Live From Seattle, Part 2: Transportation and the Future of Mobility

The 7th Annual American Dream Conference started out with its usual high powered plenary session that includes leading thinkers and policy analysis on market-oriented approaches to public policy. The first session focused on transportation issues.

Steve Marshall of the Cascadia Policy Center at the Discovery Institute started the session with a presentation “Beyond Oil: Personal Mobility in the 21st Century.” Steve is a member of Washington States Climate Advisory Committee Transportation Group and a key author of the group’s recommendations on alternative fuels and congestion pricing. Steve started out by citing the first line in the book Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future: Oil is the problem, cars on the solution. The point was that technology is racing to find a substitute for oil to preserve the moblity of the automobile. Moreover, these substitutes are not only increasingly viable, but they will be the most effective way to directly address green house gas issues.

Alan Pisarski, author of Commuting in America III (Transportation Research Board) and a leading national transportation consultant, provided an overview of the current status of transportation reauthorization. He was skeptical of Congress’s ability to finish with reauthorization this year, and predicted that the main effort will be on using transportation policy to reduce vehicle miles traveled (mobility) to address green house gas emissions. This may be a coordinated effort between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. DOT. The real challenge for the current secretary, Alan said, will be convincing the Obama Administration to take transportation seriously. Part of this is also making the case the transportation spending is not a pure cost, but generates benefits that reflect long-term benefits.

John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, argued that the mechanism you choose to finance transportation matters. A user fee is the best mechanism for financing roads because it means the beneficiaries pay for the costs. Oregon, for example, has a “weight mile tax” for commercial trucks which is well designed better because it more closely associates with fees with the actual factors that impact road wear–weight and the amount of road used. VMT taxes extend the user fee concepts and have the benefit of more effectively addressing congestion to achieve free flow (and higher travel speeds). Interestingly, Charles noted that low income people that are transit dependent become the biggest winners of congestion pricing through a VMT tax because the free flow speeds improve the reliability of buses.

Randal O’Toole, currently of the Cato Institute, reviewed provocative new developments in driverless car technology and how this would revolutionize mobility and improve environmental outcomes. Historically, Randal noted that traditional public transit–street cars, intercity rail, air–was transportation for the wealthy. The automobile was the first technology that democratized travel and mobility. Per capita travel increase dfrom a few hundred per person in 1900 to more than 17,000 in 2000. But, we are relying on a 50 year old transportation system and people are advocating moving to an 80-year old transportation system. The 21st century transportation technology that will really improve mobility for the masses will be driverless (automated) cars (and buses) and automated highways. Benefits include: quadrupling the capacity of roads, increased speeds (by eliminating driver error), higher roadway safety, better environmental performance than transit (including high speed rail).

More on Reason Foundation’s transportation policy work can be found here.