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Depending on whom you trust, sort of, up to two thirds of all the oil we consume in the U.S. is burned in our engines. If you added the section of the infrastructure that directly supports transportation via internal combustion, the number might go up to 90%.

I don't know how much of that is consumed by buses, taxis, trucks, emergency vehicles, tractors, combine harvesters, etc. What I do know is this:

One Saturday morning I stepped out for some fresh air and maybe a coffee at my favorite hangout next to the subway station. It was 11 a.m. My wife was still asleep. We live Brooklyn because Manhattan is no longer affordable. There was a traffic jam on my street resembling the one depicted in this photo:

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Where the hell were all these people going at 11 a.m. on Saturday? Why couldn't they enjoy some quality time in bed with their spouses or mistresses, or play with their kids, or go to church? (For the record: in our section of Brooklyn, a church or synagogue is never further than a five-minute walk from anyone's house or building).

What important events did they have to attend, and what was so special about their destinations that apparently couldn't be reached by subway?

What the f**?

A neighbor of mine was astonished when he found out I didn't have a car. He blinked, shook his head, and asked, "So, how do you get around?" I pointed out that there was a perfectly serviceable subway station only three short blocks from our building, and I could get anywhere in the city any time (our subway system, literally working around the clock, is not just one of the oldest in the world, but also one of the best) for just over two bucks. Worrying about parking, getting tickets, changing the oil, realigning the brakes, etc, are like life on Mars to me. You can always rent a jalopy for the weekend if you're in the mood for some picnicking and nature-watching. My neighbor shook his head once again, unconvinced.

The automotive industry has long since outlived its purpose. It is well within any government's power to tax the private automobile into the ground by raising taxes exponentially on the private use of fuel. For instance, this month, they could levy a 50% federal sales tax on every gallon sold at your local gas station. Three months later, the tax could go up another 50%. And maybe 150% by the end of next year. And then another 200%. Would all these people want to drive on Saturday morning if they had to pay $20 per gallon? I doubt it. They would have to look for other options as well as, generally, better things to do.

This would almost immediately cause an economic boom in any country. When people are inconvenienced, they look for solutions, and someone always finds one, especially if he or she foresees a sizable profit that might come with it.

One solution would be to built train and streetcar tracks. Lots and lots of them. Unemployment would cease to exist as a concept for many years to come. There would be jobs galore for everybody.

It's ironic, but the automotive industry wouldn't have to lose a dime: they would simply shift their focus on producing large electrical vehicles. The steel industry would have to leave China and come back to Pittsburgh: the demand would exceed supply by orders of magnitude during the first few years.

Now I don't know whether the system we had in this country before Robert Moses stepped in and changed it all ... when the streetcar accounted for 90% (!!) of all individual passenger trips ... was sustainable, or would be sustainable with a bit of help from modern technology, but it would certainly be more so than what we have now: a step in the right direction, perhaps.

And yet, and yet ...

Not a single major politician, not a single leader of any country, even mentions this possibility, like, ever. Why not? Do they know something we don't?

closed as unclear what you're asking by Flyto, EnergyNumbers Dec 16 '15 at 16:29

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  • Could you please shorten your post. That way more people will read it and you're more likely to get a good answer. – THelper Dec 16 '15 at 8:10
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    The actual question asked is about what politicians know. Only the politicians in question can answer that. Speculating somewhat, I suspect the reason that politicians don't talk about moving away from cars is that people like cars, and politicians like votes. – Flyto Dec 16 '15 at 9:39
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    Several countries, including the UK, have very high fuel taxes. And they also have heavy private motor traffic, and the consequential problems - just at a smaller scale than the US. But what is your actual question? Because if it's "do politicians know something that other people don't, that they're not telling?", then that's unanswerable. – EnergyNumbers Dec 16 '15 at 14:31
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    OK. While the conversation has been somewhat interesting, I'm voting to close as... I dunno. Too broad? Unanswerable / subjective? About politics more than sustainability? Take your pick :-) There might be some good questions buried in here along the lines of "what are the advantages or disadvantages of $specific_policy", or similar. – Flyto Dec 16 '15 at 15:05
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    Actually, there is one country that does this. Singapore. They tax new cars at a rate of about 150%. – Ernie Mar 23 '16 at 17:40
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It is well within any government's power to tax the private automobile into the ground by raising taxes exponentially on the private use of fuel.

(...)

Not a single major politician, not a single leader of any country, even mentions this possibility, like, ever. Why not?

The answer is simple: because the majority of voters drive private automobiles and would decline to vote such politicians into power.

Also, arguably the problem is not that people are driving, but that they are all driving in the same place. That means we should be taxing access to the road, not access to the car at all¹. The environmental cost of driving 5 km in New York City is higher than the cost of driving 50 km in rural Wyoming, where public transport or cycling alternatives are unlikely to emerge. Taxing the car overall will just increase the imbalance between urban and rural areas.

According to some, it is going to get worse rather than better with the self-driving car. You may want to read this blog post. We're not pricing roads according to demand, therefore, there are traffic jams:

It's also why in the old Soviet Union, people spent hours waiting to buy bread: Soviet price controls made the price too low to compensate the suppliers, so there wasn't enough bread, so everyone waited in line. Congestion — waiting in line to use an underpriced road — works the same way.

Untaxed roads are essentially communist. (Take that, Tea Party!)

(See also: London congestion charge)


¹Depending on what you want to achieve. Battle congestion: tax the road. Give a strong incentive to move electric cars: tax unsustainable fuels.

  • I would agree with you; I would also add that there hasn't been an industry on earth more vigorously subsidized than the auto industry: a major component of their product, the roads, is manufactured for them at the taxpayer's expense; however, let me point out to you that people do lie to get ahead, and sometimes, albeit rarely, they get ahead by lying in order to do the right thing. What could possibly stop a governor, a senator, or even the current President (with no more election campaigns to run) from at least mentioning the problem? It's just odd, you know. – Ricky Dec 16 '15 at 11:51
  • @Ricky Congestion charges, which is essentially what is needed, are occasionally mentioned. Private toll roads do exist, but AFAIK not in residential streets. Arguably we need a highly dynamic street-level pricing system which prices access to streets based on current demand. If the last 2 km cost 20$ people may decide to park 2 km away and walk the rest. It would require some more technology than we currently have, though. – gerrit Dec 16 '15 at 11:54
  • The obsession of fairly reasonable people with cars stems, I'm afraid, from the past centuries' rags-to-riches idea that one is not truly an important person unless he or she owns a horse-and-buggy. It's just a silly fetish, a habit far easier to kick than smoking. The war on tobacco in the U.S. (and the rest of the world too, I believe) has been somewhat successful. It started when the majority of voters were smokers. – Ricky Dec 16 '15 at 12:17
  • @Ricky For urban areas, I don't disagree with you, although in North America, many cities are extremely poorly designed on the assumption that people have a car — those are essentially failed cities. In rural and remote areas, a car might make the difference of travelling 3 hours or 3 days to get to a city (or if it exits, waiting for a bus that might go at most once a day, forcing one to spend the night in that city). – gerrit Dec 16 '15 at 12:20
  • Some of those failed cities can be redesigned. Paris was once, and is no worse for it. Unsustainable cities should contract or be allowed to fail. ... People choose to live in rural areas or urban areas. As for the holiday trip to the shopping district with the obligatory visit of the opera house: when there's a demand, supply isn't far behind. Trains, light rail, trolleybuses - there's always something. Rumor has it that with the exception of a forty-mile stretch in Upstate New York, one could get from Main to Michigan by streetcar until Robert Moses and GM came and ripped out the tracks. – Ricky Dec 16 '15 at 13:18

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