Disincentives to the Automobile

A recent article by Oregon writer and radio talk-show host Jayne Carroll brings back some old memories. Carroll notes that, sometime in the 1970s, Alan Webber, an aide to then-city commissioner Neil Goldschmidt, wrote a memo titled, “Disincentives to the Automobile.”

In the early 1970s, I was a college student who had helped to found OSPIRG. In the summer of 1972, OSPIRG hired me and a dozen other summer interns, including Dick Benner and Bob Stacy (who later worked for 1000 Friends of Oregon), to work on various issues. Henry Richmond (who later founded 1000 Friends of Oregon) was OSPIRG’s staff attorney and Steve McCarthy was its executive director.

OSPIRG assigned me to work on Portland air pollution and put me in touch with Ron Buel, another Goldschmidt aide who had just written a book titled, “Dead End: The Automobile in Mass Transportation.” If I recall correctly, Buel was Goldschmidt’s chief of staff, and he spent most of his days sorting through dozens of phone messages trying to decide which ones were worth calling back.

The Clean Air Act, which Congress passed in 1970, directed all cities to clean up their air. The law also required auto makers to install catalytic converters. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was impossible to see Mt. Hood from Portland on most sunny days due to the air pollution.

Projections showed that the mandated catalytic converters alone would solve most of the air pollution problems. But this wasn’t good enough for the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency, which insisted that all cities had to write “transportation control strategies” to reduce their pollution problems.

Portland’s traffic engineering office had a simple solution. Most of Portland’s air pollution violations were downtown, where traffic was most congested. So the engineers proposed to relieve that congestion with improved traffic signal coordination that would allow cars to drive downtown at higher speeds (cars pollute less at higher speeds) and with fewer stops (stops and starts waste fuel and contribute to pollution).

While this plan was acceptable under EPA rules, the EPA had written a memo to cities urging them to do more. The EPA wanted cities to create disincentives to the auto such as parking charges and provide alternatives such as more mass transit. My mentor, Ron Buel, was interested in promoting these ideas.

Basically, Buel told me what he thought should be in an air pollution plan for Portland. I did some research to support those ideas and wrote an alternative to the city engineer’s plan. My report criticized the engineer’s plan, saying it would simply draw more traffic into downtown which would lead to more air pollution. But my alternative plan focused mainly on low-cost transit improvements — the only disincentive was to increase parking fees by 40 cents per day, which would raise enough to pay for the transit improvements.

Among the transit improvements, I suggested that TriMet contract with churches to use their parking lots, empty during most of the week, as park-and-ride stations. I also suggested that TriMet run a downtown demand-responsive bus that would respond to people’s calls, pick them up, and take them to where they wanted to go. The technology was available for this in the 1970s and San Jose even experimented with such a bus service.

TriMet at the time was building the 5th and 6th avenue bus malls and wasn’t interested in doing anything else to improve service. My ideas, though cheap, were considered an unnecessary distraction.

OSPIRG released my report in August to great fanfare. I got my first taste of fame as I was featured on Telescope — KGW’s morning television news show — and in various other news reports. Buel and Goldschmidt supported the report, of course, but the city ultimately approved the engineer’s plan. As a long-haired hippie who refused to wear a coat and tie, however, I was not the best spokesperson for these alternative ideas, so I am sure Ron Buel felt some relief when I decided to focus on forest issues in the future instead of transportation.

Later, Governor Tom McCall appointed Steve McCarthy to the board of TriMet. He realized that the other board members did not want to do anything other than complete the downtown bus mall, so he convinced McCall to fire the rest of the board. The new board appointed Steve as assistant general manager and, later, general manager of TriMet. There he implemented some of my ideas such as cheap park-and-ride stations.

Whether or not my ideas had anything to do with it, TriMet ridership boomed in the 1970s and Portland’s share of commuters who rode transit to work grew from 7 to 10 percent. After TriMet started building light rail, cost overruns forced it to cut bus service, and transit’s share declined to 7.5 percent, where it remains today.

By the time the light-rail decisions were made, I had stopped working on transportation issues. I knew that the Oregon Railroad Commission had projected that Portland could build and equip four light-rail lines for around $100 million. As it turned out, the first of those four lines ended up costing $200 million. When the region finally gets its four lines, the total cost will be more than $2 billion. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s a big cost overrun.

A fascinating paper from the Journal of Planning History, provides some insights on the decision to build light rail in Portland. The original idea for light rail came from some of Goldschmidt’s staff and other local planners. Goldschmidt wanted to cancel the proposed Mt. Hood Freeway, but he had to deal with Glen Jackson, who at the time was considered the most powerful man in Oregon and who chaired Oregon’s transportation commission as well as ran one of Oregon’s largest companies.

Jackson made it clear that he would grudgingly support canceling the freeway only if the federal funds that would have been spent on the freeway would be kept in the region. Jackson and Goldschmidt agreed to spend the freeway money expanding a parallel freeway, I-84. Part of the expansion would be for “transitways.” Goldschmidt personally thought that exclusive busways made more sense than light rail, and early projections showed that light rail cost cost more and carry fewer riders than busways. So, the city of Portland and Oregon Department of Transportation decided to take light rail off the table. It was only through some furious efforts by then-County Commissioner Don Clark and members of the TriMet planning staff that light rail was brought back into consideration.

Years later, in 2002, I ran into Goldschmidt at a conference in Colorado. Although we had met only a couple of times, he recognized me. “Disincentives to the automobile!” he said, shaking his head. “I knew that would never fly politically.”

We now know that the predictions about catalytic converters were right: they did pretty much clean up urban air pollution in most of America. We also know that Portland’s city engineer was right: traffic signal coordination is the most cost-effective thing cities can do to reduce congestion, pollution, and wasted fuel.

We know that something TriMet did during the 1970s worked, because its ridership grew much faster than the national average. It would be interesting to review TriMet records to see just what steps were most effective in improving that ridership. In any case, we know that low-cost transit improvements can do more to boost ridership than high-cost projects like light rail.

Finally, we know that disincentives to the automobile don’t work. Americans drive for 82 to 85 percent of their travel. Europeans have been paying $6 a gallon gas prices for decades and they drive for 78-79 percent of their travel. Raise the price of driving and people adjust their behavior by buying more fuel-efficient cars or relocating their work places — but they still drive.

It might be a bit unfair to blame disincentives entirely on Goldschmidt’s staff, since they were also being promoted by the EPA. I am also not entirely convinced that cancelling the Mt. Hood Freeway was the wrong thing to do, as the freeway would have done a lot of harm to southeast Portland. Portland’s suburbs needed new freeways, but the inner city did not. Instead of building light rail, however, Goldschmidt’s busway idea made a lot more sense.

The big problem with building light rail is that it created a constituency for more light rail. That constituency is not transit riders but the engineering and construction firms that build rail lines. They are the ones making the big campaign contributions that keep rail construction going and keep Portland in its misery.

Goldschmidt used to brag that Portland was the biggest small town in the country. While I only played a tiny role in Portland’s political scene in the 1970s, I did know many of the players who played leading roles, including Goldschmidt, Buel, Charlie Merton, Steve Schell, and many of the other people mentioned in the planning history article.

Share

31 thoughts on “Disincentives to the Automobile

  1. Kevyn Miller

    According to International Road Federation stats 74% of passenger km is by car, if air travel is included as a mode of travel, 82% if air travel is excluded. Both stats excluded non-motorised modes of transport.
    http://www.irfnet.eu/images/stat/2007/2007_chap6.pdf
    Stats available from the British, Dutch and Denmark governments indicate that non-vehicle modes account for approx. 35% of all trips in those countries. Assuming that the purpose of most travel is to get from A to B then the distance between A and B is irrelevant as long as the objective of making the trip is satisfied. Thus 65% of trip are made by motoized transport. If, for simplicity, we assume that each motorised trip is the same length for each mode then autos account for 75% of that 65%. Thus a little under half of Europe’s travel needs are met by autos. The US DoT probably provides sufficient info to work out the corresponding figures for the USA. An educated guess : 70%-80% of pvmt made by auto when air travel included as a mode choice. Walking and cycling probably account for 10%-25% of all trips. Thus autos meet, at most, three-quarters of American’s travel needs and possibly less than two-thirds.

    From which two recommendations can be drawn suggested.
    1) Road design should reflect the percentage of trips needs met by each mode rather than the current focus on percentage of pvmt. Walking appears to be at the biggest disadvantage from the current arrangement.
    2) Getting Americans into more sensible cars is still the second easiest and most important solution to congestion and air pollution.

  2. D4P

    Getting Americans into more sensible cars is still the second easiest and most important solution to congestion and air pollution

    Air pollution, I can understand. But how are you envisioning “more sensible cars” leading to less congestion?

  3. prk166

    Does TriMet now rent out church parking lots as part of their park-n-rides? MPLStown’s MTC does that. Always struck me as a good idea since they’re rarely used during the week. I’m not sure about Denver’s RTD. They definitely are building big parking ramps as part of their LRT system. Gotta love a transit system that has it’s foundation built on the car.

  4. BrooksImp

    Gas prices (i.e. the free market) seem to be solving a whole mess of problems this summer — from air pollution to traffic congestion and inefficient mass transit.

    Now Colorado’s RTD is considering canceling service on the G Line from Parker Road to I25.

    See http://www.9news.com/rss/article.aspx?storyid=93395

    This is light rail’s longest line, it’s virtually brand new and involved many bridges, parking structures, a lot of integrated freeway construction, and of course railroad rolling stock and infrastructure. I don’t know the accounting but my guess is it took billions of tax dollars, and now they’re considering just closing it down.

    Regional economists and transportation planners have gone into the witness protection program.

  5. Dan

    Gotta love a transit system that has it’s foundation built on the car.

    Yup.

    Welcome to land use in Murrica after WWII: single-use zones of insufficient density to support transit.

    DS

  6. D4P

    Welcome to land use in Murrica after WWII: single-use zones of insufficient density to support transit

    Massively subsidized by the federal government.

  7. BrooksImp

    Wait a tick!

    We have an Enron-scale planning failure happening in Denver and that’s it Dan? Normally you’re in there parsing out every phrase, clause and word to poke holes in the market position. I guess the facts of this debacle are a little overwhelming.

  8. rationalitate

    Catalytic converters, a good idea?? The Japanese were already developing less polluting, more efficient cars. Mandatory catalytic converters were lobbied for by American car makers, because they knew if the EPA just mandated fewer emissions, the Japanese wouldn’t have to do much to their cars, whereas the Americans would have to do a lot. But, if they mandated a specific kind of pollution-reduction device that the Japanese weren’t using, it would drive everyone’s costs up. Furthermore, the converters reduced the efficiency of engines, which meant mileage was down, which was good for the oil companies.

    By the way, your story about how road decisions are made makes me wonder how you can think that collecting user fees in a general road fund and them dolling them out by committee could ever approximate the free market allocation.

  9. D4P

    Then I guess we should expect the Antiplanner to begin criticizing road construction any day now, given that people are driving less these days.

    Oh: and maybe Jim Karlock can call planners “idiots” for building roads.

  10. BrooksImp

    Hey, fortune-telling is risky business. Those who presume to make a living off of it should be held accountable when they fail. Accountable. Look it up.

  11. Francis King

    1 – “Getting Americans into more sensible cars is still the second easiest and most important solution to congestion and air pollution.”

    It doesn’t even need small cars. It is well known that not every owner looks after their car properly. Reseaech in the UK indicated that most of the pollution is caused by a small number of cars.

    The test is to measure exhaust fumes from the cars using a road-side detector. The cars are tested when they go INTO the town or city, since their catalytic converters are hot, and it is then considered a fair test.

  12. johngalt

    Why not spend those billions waisted on other programs and just put a standing offer to buy any registered car for $1000. When cars are so old to be worth less the government can just crush them. It wont take care of those hippy progressives in their 1968 VW’s but most of the other offenders would be gone.

  13. rationalitate

    @johngalt: Your namesake would be disgusted. First of all, there’s an enormous unintended consequence to your plan: it requires energy to produce new cars. Second of all, do you only believe in the property rights of libertarians and conservatives? What about vintage car enthusiasts? And what’s the difference between someone with a car that says “historic” on the license plate and an old head with a 1968 VW Bus?

  14. johngalt

    Yes it requires energy to produce new, efficient cars. Doesn’t it require energy to build light rail lines and transit oriented condo buildings and buses?

    I’m a vintage car enthusiast but no car I would care about would sell for less than $1000.

    And nothing is wrong with a vintage VW, just the Progressive occupant wanting to legislate away other people’s pollution while spewing his own.

  15. johngalt

    Oh, and there are safety benefits of getting rid of those old K-cars, Yugos, Chevy Citations, etc with bald tires, bad brakes, and little or no insurance.

  16. rationalitate

    Yes it requires energy to produce new, efficient cars. Doesn’t it require energy to build light rail lines and transit oriented condo buildings and buses?

    As a capitalist who believes that the market’s allocation isn’t likely to impact the environment in a huge way but government allocation is (and does), I don’t think that environmental policy deserves a place in the decision-making process. (The reason is that using energy is expensive, so private entities are wont to conserve it. Governments, on the other hand, have no such incentives.) So, if it were up to me, I’d abandon all public property to whoever can secure it first and abandon any attempt by any level of government to regulate land use, with the result being that all the productive inputs would lie in the hands of profit-seeking individuals. If they build a light-rail line with Manhattan-esque density developments surrounding it, that’s the most efficient use. If they build 32-lane highways and populate it with SUVs, that’s the most efficient use. This utilitarian approach to government that you’re pushing isn’t very befitting of a John Galt.

    …however, I’m more than happy to use the environmental disaster that government planning causes to argue against government planning. But just proving that something is more environmentally friendly than another isn’t enough for me to believe that you ought to force that on others.

  17. rationalitate

    Oh, and there are safety benefits of getting rid of those old K-cars, Yugos, Chevy Citations, etc with bald tires, bad brakes, and little or no insurance.

    Uh, if someone didn’t have insurance, wouldn’t that make them more likely to drive safely, since they’ll have to incur the full cost of the damage? Furthermore, how many people make driving decisions based on the value of their car rather than the value of their life?

  18. Ettinger

    Rationalitate. About catalytic converters…
    If the EPA mandated a specific technological solution (catalytic converters) to cut emissions that is unfortunate. But how did the Europeans also end up adopting the catalytic converters they seem to be using these days? And, of course, what about Japan? Do they still use the presumably more successful alternative technology that you mentioned?

  19. Pingback: American Dream News » When Planners Attack!

  20. JimKarlock

    D4P said: Oh: and maybe Jim Karlock can call planners “idiots” for building roads.
    JK: No! Planners are idiots because they think that they know better than the people they are trying to dictate to, how those people want to live. Some would also say that they are arrogant fools and wannabe two bit dictators who would be very happy joining the fascists. Of course, I just think they are wrong most of the time and have never happened to notice it, so they keep trying to force the same failed solutions on people time after time.

    BTW, how many of the gung-ho planners that infest this forum have noticed that Perfectly Planned Portland’s grand plans are starting to unravel:

    bojack.org/2008/06/wheels_coming_off_in_sowhat.html

    And don’t miss our shortage of school funds because over $50 million is taken from property taxes every year to support Perfectly Planned Portland’s Putrid Planners:

    bojack.org/2008/06/school_board_to_city_waaaaaahh.html

    SavePortland.com

    Thanks
    JK

  21. Kevyn Miller

    D4P asked “Is it considered a “planning failure” when people use roads less often (because of gas price increases)?” Only if you also consider it a planning failure when people buy houses less often (because of a mortgage crisis). Has the small decrease in road use in the last few months led to an over supply of road capacity? If not then there has not yet been a planning failure.

  22. johngalt

    “Uh, if someone didn’t have insurance, wouldn’t that make them more likely to drive safely, since they’ll have to incur the full cost of the damage? Furthermore, how many people make driving decisions based on the value of their car rather than the value of their life?”

    You would think so but people who buy $300 cars probably don’t have the extra cash for insurance and are willing to take risks with their life (by virtue of driving an unsafe car that might break at any moment).

    Studies in the UK show that uninsured drivers are:
    · 3 times more likely to have been convicted of careless driving
    · 6 times more likely to have been convicted of driving an unroadworthy vehicle
    · 10 times more likely to have been convicted of driving while under the influence of illegal substances [

  23. Kevyn Miller

    D4P “…how are you envisioning “more sensible cars” leading to less congestion?”

    I am envisioning that “more sensible cars”, eg Honda CRX/Civic or Accord, are much shorter than Explorers or Fairlanes therefore less queue space is required at intersections, with a consequent abbreviation of the green light start-up delay. How many feet will an average car travel from a standing start till it reaches cruising speed for that road, and in how many seconds? The number of cars that queue in that many feet determines the number of cars that will make it into the intersection during those first seconds of the green light. Depending on the timing of the lights this can make a huge difference to intersection carrying capacity.

    It can even make a noticeable difference on freeways. As congestion worsens and speeds decrease so too does the amount of headway drivers are comfortable with. Consequently at very low speeds the length of the vehicles becomes a significant factor in determining lane capacity. At least it’s statistically significant, in reality even if the average car is 1/3 shorter the capacity increase is unlikely to be more than 10%.

  24. sustainibertarian

    “JK: No! Planners are idiots because they think that they know better than the people they are trying to dictate to, how those people want to live. Some would also say that they are arrogant fools and wannabe two bit dictators who would be very happy joining the fascists. Of course, I just think they are wrong most of the time and have never happened to notice it, so they keep trying to force the same failed solutions on people time after time.”

    Welcome to the daily ad hominem folks.

  25. Kevyn Miller

    “Furthermore, how many people make driving decisions based on the value of their car rather than the value of their life?”

    Most. People instinctively realise what the FARS and GES databases reveal. There is one driver killed for every 1500 involved in fender-benders. Add to that the fact that losing money is more real to most people than losing their lives. They have probably experienced the former a few times already, that latter is something they prefer not to think about.

Leave a Reply