even though they are clearly not a "public good"), it's very difficult to argue that a system designed for the very worst polluters - in this case motorized vehicles, many of which are used primarily by single occupants - is within the public interest. Yet, we taxpayers continue to subsidize motorists for their profligate use - and continue to cater to motorists through inefficient urban design.
The notion that our current road system is a "public good" is actually a false notion - or at least, it's fair to say that our road system isn't primarily designed and used as a public good.
How is it that a "public good", such as the provision of public space for transport, has morphed into something which only works for that portion of the public which is fortunate enough to operate a personal motorized vehicle - the very least efficient form of transport in terms of climate changing greenhouse gas emissions? How has it come to pass that we consider subsidizing car drivers for their fossil fuel use a "public good" when they aren't paying for their pollution? It's actually been very easy, because driving on efficient, safe roads, maintained by municipalities through property taxes, certainly feels like a "public good". After all, isn't everybody doing it?
Well, first off, no not everybody is doing it. Here in Greater Sudbury, it's been estimated that one third of citizens don't have regular access to a personal vehicle - yet they too must get around. Those who don't own personal vehicles for whatever reason (economic, health, lifestyle choice) aren't deriving the same benefit from the system as car drivers are. Sure, they derive some benefit (they purchase food at supermarkets supplied by trucks using our roads - that's one example), but it's quite likely that those benefits which are clearly in the public interest would have been included in a differently-designed transportation system (they are certainly considerations in European cities).
When looked at this way, it becomes clear that our road system, designed for cars, really isn't a "public good" at all - at least not in the same way that hospitals, schools and rec centres are. Yes, we still need an efficient public transportation system - but one which caters to personal vehicles isn't, frankly, in the best interests of the public. Right now, property taxpayers continue to subsidize the driving habits of car users, creating an unsustainable situation. By passing on the costs to the primary users for maintenance of a system designed with their unique needs in mind (which, I might add, already happens elsewhere, through tolling), we would be better off economically (by removing a large chunk of these costs from property tax bills - and potentially a reduction in income taxes for provincial portions of municipal road maintenance) and environmentally (because guaranteed people will drive less).
The savings for municipalities on maintenance costs could be invested in created a truly multi-modal, efficient transportation system which we'll need for the 21st Century - one which is designed and used by the public, in the public's real interests. Such a transportation system would be better for the environment (fewer greenhouse gas emissions directly from cars - but also, since it would likely lead to more urban intensification, fewer emissions from suburban and exurban sprawl). The system would still allow personal vehicle use - but at an additional cost - in the same way that certain high occupancy vehicle lanes set aside for car pooling allow use by single-occupant vehicles through a toll - and similar to those circumstances where private individuals and corporations pay rent for the use of public spaces (vendors markets; parking facilities; even renting a room at a public banquet hall).
I don't really expect to see this kind of user-pay transportation system happen any time soon. One of the things I want to do with my column, however, is to challenge the ways that we think about common, every day ideas - particularly given the climate crisis which we currently find ourselves in.
In my recent column, I really wanted to challenge the notion that our roads are a "public good" in the same way that other public infrastructure, like sewer and water lines, and libraries, are. From the perspective of carbon pollution, our current transportation system, which prioritizes roads and personal vehicle use, is extremely inefficient and ultimately not in the public's interests. Therefore, adopting a "user pay" system for personal vehicle use on roads is not the same as charging uers extra fees for the use of hospitals, libraries and schools.
It's time to consider eliminating subsidies on things we don't want - like pollution - and lowering taxes on the things which actually make our society better - such as the income we earn through our work. Pay-as-you-go road pricing for personal vehicle use would be an equitable step in that direction - but should be coupled with significant public investments in transit and the provision of alternative transportation options. If we are going to be competitive in the 21st Century, it's important that we get this right - a good first step will be to stop the public subsidization of carbon pollution.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)
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