Are we closer to the end of the era of the car than the beginning?

One academic argues we are getting closer to the end of automobile era:

This prediction sounds bold primarily for the fact that most of us don’t think about technology – or the history of technology – in century-long increments: “We’re probably closer to the end of the automobility era than we are to its beginning,” says Maurie Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “If we’re 100 years into the automobile era, it seems pretty inconceivable that the car as we know it is going to be around for another 100 years.”

Cohen figures that we’re unlikely to maintain the deteriorating Interstate Highway System for the next century, or to perpetuate for generations to come the public policies and subsidies that have supported the car up until now. Sitting in the present, automobiles are so embedded in society that it’s hard to envision any future without them. But no technology – no matter how essential it seems in its own era – is ever permanent. Consider, just to borrow some examples from transportation history, the sailboat, the steamship, the canal system, the carriage, and the streetcar…

“The replacement of the car is probably out there,” Cohen adds. “We just don’t fully recognize it yet.”

In fact, he predicts, it will probably come from China, which would make for an ironic comeuppance by history. The car was largely developed in America to fit the American landscape, with our wide-open spaces and brand-new communities. And then the car was awkwardly grafted onto other places, like dense, old European cities and developing countries. If the car’s replacement comes out of China, it will be designed to fit the particular needs and conditions of China, and then it will spread from there. The result probably won’t work as well in the U.S., Cohen says, in the same way that the car never worked as well in Florence as it did in Detroit.

In our modern world, 100 years is a long time for a technology to hold on. While I imagine there is some technology that would be better than cars, it is harder to imagine the complete overhaul that would have to take place to replace the car. What happens to all of the roads and asphalt? What happens to the garage which has become a more prominent feature of houses? What happens to cities that based their planning around the most efficient pathways for cars? What about the oil industry and auto makers?

Cohen also notes that change could come from China. What if end up in a world where certain countries use a replacement technology for cars because of its efficiency, their larger populations, etc. while wealthier countries like the United States retain their use of the automobile?

Of course, Cohen is correct to note that it is hard to see the future from the present. This may seem like a very silly discussion looking back several decades from now…

A lack of automatic penalties for a New York City driver hopping the curb and killing a pedestrian

Sarah Goodyear highlights an interesting legal area: New York City drivers whose cars kill pedestrians on the sidewalk do not automatically receive penalties.

In New York, unless the driver flees the scene (as happened in the Queens case mentioned above) or is intoxicated, crashes that kill pedestrians rarely result in criminal charges. “No criminality was suspected” is the mantra of the NYPD when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist deaths in general. The tepid police response to traffic deaths is even more jarring when applied to cases in which the vehicle actually leaves the roadway and enters what should be inviolate pedestrian space…

I talked to Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who frequently represents victims of traffic crashes and is an outspoken advocate for pedestrian and bicyclist rights in New York City, and asked him to explain how running your vehicle up onto a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians can be seen as anything other than reckless. He explained to me that recklessness is in the eye of the beholder.“The standard for criminal charges is that the risk you take has to be a gross deviation from the risk a reasonable person would accept,” he says. “It’s about the community norm.”

And the community norm is to accept the explanations proffered by drivers such as the one who killed Martha Atwater – who, according to an unnamed police source quoted in the news, said he had suffered a diabetic blackout. Other drivers are let off the hook after simply “losing control” or hitting the gas instead of the brake. The ease with which pedestrian deaths are accepted by police as just unfortunate “accidents” has led to a deep cynicism among many observers of street safety in New York.

Shouldn’t the community norm instead be an understanding that if you drive your car in such a way that you end up on the sidewalk in the middle of one of the world’s most pedestrian-rich environments, you have somehow failed in your responsibility as a driver? Obviously, there are extreme circumstances, such as mechanical failure, in which a driver is not in any way at fault. But why are we so quick to dismiss the mayhem caused by motor vehicles as inevitable?

Seems odd to me. Frankly, pedestrians are not that protected on sidewalks. The speed and size of cars means the short jump up to the sidewalk isn’t much of an obstruction. But, perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising considering how much Americans love cars and how much cities have been redesigned to accommodate cars.

This reminds that New Urbanists often make this argument about their neo-traditional designs for narrower streets that allow street parking and both sides and trees in the parkways. These conditions both slow down drivers, which could give pedestrians more time to react, and also provide barriers between drivers and pedestrians. Better that drivers who lose control hit inanimate objects than also harm other people in the process.

Data suggests urban residents in some cities leaning toward bicycles and away from “war on cars”?

Some recent data from Seattle, New York, and Toronto leads one writer to suggest the “war on cars” is over:

Here are some of the poll’s findings:

  • 73 percent of the 400 Seattle voters surveyed supported the idea of building protected bike lanes.
  • 59 percent go further and support “replacing roads and some on-street parking to make protected bicycle lanes.”
  • 79 percent have favorable feelings about cyclists.
  • Only 31 percent agree with the idea that Seattle is “waging a war on cars.”

The “war on cars” trope has long been a favored talking point for anti-bicycle and anti-transit types. But this survey and others seem to indicate that it might, at last, be wearing a bit thin, no matter how much the auto warriors try to whip up their troops.

Last year, a Quinnipiac poll of New York City residents showed that 59 percent support bike lanes, up from 54 only a few months earlier. Quinnipiac also found that 74 percent support the city’s sadly delayed bike-share plan. A New York City Department of Transportation poll about the Prospect Park Bike Lane – supposedly a bloody battleground of the war on cars that the New York Post insists the DOT is waging – found 70 percent of respondents liked the lane.

Toronto has also been a major front in this fight. The city’s embattled mayor, Rob Ford, famously declared that his election would mean an end to the city’s supposed war on cars. (He also said that when a cyclist is killed by a driver, “it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”) On Ford’s watch, Toronto removed some downtown bike lanes last fall, prompting protests and even an arrest for mischief and obstructing a police officer.

But the aftermath has been more constructive than martial. Tomislav Svoboda, the physician who was arrested for his act of civil disobedience, was recently joined by 34 of his medical colleagues in a call for faster construction of new bike infrastructure, asking the city council to “change lanes and save lives.” Even Ford seems to be feeling less combative. He came out the other day talking about a 2013 budget that will include 80 kilometers of new on-street bike lanes, 100 kilometers of off-street bike trails, and 8,000 new bike parking spaces.

Based on the data presented here, it sounds like these urban residents are moving toward a position where both cars and bikes can coexist in cities. This relationship is notoriously hostile as people have made zero-sum arguments: more bikes means less room for cars and vice versa.

But we could also look at why people have these opinions. Here are a few options:

1. Are bike advocates getting better at marketing or framing their cause (this is the suggestion at the end of this article)?

2. Are people generally less interested in cars (and this could be for a variety of reasons including cost and environmental impact)?

3. Are residents tired of paying for road improvements without little change in congestion (those new lanes just don’t help)?

4. Is there a genuine interest in shifting away from cars in cities and toward other forms of transportation (bicycling, more walkable neighborhoods, etc.)?

Oregon testing out five different ways to pay vehicle-miles traveled tax

The state of Oregon is currently running a small test program with five different ways of paying a vehicle-miles driven tax:

The new usage charge pilot program, which began in November and runs through the end of this month, involves about 40 volunteers from state government. Participants chose the tracking plan that best fit their privacy tastes and will pay 1.56 cents for each mile driven — receiving a credit for any gas tax paid during the test period. The idea is to make sure each tracking option works in practice…

The five tracking plans vary in terms of oversight. Two are managed by the Oregon D.O.T., three by a third-party vendor. They also vary in terms of payment: some require setting up an online account tied to credit or debit information, others go the old fashion route of monthly bills payable by check.

The key difference is the tracking system. Two advanced plans track mileage data as well as movement with a G.P.S.; the advantage here is that users aren’t charged a fee for driving on private or out-of-state roads — only public roads in Oregon. Two basic plans involve an odometer-type device that collects mileage data but has no G.P.S. to track movement. Users may end up paying a little more, but they’re getting privacy in return.

The most primitive plan, for people who want the most privacy, uses no tracking device at all. Users pre-pay a flat fee that assumes a monthly mileage. At some point, say when the car gets official inspections, the odometer is checked and the difference between miles paid and miles driven is reconciled…

Despite these cautions, Oregon is preparing to take its system public soon. The state legislature has prepared a bill that would implement a V.M.T. fee on all vehicles getting 55 miles per gallon or better. (The change only applies to car models beginning in 2015, however, and as currently written the law wouldn’t go into effect until that year.) Olson says the bill will be introduced sometime in 2013.

It sounds like this small test is more about finding about which of the five options are doable and/or appealing, mainly on the dimension of privacy, rather than asking whether a vehicles miles tax should be implemented at all. As the article notes, a bill will come up this year to start the ball rolling. If this is the case, why not run a test bigger than 40 state employees?

Another thought: the system is set up so that drivers only pay for driving on Oregon’s public roads. Wouldn’t a comprehensive system of driving tax collection have to account for driving in other states?

Broke highway fund might mean up to 250% increase in pay-per-mile tax

Here is more grist for the rumor mills about a pay-per-mile driving tax: a new GAO report suggests the tax will need to be increased from current levels.

An on-again, off-again move by the Obama administration to scrap the federal gas tax in favor of a pay-per-mile fee would boost the tab to Americans as high as 250 percent, raising their current tax of 18.4 cents a gallon to as high as 46 cents, according to a new government study.

But without a tax increase, said the Government Accountability Office study, the government’s highway fund is going to go dry. One reason the fund is going broke: President Obama’s push for fuel efficient cars has resulted in better mileage, and fewer stops at the pump.

The GAO study is just the latest review of federal spending that paints a grim picture of the nation’s infrastructure. Just keeping spending at current levels, the GAO said, would require a near doubling of the gas tax to 32 cents a gallon, and that would jump to as high as 46 cents should the federal government add spending to fix crumbling infrastructure and build new roads.

The average driver pays about $96 a year in federal gas taxes, said GAO. Should the administration seek to raise the highway trust fund from $34 billion to the $78 billion needed to fix and maintain roads, that could rise to $248. Translated into a pay-per-mile plan, drivers would face a tax of 2.2 cents per mile compared to the 0.9 cents they pay now. Trucks would pay far more.

Infrastructure and driving are not cheap. I imagine this might easily be the most unpopular tax in years even with its relatively small impact on individual drivers. How can the federal government make driving, a necessity in America due to our planning and past policies plus a favorite activity of Americans for decades, more expensive?

Considering replacing the gas tax with a tax per mile driven or a flat fee for electric vehicles

Here is a recap of efforts to replace the gasoline tax and the relatively less revenue collected because the federal gas tax hasn’t risen in years and the future decrease in gas consumption with more hybrids, electric cars, and fuel-efficient vehicles:

The favored answer of road engineers? Taxing by the mile driven. A handful of states — Oregon, Minnesota and Nevada — have already tested ways to use GPS and other electronics to adjust taxes. In the Nevada and Oregon tests, drivers had devices installed on their cars that sent data to special fuel pumps; those pumps automatically adjusted their fees based on how far the vehicles had driven, without revealing data that would amount to tracking drivers.

The GAO told Congress this week it should allow a similar test on electric vehicles and commercial trucks, and estimated that a pay-by-the-mile tax of 0.9 cents to 2.2 cents per mile designed to replace fuel taxes would raise a typical driver’s costs from $98 to between $108 to $248.

But it’s not the only answer to filling this financial sinkhole. Washington state lawmakers have put a flat fee of $100 a year on electric vehicles to make up for the gas taxes they don’t generate, and Oregon lawmakers may follow suit. In Virgina, Gov. Bob McDonald has proposed abolishing the gas tax entirely, replacing it with a sales tax and a new $100 fee on “alternative fuel” cars and trucks. That idea has already drawn fire from critics who point out that it would make Virginians who never drive pay for roads while letting people who travel through the state do so for free.

I’ve covered the proposals in some of these states earlier (see here) but I haven’t heard of the electric car flat fee. I imagine a flat fee will not be specific enough to target electric cars – why not just go by a reduced mile-driven rate as well to account for all of the roads being used?

I suspect the first state to institute this will encounter lots of protests. At what point can a tax like this be implemented: before taxes start to decline or only once it is really clear that gas tax revenues aren’t enough to cover road costs? A case could be made that we are already at the second scenario and need more revenue to cover federal roads.

View from across the pond: Americans don’t interact with people unlike themselves because of the automobile

Here a sociological take on American social interactions and our love of the car:

A while ago a friend of mine, a leading sociologist, told me that the reason people in the United States seem so conservative and set in their ways, their politics so polarised and full of hate, is that they never meet anybody who disagrees with them, they never encounter a single other person who offers a different way of seeing the world, and so their attitudes become overly rigid.

The reason for this is that their lives are so governed by the private automobile. The average citizen of America lives not in a city where you have to rub along with others, but in a suburb where everybody is ethnically and socially indistinguishable, then they get in their car to drive to work and tune their radio to a station that exactly mirrors their own views and when they arrive at work all the people there share the same opinions.

Three thoughts:

1. This sounds like The Big Sort kind of world where people live with people like them, chalk it up to taste and preferences, and don’t think about the structural factors, like class and race and settlement patterns, that influence these decisions.

2. Mass transit is implicated here: Americans don’t want to ride buses and be that close to others. Instead, we would rather hop into our personal cars – think about all of those single-occupant cars in rush hour traffic.

3. But, we can’t think about mass transit without also thinking about how settlement patterns, generally more spread out in the idealized American suburbs, influences the feasibility of  mass transit.

Put this all together and perhaps there is some merit to these arguments. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Americans dislike other people. However, it could mean that Americans tend to privilege the lives and actions of individuals before considering community life.

Self-driving cars mainly about making roads safer?

Here is an argument for why we will eventually move, like Nevada has already done and California is doing now, toward self-driving cars: they are safer.

The Economist notes that about 90 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error, meaning that if humans are taken out of the process, there’s a strong probably that accident rates will plummet.

Even so, the bill requires the cars to have a flesh-and-blood human being behind the wheel if something goes wrong.

“It sounds space age, but it’s almost here,” Padilla told the San Jose Mercury News. “If we can reduce the number of accidents, that alone is worth doing this bill.”…

Despite the bill’s widespread political support, some quarters have voiced reservations, particularly over what happens if driverless cars crash and lawsuits are filed. “This does not protect adequately the manufacturers for liability concerns,” Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman Dan Gage told the Mercury News.

Safety is the trump argument these days in American politics: if you can argue a policy or change will save lives, perhaps even just a few, this is a powerful rationale.

I still wonder how long it will take for drivers to adjust to this and whether everyone would want to give up driving. Part of the appeal of driving in American culture is that it allows individuals to control their destiny, decide where to go and then drive yourself there. If cars were driverless, what would there be to do, particularly if the driver still has to sit behind the wheel in case something goes wrong? Will the thrill of driving disappear?

As this article notes and I’ve noted before, Google has been a key actor in pushing this technology forward.

Vehicles miles-traveled tax in “five to ten years” as states run pilot studies

With more fuel efficient vehicles and higher federal government standards, several states are starting pilot programs to test a vehicles miles-traveled tax:

Minnesota and Oregon already are testing technology to keep track of mileage. Other states, including Washington and Nevada, are preparing similar projects.

The efforts are being prompted by the fact that gasoline taxes no longer provide enough money to pay for roads and bridges — especially when Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase taxes imposed on each gallon. The federal tax of 18.4 cents a gallon hasn’t been raised in nearly two decades. More than half the states have not raised their gas tax this millennium. Fuel-efficiency also is behind the efforts. Electric-powered vehicles are growing in numbers. In 2009, President Obama set the nation’s most aggressive fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles, ordering a 40% increase by 2016.

“As the (national vehicle) fleet becomes more fuel efficient … we’re going to lose a lot of revenue from the gas tax. If it’s not replaced, we’re going to see our transportation infrastructure deteriorate,” says Joshua Schank, president of the non-partisan Eno Center for Transportation in Washington, D.C. He expects to see a state vehicle miles-traveled (VMT) tax within the next five to 10 years…

The greatest obstacle to a miles-traveled tax has been privacy concerns. When Oregon ran a pilot program six years ago, motorists’ major objection was to in-vehicle boxes used to track miles driven, says James Whitty of the Oregon Department of Transportation. “They didn’t like the government boxes. They didn’t like the GPS mandate,” he says…

In Minnesota, 500 volunteers in largely urban Hennepin and mostly rural Wright counties have been testing a system using software installed on smartphones, says Chris Krueger, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “We can collect trip info and be able to simulate what it would be like to have a mileage-based user fee,” she says.

This blog has covered this issue before here, here, and here. This is a classic case of unintended consequences: trying to improve fuel efficiency may be a good goal but it has revenue ramifications.

Several thoughts about these pilot studies:

1. If citizens say they don’t like the programs, will that matter in the long run? States still need revenue whether drivers like the method of getting that revenue or not.

2. I haven’t seen this addressed: would drivers continue to pay a gasoline tax as well as a miles-driven tax? We are a long way from even a sizeable majority of people owning electric cars. How would you balance the two taxes to insure certain levels of revenue?

3. This is somewhat tongue in cheek but would you prefer to have the government tracking you by in-vehicle GPS or your smartphone? Or in Illinois and other similar states, by your toll transponder? Remember, you may not be able to answer “none of the above.”

4. Is a vehicles miles-traveled tax something that could get a politician voted out of office? Americans do like their freedom to drive…without considering how much it costs all-around.

h/t Instapundit

Driving today is much safer than in the past

An article (“Safer Passage”) in the latest issue of Time has shows that the fatality rate from driving has dropped a lot over the years. Here is a description of the issue:

America’s roadways are safer than ever. The latest data show that traffic fatalities are at their lowest level since 1949 and that the death rate based on miles traveled is the lowest in history. But technologies such as active safety systems and advanced air bags are being offset by auto safety’s newest enemy: distracted drivers using electronic devices behind the wheel.

“We lost over 3,000 in 2010 to distraction-related crashes,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief David Strickland says. “It’s a heightened risk to the public, and it’s growing exponentially.”

Some of the statistics cited in the story:

1. In 1950, there were 7.2 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2010, the rate is 1.1. While Americans might be driving more on average today than in 1950 (I couldn’t find figures on this), the fatalities while driving has dropped nearly sevenfold.

2. Here is what causes traffic fatalities: 32% killed by drunk driving, 31% by speeding, 16% by distraction, and 11% by bad weather. It is interesting that much of the current debate about making driving safer deals with cell phones and distractions (see a recent article from the Chicago Tribune about new efforts in Illinois) while it is the third biggest threat. Perhaps policymakers could argue that getting rid of distractions if the cheapest or easier route compared to dealing with the first two issues.

3. According to this CDC report, there were 36,216 deaths in 2009 in motor vehicle accidents for a death rate of 11.8 per 100,000 Americans.

Americans seem willing to accept some risk in driving and generally welcome efforts to make cars safer. And the numbers have gone down quite a bit since 1950: driving is safer. At the same time, the fight over cell phones in cars is just heating up and we need more data to know whether cell phones are more distracting than other features found during driving (passengers, fiddling with the radio/GPS devices, talking to passengers, tiredness). In the end, this may be an odd costs-benefits tradeoff: restricting cell phone use may limit deaths but some will argue that too much is being given up (assuming that only others get in accidents while using cell phones?). Of course, one solution is to simply go to driverless cars but there are other hurdles to overcome there.