Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I wrote this for a professional urbanist List-Serv so I might as well cross-post based on a New Yorker column on raising gas taxes:

I'm all for Pigovian taxes, but do we really think they're politically feasible in this case? In the Sun Belt? Of course, the New Yorker wants gas taxes. New York isn't affected, free of the burden of fluctuating gas prices. Cheap gas is in the DNA of the sun belt. Consequently, Dallas just got a $4.4 billion bill to maintain its roads. Even if at some point we do agree that roads and/or gas must be "right priced" to pay for themselves, their maintenance, and upkeep, will it change our road building ways? Maybe eventually? We gotta get rid of these potholes somehow, right?

Will it change our living patterns? Not in time. Many people, and educated ones at that seem to think rising gas taxes will cure the Sun Belt and bring everybody back, jumping for joy towards urbanism, walkability, etc. But we can't build enough housing or rebuild the road networks towards legitimate walkability fast enough. People like to point to charts like this that VMTs dropped when gas prices rose:

But when you aren't distorting the Y-axis to amplify the degree of change in VMT, it looks more like this:

With 267% rise in gas prices over ten years, there was a 5% drop in VMT. A drop which likely had more to do with people being out of work since VMT is on the rise again with gas prices also on the rise. If gas hits 5, 6, 10 dollars per gallon, we, in the sun belt won't magically become urban. We'll just exsanguinate, like Detroit and the rust belt with the lost of industrial production.

It's like a tsunami. Sure, there was a little rumble off shore, but it's likely nothing, right? All of a sudden everybody's under water. Eventually, future generations will see areas prospering without the burden's of car ownership and infrastructure. Population will decline just as fast as it rose, like a bacteria colony exhausting its source of food. That is, unless we drastically change course.

Nothing will change until transportation planning, design, and funding change. And frankly, because DOTs represent states and not cities and therefore do not have the best interest of cities at heart, it likely means the necessary weakening of DOTs.

A tax policy isn't enough. We need fundamental reform in how we build all transportation and therefore how we build cities.