Saturday, September 19, 2015

Reverse tolls for bikes

Bikes have many advantages over cars; they are:

  • Better for the environment
  • Better for your physical health
  • Better for your mental health
  • Better for your wallet

Yet while commuting by bike is growing in the US, it still represents only 1% of all total commutes. Why do cars dominate? They are so widespread mostly because of an almost total lack of taxation on market externalities (and non-existant regulation at dawn of the 20th century. For more on that read, "Crabgrass Frontier", though be warned it can be incredibly depressing). While of course some state and federal taxes exist, they come nowhere near the actual cost of cars (which, let's not forget, might be the main cause of the destruction of the Earth as we know it if the worst-case scenarios for global warming come to pass).

Electric cars are sometimes seen as a remedy, but this is unlikely since they are plugged into a grid that is majority coal and natural gas (which, because of fracking, is as bad for the environment as coal).

A clean grid might help, but clean fuels are unlikely ever to cover the current total usage. Furthermore there is the immense construction costs of the cars (and infrastructure). Finally, because of Jevons paradox, it is likely that any increase in efficiency in self-driving cars will be offset by an increase in use.

The only efficient solution is to reduce use, which we can do with bikes (along with all of the other benefits noted above).

So how do we get more people to ride bikes? A recent episode of Real Sports on HBO documented the rise of a biking culture in Copenhagen. The solutions there, building out more infrastructure key among them, are certainly worth considering. On the other hand, many startups in the US try to encourage good behavior by giving people stars or ratings or other extrinsic motivators. I think those are mostly childish nonsense. Give people cash. Increase taxes on cars (slightly, so there aren't riots in the streets) and apply a reverse toll for bikers (pass a certain point on your bike twice a day during commute hours and you get a check).

It turns out that a Norwegian town tried this out, but only very briefly. To make it really work you need widespread sensor/reader deployments (funded by the aforementioned auto tax hike).

It's not much, but the only way to avoid utterly destroying the planet is to reduce consumption.

Update: The VW scandal provides more evidence that cars are never likely to be truly eco-friendly.

Update 2: Good job, Google.