by James A. Bacon
Bern Grush has been promoting Mileage Based User Fees (MBUFs) as a mechanism for financing roads and highways since 2002 or so. The Toronto native was one of the earliest evangelists of the concept of charging trucks and cars by the mile to raise money to build and maintain roads. The movement built a head of steam in the mid-2000s but it has fizzled since. “I’m finished with the dream,” a frustrated Grush told me in an interview yesterday while we were discussing an essay, “Social Evolution and Road Pricing,” he had written for Thinking Highways.
Well, he’s not really finished with the dream, but Grush does realize that MBUF proponents must adopt a radically different approach. Reformers wishing to alter the auto-centric transportation and land use policies have been flapping their jaws literally and figuratively for years in conferences, debates, presentations, academic journals, textbooks and mass media. Other than a mileage-based tax on heavy trucks in a couple of European countries, it has amounted to naught, Grush lamented in the essay.
Arguments appealing to fairness and economic rationality just won’t work, he says. “People are just stubborn. It’s not that they’re dumb, they don’t get it or they’re Tea Party. They’re responding to their DNA.”
We are biased for automobility by the reproductive advantages that superior autonomous mobility granted ancestral social groups of human nomads, gatherers, hunters, scavengers, warriors and conquerors. Any individual group or group of humans that could travel faster, carry more, range farther, and kill more would tend to eat more, live longer, keep more wives and produce more offspring. This generalized automobility, entrenched long before Karl Benz or Henry Ford, was triggered by the domestication of donkey, horse, camel and elephant. The advantage of superior, power-assisted automobility has been wired into humans for at least 7,000 years.
The desire for autonomous travel operates at the same biological level as our evolutionary proclivity to wage group war and our deep social inclination to engage with religion. … When we ask drivers to use an alternative to the personal car, we are asking something more fundamental than most of us realize.
Cars allow people to drive where they want, when they want. People in cars can travel alone, with passengers or loaded up with grocery bags or loot from Wal-Mart. People can choose whom they travel with. They can cocoon themselves in privacy and listen to music, talk radio or books on tape. At a more fundamental level, cars expand an individual’s range, allowing them to reach more potential work, more potential mates and more goods and services.
As critics of the auto-centric society have pointed out, there are drawbacks to automobility as well. Cars create pollution, kill thousands in accidents, spew CO2 emissions (a concern to those who worry about catastrophic global warming), and create a hostile environment for those who would travel by other means. Ironically, when too many people own cars, the congestion they cause limits the very range and reach they covet when they purchase their cars.
Cultural determinists, who believe that human behavior is infinitely malleable, will object to this way of thinking. But they have to reckon with the fact that in every society on the planet, humans invest personal resources to increase their personal mobility — bicycles in poor countries, motorcycles in somewhat wealthier countries, and automobiles in wealthier countries. They even drive cars in cities where traffic conditions are far more congested and hellish than in the United States. Whenever a human proclivity is universal across all societies, that’s a pretty good indication that it stems from what we colloquially refer to as human nature.
But genes are not destiny. Warlike impulses are embedded in the genome but humans, endowed with the faculty of reason, have created institutions that have drastically reduced the incidence and severity of violence and war compared to that of our primitive forebears. Grush believes the same thing is possible with automobility. Autonomous or Self-Driving Cars, he says, may be the technology that allows us to reconcile our personal need for mobility with our social need to dampen congestion, pollution and the other externalities associated with too many cars.
Many technology trends increasingly push services into the cloud, and away from physicality and ownership. Bus, taxi and carshare are forms of transportation as a service, but each are flawed. The bus is a far cry from automobility, the taxi is expensive and often uncertain, a car-share vehicle still needs the user to operate it. Large, variegated fleets of autonomous vehicles can provide true transportation as a service (TaaS). TaaS from the AV can be far more personalized than bus or tax and somewhat more than the current carshare fleet. And the AV can reach a far larger portion of people requiring automobility than can bus or carshare and much more cheaply and safely than a taxi. … Continue reading