How We Roll, April 7: cost of driving in California about to go up but will people drive less?

ICYMI: Excavation of the twin tunnels under Crenshaw Boulevard was completed Thursday morning. The project is forecast to open in fall 2019.

ICYMI 2: And work continues at the future Grand Av Arts/Bunker Hill station in DTLA to prepare the station for the arrival of the tunnel boring machine digging the Regional Connector project. Check out these pics.

Art of Transit: 

The Gold Line passes a field of goldfields at Los Angeles State Historic Park on Thursday. The park opens on April 22, which also happens to be Earth Day, and is a very short stroll from the Gold Line’s Chinatown Station. More soon on the park, which is absolutely first class. Photo by Steve Hymon/Metro.

Art of Walking:

Speaking of state parks and wildflowers, here’s what it looked like at the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve last Friday. Photo courtesy Steve Hymon.

Gas tax increase to pay for road repair clears Legislature (Sacramento Bee) 

California Legislatures votes to raise gas tax, vehicle fees by $5.2 billion a year for road repairs, transit (LAT)

Contrasting pair of online headlines, eh?

The 12-cents-a-gallon gas tax increase and the new vehicle registration fees — based on the value of your car — will go mostly toward road projects around the state. Transit will get $7 billion in the first decade of the new fees, which will also supply some money toward walking and biking projects.

The Bee article has a calculator to determine how much more you might pay. Looks like I better put a few bills aside. The gas tax hike goes into effect on Nov. 1 and vehicle reg fees go up Jan. 1.

As would be expected, this was a hard political lift. The bill passed the Assembly and Senate with not a single vote to spare. Republicans didn’t go along and some Dems hedged, pointing to the impact on constituents whose money is already stretched thin. Gov. Jerry Brown, who is 79, pushed hard for the bill, noting that he’s on his way out of elected office and could afford to support this. Whereas his successor (to be determined in Nov. 2018) probably will not.

Being on the fence helped: a few legislators ended up getting guarantees of road projects in their districts, meaning some of the $52 billion to be raised in the first 10 years is already spent.

As for the transit money, some of the $7 billion in the first decade will go toward operations and some toward capital projects. It’s not enough to replace the federal New Starts program that pays for big transit projects — which would be reduced in the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year (here’s Metro’s statement about that). But it’s still money that will be relied upon by many agencies, Metro included (and the Metro Board in January voted to support/work with author on the bill).

Another thing for Metro: voters in L.A. County just approved the Measure M half-cent sales tax that funds a number of road and transit projects. The hope is to pair some of the local money with state money (and federal money, if it’s to be found) to fund projects and programs.

I think the gas tax is perhaps the most noteworthy part of this, given that it hasn’t been raised since 1994 in the state. And given that car owners will certainly notice during visits to the pumps. Will the increase persuade some people to drive less?

Hard to say and bill proponents didn’t really talk about that — they talked more about fixing roads, bridges and infrastructure. But gas in California is always among the most expensive in the nation and perhaps this nudges some toward more fuel efficient ones, given lately people have been gobbling up the bigger cars.

Related: there was much unhappiness about a bill amendment sought and won by the trucking industry that could exempt trucks from future air pollution rules.

California’s cap-and-trade program survives legal battle in win for Gov. Jerry Brown and environmentalists (LAT)

The program that requires greenhouse gas polluters to buy permits was upheld in state appeals court on Thursday; an appeal is possible. Thus far, $3.4 billion has been distributed by the state on projects and programs to cut greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

The above page from the most recent state report sums up where the cap/trade dollars are flowing. The project with the biggest bucket: the $63-billion state bullet train project, which without the cap-and-trade bucks would be a highly endangered species instead of merely a threatened one.

Hey! The state also has an interactive map to see how revenues from cap-and-trade have been spent.

Climate change got you down? As we like to say, generally speaking switching from driving alone to taking transit helps.

And on the subject of driving less….

Op-Ed: I live in L.A. and I don’t own a car (LAT)

Former Assemblyman Mike Gatto got rid of his car and instead uses his bike, transit, Uber and — here’s the asterisk — his wife’s car to help him get around. In his neighborhood, it’s not that hard, he writes.

Second asterisk: he works at home.

What motivated him? The hypocrisy, Gatto writes, of fellow politicians continuing to drive while urging constituents to drive less.

My three cents:

•I agree with Gatto that it’s probably a little easier for some people in L.A. to go car lite these days, although one option — Uber — isn’t really driving less as it requires someone else to drive more.

•My gosh, I wish employers around the region were a little more serious about allowing more people to work at home. I know there are a lot of jobs in which that’s not possible. But there are many where it is and I think businesses would find that employees can be just as productive (if not more so) away from the office from time to time instead of enduring blabfest meetings and Cube Life.

•As someone who promotes transit for a living, I’ve never been keen on the “you-should-get-rid-of-your-car” approach because I don’t think that’s practical for many people, nor likely to happen. Plus, I have a car and I don’t want to be hypocrite. What I do feel comfortable saying is that using transit, biking and walking when possible can help you lower the amount you drive, save you some bucks, help your car last longer and help you be kinder to Mama Nature.

And on the subject of driving less…

What drove the driving downturn? (Citylab)

Blame rural drivers for America’s driving downturn, according to some experts. Photo courtesy Steve Hymon.

It’s a fact that between 2004 and 2012 Americans drove less by significant margins. The reason why has been highly speculated upon. One popular theory held there was a sea change underway with young adults rejecting the driving lifestyle and more people fleeing the ‘burbs for transit/bike/walk friendly urban areas. Transit ridership hit a modern high in 2013, reinforcing those notions.

Maybe that’s true of some people, but Americans are driving more than ever and transit ridership at many agencies has taken a tumble in the past three years. Plus, it never made sense to me that young people would conclusively determine that texting was more fun than the backseat.

In this post, planner Richard Florida points to research that shows that compact development, in theory, should result in less driving. That said, other research indicates the recent driving sinkhole may have been largely the result of those living in rural areas driving less due to unemployment and a tough rural economy. He ends with this zinger:

Urbanists may continue to cling to the narrative that Americans will move downtown, swapping their cars for transit, bikes, or walking. But whether that kind of development reduces driving in the aggregate is foggy at best.

And the lesson to be learned? If the goal is to get people to drive less, then the other options have to be really, really, really, really good. And that means, fast and frequent transit, bike lanes that don’t put cyclists inches from speeding traffic and sidewalks that are well lit and don’t frequently put pedestrians in the paths of cars.

What do you think? Are Angelenos and Californians ever going to drive less in serious numbers? Comment please.




14 replies

  1. The thing we all have a lot less of is time. The only way public transit becomes a competitive option is if it is a cheaper and faster way of getting to where you want to go. It is very hard to do real work while sitting in a train or bus when one cant even open the laptop screen properly. Sure, I can read a book or watch a movie, but really, i want to get to work as fast as possible and get back home. And that doesn’t even add the last mile problem both to and from the station which takes even more time. If it takes 45min of sitting in freeway traffic vs 1.5+ hrs of sitting on a train each way, most people would rather sit in traffic. Thats the problem which needs to be addressed.

  2. In my mind a big reason for the driving decrease of 2004-2012 has to do with one thing: the price of gas. 2004 was when we started seeing a markedly higher gas price become the norm after around 2 decades of extra cheap petroleum come to an end for a variety of reasons. This initial upturn in the price of gas continued though even the start of the Great Recession (I remember vividly news reports of record high gas prices across the country in the summer of 2008, 6 months after the recession began in December 2007, I myself was worried $5 a gallon would soon be the norm in California). This pricing upturn took a brief hiatus only after the bottom completely fell out of the economy and global financial crisis set in, with prices cratering in late 2008 and the start of 2009. I imagine by this time however, with an abysmal economy loosing jobs by the hundreds of thousands a month, the drop in price wasn’t enough to turn around decrease in driving (less jobs equals less commuting, less money means less resources to spend on recreation, travel, etc. and even those who may of otherwise been incentivized to drive more with the lower cost of gas, may of not done so, out of fear they still needed to save, not knowing if they could be next in the waves of layoffs). Oil prices started rebounding well before the economy fully recovered and soon enough we were back at high cost gas again.. that is until a few years ago, when prices suddenly dropped and have largely stayed there with some fluctuations, only this time it was a growing economy with an increasing job market.

  3. I think the difficulty in getting people who do not get rid of a car to ride transit is that the marginal cost of driving more is less than the cost of public transit. For example, Metro costs $1.75, but that $1.75 can cover about 10 miles of driving + maintenance cost. If a person has a car, there is no financial incentive for them to pay more to ride transit.

    • The cost of driving varies by vehicle, but is actually more like 60 cents per mile according to AAA. You have to factor in the cost of the next vehicle you have to buy since each mile you drive brings you closer to having to buy another car. Divide the cost of a new car by the number of miles you expect to drive it (e.g. $30,000 divided by 150,000 equals 20 cents per mile, plus per mile costs of gas, insurance, repairs, registration, carwashes, maintenance, etc.).

  4. Beyond just really good and convenient infrastructure, I there’s a strong need for more careful urban development from developers. Things like sidewalk cuts (i.e. driveways), parking pedestals under large buildings, parking garages with no first-floor street-facing space really make an urban environment unfriendly. Having barren sidewalks can make a half mile walk through even a nice neighborhood relatively unpleasant.

    As one example consider the areas near LA Live. They have all the trimmings of a nice urban center, but somehow cars and over-wide streets make them annoying to navigate. Alternatively, consider streets like Jefferson in Playa Vista, or Lincoln in MDR, where large stretches of sidewalk are nothing but driveway entries.

  5. Based on economic models of price elasticity, driving are expected to decrease and transit ridership to increase as a result of the increase to the fuel tax, however these changes are expected to be so small as to be virtually undetectable among other factors.
    The 12 cent increase to the gas tax will increase costs at the pump by approximately 4 percent based on current prices of ~$3 per gallon. The elasticity for VMT due to fuel prices is assumed to be somewhere between -0.02 and -0.04, so the VMT change from this tax increase will be a decrease of between 0.08 and 0.16 percent. The elasticity for transit mode shares due to fuel prices is assumed to be somewhere between 0.1 and 0.3, so the VMT change from this tax increase will be an increase of between 0.4 and 1.2 percent.

  6. I think that, as the absolute population increases, the most likely reality will be that public transit use will increase, and driving will either remain constant or also increase.

    This is of course dependent on many factors, so I’m generally less keen to argue a complex issue as a binary choice, particularly when a third option (driving and transit use both to up as the population expands) presents itself. As a transit rider, I think we all benefit from a well maintained variety of robust transit options. As it stands in LA specifically, I absolutely support more transit as its clearly the more lacking alternative.

    But yeah, I don’t think the car is ever going away – but it’ll need to coexist with the train and bus in the ever-expanding cities of tomorrow.

  7. Until bus service is improved in terms of frequency, reliability, and geographic coverage—something that Big Blue Bus fails hard on on all three counts, for instance—people who have cars and are used to driving everywhere are going to keep doing so.

    As for the point about Uber involving making someone else drive more, I’d argue that it’s not 1:1 because if you drove yourself, you’d need to parking, but when you get dropped off by an Uber, they pick up another fare and go somewhere else.

  8. Saving money is great, of course. But I choose to be carless not because of the cost, but because I truly prefer the freedom that not having a car gives me. No worries about parking! Sure, sometimes the bus or the train is a hassle, sometimes it doesn’t go where I need, but for many routes it’s great. And I can always take Lyft when Metro doesn’t come through for me. Also I love walking and biking (even though biking in LA is still terrifying!).

  9. Please, people living in a place like Downtown LA are definitely driving less than people living in suburban and rural areas. In urban areas travel distances are shorter, alternatives to driving work better and you have to pay to park. Whether people prefer to live like that is a separate question, but even the most diehard motorist can identify his self interest when parking costs $30/day.

    The option of urban life has been underdeveloped in LA for decades. Not everybody wants it, but some people do, and we should embrace that, since it’s great for the environment and crucial for successful transit.

  10. There is going to be a large increase in the amount of money going towards bicycle infrastructure in this county. The city of Los Angeles currently spends about $10 million per year on bicycle infrastructure. The LA city council transportation committee approved a quadrupling of the local return of sales tax devoted to bicycle infrastructure. That will add another $6 million. These new state taxes add another $20 million. There is 2% of Measure M set-aside for active transportation. Which adds another $2.425 million annually for bicycle infrastructure in the city of Los Angeles. Then there’s the money from Measure M going towards building bike paths along the LA river, which is in the tens of millions of dollars.

  11. I wonder if the new state tax would help fund something like the Arts District Station and maybe something like the run through tracks at Union Station.

    • Hey Matt;

      Great question and I don’t have an answer at this time. Of the two projects you mention, we know the run-through tracks project is extremely expensive — multi-billion — whereas the Arts District Station would likely be multi-million. I know that no one — including yours truly — enjoys a gas tax hike but this does sound like it could create a pot of money that these type of projects could potentially draw from. As with many things, diversity of funding strikes me as a good thing, especially for the projects that aren’t specifically funded by Measure M or Metro’s other sales taxes (R, A and C).

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source