Where The Rubber Meets The Road

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know my rather strong views on private automobiles. carhateBluntly, I can’t stand them. I fucking loathe them, in fact. At my most vituperative, I see them as the root cause of all that’s blighted cities and social connectivity since World War II.

Yes, I can be unreasonable on this particular issue.

My car-hatred is much more nuanced than that, hopefully at least. I’ve had some of my greatest travel moments on road trips, seen stuff I’d probably never have the time to see otherwise. In fact, I came across this little gem over the Thanksgiving weekend just north of the shores of Lake Erie. Never would’ve happened without being behind the wheel of a car.

But as a form of commuting on a daily basis? And designing and building cities around that form of transportation? An unmitigated disaster in terms of, not only liveability, but pressures it puts on the public purse.

You see, the conventional wisdom holds that to build, maintain and operate the road network needed to accommodate private vehicle use costs much more than the revenue brought in by users of that system. In short, we subsidize lifestyles based around car use. roadtripThose dependent on their vehicles to get around aren’t paying their fair share.

Of course, by ‘conventional wisdom’, I mean people like me who are trying to imagine a post-car city which is not a city without cars but one where they’re down the hierarchy of how people get from point A to point B. Those who don’t necessarily share my views may see things another way. They will point to all the money they hand over to operate their vehicles. Gas taxes. Licensing and registration fees. Insurance. Parking. Parking tickets.

The problem is, there’s not enough actual data to point to in order to settle the argument and, more importantly, set good public policy. There are dribs and drabs, fragmentary information here and there that only really ever seem to back up one’s particular point of view. That’s what makes the Conference Board of Canada’s report, Where the Rubber Meets the Road: How Much Motorists Pay For Road Infrastructure, so important.

It starts to put some meat on the bones of this debate.notenoughinformation

Now whether or not it’s grade A, prime cut meat, that’s for another day. I haven’t read the report thoroughly enough to pass judgement on the methodology (and not entirely sure I could even if I wanted to). I’m just so happy it’s out there, ready to be talked about.

A couple things jumped out at me.

“The report finds that road users in Ontario cover a significant portion of road infrastructure costs…”

To my mind, ‘a significant portion’ is not the full portion. So that the costs associated with building and maintaining our road networks are more than the revenues generated from those using the networks. In other words, drivers are being subsidized.

“…  and that cost recovery [revenues through taxes, fees and fines etc.] in the GTHA is higher than it is for the province as a whole.”

As Tess Kalinowski writes in the Toronto Star, “… Toronto-area drivers paid about $3.7 billion in fuel excise taxes, licensing fees, fines and other expenses, wimpycompared with $2.7 billion that governments spent on building, policing and maintaining the region’s roads” while in Ontario as a whole, “…drivers generate about $7.7 billion in revenue and the province and municipalities spend between $10 billion and $13 billion on roads.”

That suggests while drivers in the GTHA are more than covering the costs of roads they use, they’re subsidizing drivers in the rest of Ontario for their roads. In other words, we’re being short-changed here. Leading to this future exchange when Metrolinx starts talking about revenue tools for the Big Move: Why should I be paying for transit in Toronto? I don’t know. Why is Toronto paying for your roads in Petawawa?

Again, let me repeat, these are all numbers that haven’t been widely vetted and in no way should be treated as set in stone. The conversation has just begun.

For me though, the real eye-opening number in the report is the cost of owning a vehicle. Over $10, 000 per household in 2011. That is a whole whack of cash and highlights why many drivers honestly believe they are more than paying their way. How couldn’t they be? 10K a year! And now we want more from them?

It’s not enough to just respond with a shrug and say, If you don’t like it. Get rid of your car. This entire region outside of a small portion of the downtown core has been built on the promise that you can get to wherever it is you want to go, cheaply and quickly, in the comfort of your own private vehicle. roadrage3Maybe that was once true. Turns out not to be the case anymore.

We have to offer better alternatives before demanding everybody leave their cars behind. We can only do that if we honestly start calculating the full costs of how we get around this city, this region, this province. I suspect Where the Rubber Meets the Road doesn’t do that to everyone’s satisfaction but it’s a start. That’s what every journey begins with, right? A start.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr

4 Responses to Where The Rubber Meets The Road

  1. Ron Wheeler says:

    I gave up driving in 2006. At that time I was paying 1550.\yr for insurance, 1.30\l, and an additional 3k for maintenance. I gave up driving and rented out my parking stall instead. That stall is a net positive of 1800.\year and of course the savings on insurance+gas+maintenance is an INCREASE in my disposable income of 8700.00 per year. Caveat…I’m retired so I rarely used my vehicle anyways and I live in a downtown condo.

    It’s estimated that 40% of downtown dwellers walk to\from work and spend the majority of their time downtown…hmmmm…I wonder if THAT’s why the downtown is filling with highrise developments…?

  2. Sol says:

    A thoughtful post. One nit to pick, though: let’s not forget that “road users” include cyclists, pedestrians, and users of public transit, not just operators of private automobiles.

    That said, “dump your car if you don’t like it” seems like a perfectly rational response to me. Let The Market Decide, sez I.

  3. Not sure if you’ve read this, and I know it’s a little off topic, but it’s been a source of discussion for myself and some bike riders I know, curious to hear what you think: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/okay-fine-its-war/Content?oid=9937449

    PS I wasn’t sure how to send you a private message. Hope you don’t mind the link.

  4. Ron Wm. Hurlbut says:

    Nearly 50 yrs old and I’ve never gotten a drivers license. Transit and Taxis take care of my commuting needs. That and a whole lot of patience ’cause it takes a little longer to get around, but what’s the rush?

    We need more subsidy to rail travel and developing of High Speed Rail.

    And less frontier mentality, like we’re all pioneers and have to have our own horse to get to town….

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