Making fair improvements

Traffic in NYCUrban-planning professor Lance Freeman mixes social policy and green policy in a short essay at Planetizen on charging congestion tolls on busy roads:

Congestion pricing is a regressive public charge… because the charges in no way take account of the driver’s ability to pay. Congestion pricing might lead to a two tiered road network where with those with the means cruise about whenever and wherever they want, whereas the poor might be forced to take back roads or travel off peak.

But charging people on other transits modes is common and also regressive. Airlines and commuter rail lines typically charge higher price during peak travel times. Why should equity concerns be allowed to derail a strategy that could go along way toward reliving traffic congestion?

Well unlike airline travel, driving is a lot less discretionary for most folks. Most of us simply have to drive to get to work, to shop, etc. Congestion pricing would presumably push off the road those who don’t have to be there. But what about those who have to drive on certain routes at certain times? Congestion pricing would be a real burden for poorer folks in these who lack flexibility in choosing their driving times and routes.

This is true in that making just about anything cost more does disproportionately hurt the poor. Everything does. That’s the big problem with being poor.

But Freeman, I say with respect, makes the common mistake of saying that driving isn’t optional. That’s the assumption built into the phrase “Most of us simply have to drive…”. It’s not so; we hear a lot about people’s helplessness to control their own lives in this way when gas prices seem high, and that’s bad enough. (Update: Consider this NDP news release, in which MP Peter Julian also pretends that a world-traded commodity like gasoline is the same as Canada’s cable and telephone monopolies.)

Where you live and how you choose to get around are not immutable conditions like race or sex, nor even conditions as sticky as economic class can be. Even poor people have choices — to live in a smaller but more central apartment (or one closer to work) rather than in a larger dwelling farther away; to spend an hour walking and taking buses rather than half an hour driving; indeed, to take an underused back road rather than a crowded major artery, which I, at least, don’t consider any more significant a problem than driving an old Focus instead of a new Lexus. These choices aren’t easy, and of course they’re even harder when your resources are limited, but just about anybody can make choice to insulate him- or herself from the costs of driving on some level.

I can see the argument for trying to treat every single person equally and equitably when we’re trying to set new and more restrictive environmental policies. And yet the kinds I favour, in particular, tend to involve attaching costs to things that have hitherto been “free,” which inevitably means that the poor will get hit first and harder. I can’t see any other way to get done what we have to get done. For what it’s worth, if you read the whole of Freeman’s piece, neither can he.

Photo credit: Flickr/Pro-Zak

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