We talk a lot on this blog about why people drive. Frequent points are made concerning perceived freedom, the motorist’s willingness to “pay time to save money”, the undercapitalization of transit infrastructure, the low marginal cost of individual driving trips once a car is owned, the modal lock-in caused by low density development, etc, etc…
But I’ve been especially frustrated lately by 3 perverse incentives that don’t get as much press:
More after the jump…
(1. The continued illegality of usage-based auto insurance. Current Washington State insurance regulations require that the full cost of an annualized policy be stated up front, effectively negating usage-based pricing factors (other than moving violations). Insurers and motorists thus have contractual frameworks in which risk is priced only as an all-you-can-drive buffet, actively penalizing those who own cars but drive comparatively fewer miles. Sightline has continually lobbied for a regulatory change, Unigard won federal money in 2007 for a pay-as-you-drive (PAYD) pilot project in Seattle, and in early 2009 State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-Federal Way) introduced legislation (SB 5708) to correct this (with Bill Laborde of Transportation Choices Coalition testifying). Yet the legislation stalled in Olympia, and since then the issue has slipped off the radar. Ten other states, such as Texas, are way ahead of us on this. Why can’t we figure out the privacy issues and get this done?
(2. Employment discrimination based upon car ownership. Hundreds of job ads are posted every day in Greater Puget Sound that explicitly require the personal ownership of a vehicle. (Recent examples here, here, here, here, here, and here.) While many posts explicitly demand it, others use jargon whose implication is nonetheless very clear, such as “reliable transportation required” or “must have personal transportation.” Employers are traditionally prohibited from discriminating on the basis of economic factors when they advertise for vacancies or hire new employees. The defining standard is the BFOQ – the “Bona Fide Occupational Qualification” – in which employers are prohibited from discriminating against candidates unless they can prove that the discriminatory requirement they seek to impose is an essential feature of the job. (See Title 29, Chapter 14, §623, (f)(1) of the United States Code for an example based on age) For delivery drivers and similar positions in which driving is required but a company car cannot be furnished, of course, such discrimination is appropriate. But for Administrative Assistants in Columbia City? Home Depot in Tacoma? Non-profits in the International District? Clearly the car-ownership requirement is both (1. a failure by employers to recognize that transit commutes can be reliably made, and (2. an attempt to pre-screen out a demographic which is, statistically speaking, disproportionately poor. In most cases then, such discrimination is just unacceptable.
(3. Driver’s Licenses as primary identification. In a country in which 75% of citizens don’t own passports and the prospect of a National ID Card stokes fears of totalitarianism, driver’s licenses have long been the de facto form of national and state identification. In my experience, state-issued non-driving ID cards are commonly rejected or looked upon with suspicion by merchants. (In the UK, by contrast, it wasn’t until 1998 that ‘driving licences’ even had photographs.) The celebrated rite of passage in which 16 year olds get their first license/vehicle establishes a behavioral inertia that most people never resist later on. Suburban high school parking lots provide a depressing visual reminder of this. (My old high school in Idaho even gives away a car every year to high academic achievers).
None of this is to say that “cars are evil.” Just as criticizing gluttony doesn’t make one a hater of food, so too criticizing a “drive-everywhere” mentality doesn’t make one dismiss the impressive utility of cars. We need them, for freight, for occasional trips, and for government and business fleets. But these 3 hurdles (and there are many more) have a pernicious effect on our behavior by directly disincentivizing multi-modality and encouraging lock-in. Whatever our infrastructure victories, and however much we improve the provision of transit in Seattle, we have to keep working on these issues as well.