Clark Williams-Derry

Clark Williams-Derry is research director for the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a nonprofit sustainability think tank working to promote smart solutions for the Pacific Northwest. He was formerly the webmaster for Grist.

Driving reign

Years of public policy on urban design have made very little driving ‘non-essential’

A few weeks ago, President Bush encouraged Americans to conserve fuel by cutting back on non-essential driving. Unlike some, I think it's actually helpful to use the bully pulpit this way. I just don't think it's terribly meaningful: People respond far more to prices than to jawboning. And as Brookings Institution scholars Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz point out, the sprawling layout of American cities makes an awful lot of our driving "essential," for all practical purposes: [W]hat the President doesn't get when he asks Americans to curtail their "non-essential travel" is that a half-century of government policies have fueled and subsidized the growth of sprawling, haphazard metropolitan communities and have dramatically increased the amount of "essential travel" required for people to live their daily lives. Driving may not be the best option, but it is often the only option for Americans to get around. Americans venture out in their cars to find housing they can afford because housing opportunities closer-in are thwarted, while new developments on the suburban fringe are subsidized. Taking transit, biking, or walking to the corner market or to jobs located off the highway exit is neither safe nor feasible because of policies that segregate uses and cater to the car rather than the pedestrian. Federal and state policies make highways easy to build and relegate transit and other alternatives to second-class status. These policies come with a huge hidden price tag for families, in the form of higher local taxes (to pay for needed infrastructure) and the ever-rising costs of buying, driving and maintaining cars. Neil Pierce has similar thoughts in today's Seattle Times.

Gas: Still cheaper than roads, insurance, and parking

Society still subsidizes the cost of driving

An interesting article from the Washington Post finds that taking Metro -- DC's light rail system -- into downtown may not save suburban commuters all that much money. Even with gas at $3 per gallon, the savings on fuel, plus wear and tear on vehicles, are offset by increased spending on transit fares. Commuters really only start to save if they use transit often enough to ditch one of their cars; otherwise, it's a bit of a wash. It's a useful piece of analysis, as far as it goes. But the most important part is what's left out:

Starving the timber beast

Tight federal budget prevents old-growth timber sales

The Oregonian today reports on an unexpected consequence of a tight federal budget: The U.S. Forest Service doesn't have enough money to prepare timber sales in old-growth forests. From the article: [T]he administration and Congress are starving the U.S. Forest Service of money to plan sales of the big trees, and fight the inevitable appeals and lawsuits by their defenders. Forest managers say they are no longer pouring their shrinking funds into thankless conflicts they rarely win. "We can't afford expensive timber sales -- the kind where controversy is engendered," said Gary Larsen, supervisor of the Mount Hood National Forest. "We're trying to find those where people can agree on the benefits." Nifty: We can save money and old-growth in one step. How come it took so long to figure this out?

It's a gas gas gas tax

Tierney calls for a gas tax — for something other than transportation

I'm a bit late on this one -- but, wouldn't you know it, as soon as The New York Times puts its editorials behind a subscription-only wall, they publish something worth reading: semi-libertarian John Tierney waxing rhapsodic about gas taxes (sorry, the link is subscription only). To summarize, Tierney argues for a 50 cent per gallon gas tax, with all receipts used to fund private Social Security accounts. This, he says, would reduce gas consumption, pollution, congestion, and all the other costs that drivers impose on the rest of society, while enhancing retirement revenue. And if gas-tax revenues are split evenly among all citizens, the poor (who drive little) will get far more out of the deal than they put in. I'll ignore his Social Security proposal -- which isn't a real proposal, just a sketch of an idea -- except to say that I'm skeptical, but (hopefully) open-minded. But what's important to note here is this: Tierney is calling for gas taxes to be used for something other than transportation. And that seems like a really big deal to me.

SUVs kill the elderly

Really, they do

A sensationalist headline, perhaps, but it's apparently true: An article in the most recent British Medical Journal reports that SUVs pose a special risk to pedestrians, particularly over the age of 60. A few relevant facts: Pedestrians over 60 are more than four times more likely to die if injured by a car than younger people. For any given collision speed, getting hit by an SUV or light truck is nearly twice as fatal (pdf link) as getting hit by a passenger car. Studies consistently show higher rates of severe injury or death when pedestrians are struck by SUVs. Apparently, SUVs are so dangerous to pedestrians not because they're heavy, but because they're tall -- leading to more injuries of the head and abdomen, rather than the legs. The report's authors recommend labelling SUVs with warning notices that they're hazardous to pedestrians. I doubt that that would do much good -- it seems to me that many people buy SUVs precisely because they're a menace to others on the road. (It feels safer that way, you know.) More effective -- though less politically viable, perhaps -- would be changes to liability laws, possibly coupled with up-front charges to SUV buyers, that make SUV owners and manufacturers pay for the safety risks they're imposing on everyone else. (Hat tip to Eric Sorensen for the heads up.)

The English beat

The U.K. is trying a huge toll-road pilot project

Here's something definitely worth watching: The UK is considering a massive pilot project to make drivers pay to use the roads. And not just on a few select roads -- the system would effectively turn every street and highway in Great Britain into a toll road. (Here's a link -- but the article is subscription only. Sorry.) Tolls would vary based on the kind of road, the number of miles driven, and the time of day; it would cost more to use the most congested roads during rush hour, say, than an uncongested road in the middle of the night. This sort of system -- sometimes called "value pricing" -- is a much better bargain than it seems at first blush. It simultaneously cuts congestion, saves fuel, reduces accident risks, and, perhaps most importantly, relieves some of the pressure to build new roads -- an expense that only seems to grow more costly with time. As a side benefit, this sort of system would make it far easier for insurance companies to offer Pay As You Drive car insurance. That's a big benefit to people who don't drive much -- since they drive less, they'll pay less, and will stop subsidizing people who rack up both big mileage and big accident risks. The basic technology underpinning value pricing isn't far-fetched at all -- in fact, mobile Global Positioning Systems are already available as an option for new cars, as well as in some rentals, and their cost will only go down over time. The Puget Sound Regional Council has experimented for years with a small-scale value pricing scheme. That said, there are still all sorts of potential technical kinks to be worked out before the system can be adopted more widely -- which makes a big UK pilot project all the more valuable.

Smells like pimply teen spirit

I thought this Hummer-branded laptop was absurd. But apparently that was just the tip of the iceberg. See, e.g., Hummer Stuff: the complete catalog for the Hummer lifestyle, and unambigous proof of the impending end-of-days. If you want, you can even smell like a Hummer. I hear it's like catnip for the ladies. Gotta get me some before that seventh seal opens...

Time for a tax shift

Tax gas more and other stuff less

Not so long ago, it seemed like gas at $2.33 a gallon cost an arm and a leg; now it seems like a bargain. And not surprisingly, high prices at the pump have spawned a backlash against fuel taxes across the U.S. -- and have added fuel, so to speak, to the campaign to repeal Washington state's most recent gas tax hike. As a general matter, I think responding to high gas prices by rolling back taxes is misguided. The specifics get murky, of course, since a lot of the money raised by gas taxes is slated for dubious highway projects -- so a vote for higher gas taxes isn't always a vote to reduce gas consumption. But in general, gas taxes are too low, not too high: Right now, they don't even pay for roads, let alone incorporate all of the other external costs (pollution, greenhouse gases, noise, collisions, congestion, etc.) caused by driving and burning fossil fuels. A stiff & sustained gas tax would do a lot more to reduce gas consumption than all the preaching in the world.

The laptop for the Hummer lifestyle

Whatever that is

I'm not kidding: Some company is marketing a laptop computer that's "cobranded" with GM's Hummer. From the promotional material: Just as tough, reliable, and go anywhere as a HUMMER, this laptop is the perfect addition to your HUMMER lifestyle! Featuring the latest in mobile technology, it's ergonomically styled, and passes the military standard 810F test for operating temperature and vibration. And just so you know -- you can even take your Hummer laptop rock climbing with you. Just look at the pretty picture! Now that's rugged sophistication. But my big question is this: What on earth is the "Hummer lifestyle"? Perhaps it has something to do with spending absurd amounts of money on things that are ugly, unsafe, unnecessary, and ultimately unsatisfying. You know, just because you can.