Driving Change

By Ashley Smith, NYU Rudin Center graduate research assistant

Transportation policy in the United States has favored the automobile since it became affordable to middle-class Americans. In recent decades, however, the costs of mass automobile usage have been getting more attention bringing the sustainability of current US policies into question. While alternative modes are widely touted as solutions, changing commuter behavior is very difficult.

As an urban planning student at a policy-based school, I immediately gravitate toward discussion of how policy incentives or disincentives have been or could be used to drive commuters away from driving to work. In exploring the subject, I recently re-read an article entitled "America’s Cities Are Still Too Afraid to Make Driving Unappealing" in CityLab's 2014 eBook The Future of Transportation. This article discusses a perceived need for policy disincentives to driving in the US. The author points out that policymakers have a lot to gain by implementing strong disincentives, or “stick” policies, in dense areas with more robust transit alternatives. However, policy incentives, or “carrot” approaches, that aim to attract commuters to alternative modes enjoy greater success in these areas as well. How important then is the type of policy implements versus the environment in which that policy is instituted?

What further complicates the discussion is that driving disincentives could have harmful effects, especially on low-income commuters in areas that lack sufficient transit access. In too many places in the US, alternative modes are either not present or so sparse as to not be viable for most commuters--thank you, suburban sprawl. And, in these sprawling communities, policy changes that strongly disincentivize driving after decades of subsidization would almost certainly have severe negative repercussions. While it is easy to theorize about the effects that raising licensing fees for driving or taxes on gasoline, for example, have on an individual’s mode choice, it is much more difficult to theorize about the effects that these policies could have on economic growth and equity in mobility. How and where would they be best implemented to arrive at a practicable or enforceable policy?

Take, for example, a “stick” approach tying some portion of driving fees or insurance to the distance an individual drives. A policy like this would be incredibly difficult to implement. Would the policy only be put in place for residents of urban or suburban areas? And, how would boundaries for such a policy be determined? These questions draw attention to a serious difficulty with a policy that limits or puts a price on an individual’s mobility. The individual can drive as many miles they are willing or able to pay for. While there are already plenty of costs associated with mobility, instituting new policies like that one would place a disproportionately heavy burden on low-income commuters. Not all stick policies are so difficult to see implemented. Congestion pricing, on the other hand, is a much easier policy to define and one with successful precedents to follow.

Ultimately, while hard disincentives to driving may seem like an obvious means for changing commuter behavior, current policy approaches that incentivize alternative modes feel safer and are more palatable for good reasons. I especially think that policies that support and promote educational programs that teach children and adults alike how to use and enjoy public transit and cycling have greater benefits in the long run because they promote a grassroots and cultural change in American mobility that is less likely to have severe negative effects in the short run.