Friday 24 January 2014

Should cities penalise driving to boost cycling rates?

Summary: If a city could achieve high transport cycling rates by making driving expensive, slow, inconvenient and unenjoyable should it do so? Perhaps cycling in a Copenhagen winter is not really desirable, but if owning, driving and parking a car in the city is much more expensive and difficult then it is just the best available option. In this post, I argue that not all driving penalties or constraints are fair or desirable, and maximising cycling rates isn't actually a justifiable, primary aim of transport policy.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by James Cridland

1. While Copenhagen may penalise driving considerably the Netherlands doesn't seem to
- The taxes on car ownership in Denmark are massive, starting with an 180% sales tax. Yet it has previously been disputed by Mikael Colville-Andersen that this is a significant factor in Danes choosing to cycle rather than drive. See: Danish 180% Tax on Cars is Rather Irrelevant. However, Mikael's position appears to have changed recently:
"If you want to encourage cycling and public transport, make driving a pain in the ass. It is the only way forward and the only way we know to get motorists to change their behaviour."
"It's all so easy if you want it to be.
Don't promote helmets.
Make driving difficult, complicated, expensive."
Copenhagen - Is Cycling Up or Down or What?
- In Copenhagen, parking, route directness and convenience for driving has been deliberately made worse as part of its aim of reducing driving. This is nicely encapsulated in Copenhagenize's illustration:

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  Mikael Colville-Andersen 

- However, the Netherlands has taken a different approach and primarily focused on making utility cycling as advantageous and appealing as it can. David Hembrow convincingly argues that the Dutch choose to cycle even though most can afford to drive and have access to cars. He also explains that driving hasn't been artificially made very expensive, inconvenient or impractical. Information on the relative incentives and difficulties for driving vs cycling in the Netherlands is collated on his blog here: A view from the cycle path: NL is not anti-car

- A beautiful illustration of the advantageous and appealing reasons why cycling is so popular in the Netherlands by choice is captured in the photos in his post: Discover what works to encourage mass cycling - building on genuine success is the path to progress. The safety, efficiency, convenience and pleasure of getting around by bike in the Netherlands has to be seen to be believed.

2. It IS fair to penalise driving if there are direct, negative, externalised costs
- For example, in many countries the externalised pollution from cars has significant health impacts on all residents. It is totally justified to penalise and constrain driving in such cities so as to bring the pollution levels down to acceptable levels - but in a way that targets vehicles by how polluting they are.

3. Where drivers contribute very differently to externalised costs they should be penalised differently
- The overall deaths and injuries caused by motorists is often given as a reason why driving in cities should be discouraged by measures like high taxes. But these penalties and restrictions can be targeted much better via insurance premiums and infringement penalties (high fines or licence suspensions for speeding or dangerous driving). A heavy tax on car ownership or fuel is not a fair method.

4. Maximising cycling rates or minimising driving rates aren't obviously justifiable government policies
- If they were and truly had popular support, it would be simple to implement tax changes that made cars impossible to afford for all except the super rich or to ban private, single-occupant cars from the inner city during business hours. Cycling rates would shoot up even without any other changes but via coercion not by better meeting people's needs and desires.

- Instead, justifiable policy should actually concentrate on improving outcomes (destination access, efficiency, utility, safety) for everyone without favouring one group's preferences over another. See: Abundant Access. For instance, cycling policy should be aimed at making cycling a safe, affordable and convenient transport alternative wherever feasible. Only because cars currently monopolise cities does that mean car lanes, parking spaces and some speed limits may have to be reduced; this is a totally fair re-balancing. Untargeted measures like high taxes on car ownership are not fair, particularly to those on low incomes or whose circumstances (e.g. age, mobility, distance) make cars much more necessary.

- When it comes to the externalised costs of driving (pollution, accidents, congestion) these should be handled in targeted ways that seek to fairly shift these costs back to the drivers who cause them. This should have nothing to do with promoting cycling instead.

5. Once modal (driving vs public transport vs cycling vs walking) equity is restored and externalised costs reduced and recovered, let people's preferences determine cycling rates
- In the northern inner city suburbs of Melbourne (Carlton, Fitzroy, etc), almost all adults who wish to cycle for transport could do so for at least some of their trips (shops, cafes, work, etc.). Yet the cycling rates in these suburbs are only around 10% of trips.

- Car ownership/usage taxes and additional parking constraints could be introduced to inhibit car usage and boost cycling rates but many of the people forced to switch would still actually prefer to drive. While it may be difficult for some cycling advocates to understand, many people just love driving (even in traffic) and love their cars. Even when they try cycling, they simply don't get the same satisfaction from it.

- Even when cycling is much cheaper, faster and more convenient, some people may willingly accept those sacrifices because they just prefer driving. If they aren't harming anyone else or being subsidised, it is a perfectly legitimate choice.

6. Citizens can decide democratically on making their cities more liveable for everyone
- Smart, targeted measures (e.g. limited/expensive city parking and congestion charges) can contribute to more liveable city centres which are dominated by pedestrians and cyclists. This is likely to have popular support when the benefits are experienced and considered thoughtfully.

- However, people have different preferences and values and society's that make steady progress in enabling everyone to satisfy these preferences without causing harm to others work better than ones in which the current group with power and influence imposes their preferences on others. The latter approach is not sustainable and often leads to subsequent regression or paralysis.

7. Penalising driving to boost cycling rates avoids the hard work and continuous investment and improvement required to make cycling and walking better
- Creating genuinely more liveable cities requires hard, sustained changes that are propelled by a virtuous cycle of delivering real improvements and capturing popular support and participation. Though it is much easier just to re-engineer choices in the short-term through penalties, this temptation should be resisted as it doesn't effectively contribute to better, fairer, sustainable outcomes for all city residents.

-  It's easier to switch some people over to cycling, walking and public transport by simply making owning, using and parking a car more expensive, slower, inconvenient and unpleasant. But that isn't real transport progress. Cycling should be safe, convenient, reliable and fast enough to be a desirable means of getting around even when driving doesn't suck.

8. In some circumstances, driving is the best option and harms no-one so its advantages should be preserved
- Actually improving cycling, walking and public transport as options for those people, locations and trips where it most makese sense enables driving to be an effective mode for those who really need it or benefit the most - due to disability, distance or other circumstances. Crippling the efficacy of driving for everyone as a goal in itself simply hurts those people who really rely on it for transport freedom.

9. Concentrating on improving cycling without crippling or denigrating the alternatives reduces resentfulness and builds wider support
- Motorists are rightfully suspicious of changes that are designed purely to penalise driving and not just recover costs. Much of the resentment and hostility some motorists show toward cyclists is based in a defensive mindset.

- Those who depend on or prefer public transport may also be more supportive of cycling infrastructure if their mode choice wasn't occasionally disparaged as inferior. This was highlighted recently on the excellent comic blog Bikeyface:

Bikeyface - Everybody get a bike

Jason Tanzman advised in the comments:
"I normally love your drawings and messages. But I am definitely not a big fan of comics that dis on public transit and sexual harassment. I mean come on! I love bicycling. And I love buses and trains. In the same way we need to work hard to make bicycling safe, we need advocacy and security to make public transit safe. How would we as bikers feel if a bus/train company or advocacy group ran an ad/image of a person comfortable on a bus watching a biker out in the rain get dangerously cut off by a car and the tagline saying “Sure is nice to not have to bike anymore.”

Further Info:
- A view from the cycle path (David Hembrow)

- Copenhagenize: The Greatest Urban Experiment Right Now