In yesterday’s story about Utah’s burgeoning transit use, Salt Lake City spokesman Art Raymond mentioned the new, very cheap transit pass. The idea is that the pass is supposed to be an incentive for new bus and train riders. It’s a "carrot," or a reward that doesn’t penalize anyone for desired behavior.
But the idea raises important questions: can cities really achieve their transit dreams entirely with "carrots?" Or, do they need to use more "sticks" — policies that actually make behaviors like driving more painful?
Emily Badge recently tackled this topic in The Atlantic Cities, arguing that to really see major shifts away from cars and toward transit, cities have to make driving harder.
"We can incentivize transit by making [biking, carpooling, walking, or transit] more attractive," Badger writes. "Or we can disincentivize driving by making it less so. What’s become increasingly apparent in the United States is that we’ll only get so far playing to the first strategy without incorporating the second."
Somewhat surprisingly, leaders in Salt Lake City agree and would like to see more "sticks" along the Wasatch Front. Raymond told me that in particular, the city would like "the cost of gasoline at the pump to reflect more appropriately the cost of" driving. He explained that in the past — including when Mayor Ralph Becker was a state lawmaker — the gas tax used to cover Utah’s transportation budget.
Today, however, Utah hasn’t raised its gas tax in 17 years, which means it falls hundreds of millions of dollars short of actually covering the transportation budget, Raymond said. To make up the difference, the state and local governments use sales and property taxes* — something critics argue means road users don’t actually pay for what they’re using. Lawmakers flirted with the idea of raising the gas tax this year, but killed the idea this week.
In any case, Raymond described gas prices as a potentially useful and needed "stick" that by reflecting the actual costs of driving could result in more transit riders, cleaner air and better cities.
Badger offered several other possible "sticks" that would help:
• Reducing parking availability.
• Raising parking rates.
• Congestion pricing, which means charging drivers more money to use roads that are in high demand.
• Ending subsidies for highways and parking garages.
• Tying car insurance rates to how much people drive.
Badger writes that these ideas are rarely implemented, but if cities want to see real change, they may be necessary.
* This story originally stated the state uses property taxes to fund transportation. In fact, it’s counties that use property taxes while the state uses sales tax.
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