I've been dreading writing this one because I fear it will be viewed as some sort of "War on Drivers" kind of thing. I'm frequently a driver these days, so I certainly don't want to declare war on myself. But, to be frank, if we're going to get more cyclists we're going to have to have fewer of something else (or more total trips - it is true that bike sharing systems create trips where people would have just stayed at home, but that is really a niche). The best place, from a social cost standpoint to get cyclists from is the current pool of drivers. One way to do that, without it being some sort of "war on drivers," is to properly price the cost of driving, which would encourage some fence sitters to save money by biking, walking, taking metro, etc...There are several ways we subsidize driving that could be addressed.
The gas tax: The federal gas tax has been stuck at 18.4 cents per gallon since 1993. With inflation that means we've been cutting the tax every year. The Federal Highway Trust Fund, which gets ~2/3rds of its revenue from the gas tax, has recently been running at a deficit, and our roads have billions of dollars of deferred maintenance. Just indexing the current tax to inflation would go a long way toward solving the problem, but if we want the gas tax to continue to fill the gap in the FHTF, it will probably need to be increased. On the one hand, 81% of people say they'd pay more taxes to repair and upgrade our infrastructure, but almost the same percentage said they'd oppose an increase to the gas tax. So that's a mixed message.
Furthermore, you could make a case that the tax should be increased to cover the environmental costs of mining, shipping, refining and burning gasoline. Some have even argued that the gas tax is a fair way to pay for the Iraq war. An analysis done in 1998 showed that to capture the full cost of gasoline, the tax would need to be raised by several dollars per gallon. That is probably too extreme for most people.
Personally I'd like to see us move to a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax to cover the costs of roads and infrastructure, with a multiplier for car weight; and a gas tax to cover some clean air, clean water and alternative fuel initiatives. But that is probably not going to happen.
Carbon tax/cap - This might seem like the same thing as a gas tax, but it would also put a price - though to a far lesser extent - on driving an electric car, since much of our electricity is from coal. CO2 is a major cause of global warming, burning fossil fuels is a major cause of CO2, and driving is a major source of burned fossil fuels. Drivers are not asked to pay for the economic impact of this process, making them a free rider. It is not unfair to ask them to cover this cost. Unfortunately, the best chance for pricing carbon in the near future probably died with the Democratic supermajority and so I'd be surprised if there were a tax on CO2 production anytime in the two years. There is some hope though. Matt Yglesias recently wrote that instituting a carbon tax would be very similar to a proposed VAT tax, but with the advantage of combating global warming. Maybe that will happen if the tax code gets dramatically rewritten to deal with the deficit. Either way, putting a price on carbon would further price the social costs of driving, and in so doing incentivize more people to bike.
Congestion pricing - The number one cause of congestion, I like to say, is too many people driving. London instituted a congestion charge zone in 2003. While it's clear cycling increased in London during the period of congestion charging, it also increased everywhere else in the world. So how much the congestion charge contributed is hard to say. But some of the money raised by the congestion charge was invested in cycling infrastructure and it stands to reason that if driving into downtown were made more expensive, then biking would be more appealing. And the hope is that the total savings in time, pollution, safety etc..for people in the area in general would compensate for the reduction in convenience for those who decided not to pay to enter the zone. The London system has been effective in reducing pollution and collisions, improving the flow of traffic and raising money for transit, walking and biking. There is every reason to think it would do the same in DC.
Parking - The final way that we underprice driving is with nearly free parking. My parking permit cost me $15. For that I can park on a District-owned road in front of my house every single day. That is a bargain. My neighbors rent a space to zipcar for several hundred dollars a year. Metro charges $200 to rent a bike locker - and I can park almost anywhere within my ward for free. There is already a proposal to double the cost of a residential parking permit, which seems like a pretty reasonable step. And I like Topher Matthews' idea to charge even more for second, third, etc... cars. We should also pursues goals that reduce the amount of free parking that is created by instituting more performance parking programs, better zoning with respect to parking (no minimums and more reasonable rules), or even ending the practice of treating parking at work as an untaxed fringe benefit.
None of these ideas are meant to pick on drivers. These are not attempts to throw barriers up and punish anyone. The goal is only to accurately price the cost of driving. In fact, the congestion charge and performance parking should make driving better - even as it becomes more expensive. In other words, drivers will get something for their money.
Finally there are those who will make a fairness argument. That cyclists should also pay for the roads and parking that they use. I'd first note that we already do. But if somehow gasoline/VMT taxes were raised to fully cover all the costs associated with driving and that were no longer true, I'd still argue that we don't need, or even want, things to be fair. We want fewer people to drive. VMT reduction is a goal of almost every government body in America. We want more people to walk and bike for health reasons. We want fewer people to drive for safety reasons. We want to burn less gasoline for national security, environmental and economic reasons. So with all of these reasons to favor biking over driving, it's OK that things be "unfair." In fact, making things fair is in exact contradiction to our goals. We charge people a great deal to partake in the hobby of smoking. More than we do for the hobby of running. Is that unfair? Most people don't think so, because we want fewer people to smoke. We also want people to drive less, so it's OK - reasonable even - to tax that activity more.
Raising the cost of driving would certainly do a great deal to increase the number of miles bicycled - while achieving larger goals as well. Some increases are absolutely necessary and others would make sense.
photo by Will Cheyney