Thursday, February 11, 2010

VMT and Congestion geo-tagging. Bueller ...Bueller?

Over at the Bellows, Ryan Avent wonders why everyone is still so tight-ass about VMT...

I think the place to start is with congestion pricing, although I’d also like to see a share of revenues from carbon pricing devoted to transportation. But I don’t think it’s absurd to put a VMT tax on the table. Policy merits will be balanced in Washington against political acceptability, and clearly there are legislators who feel that the idea of a VMT tax — of paying for the miles you drive on public roads — might make sense to drivers. I don’t think that’s nuts.

I know that many people feel that the civil liberties issue is a dealbreaker, but I have a hard time believing that. These days, people don’t blink at the prospect of unwarranted domestic surveillance, they walk around with multiple mobile devices, and they live half their lives online. A gizmo that keeps track of how far they’ve driven isn’t likely to phase most Americans.

Not nuts...and in fact, it is only fair. Americans love fairness. And if you can measure it, and present it, consistently, air-tightly, logically and comparatively, so much the better. This is what Google does after all. We get it.

As far as the actual tracking system used for implementing a VMT system, we have a myriad ways to think about this. Getting hack-proof "gizmos" to track VMT, in itself, is not going to do it. Any implementation has to fine-tune a fine and audit system. It works for transit boarding. Primarily you have to think hard about the incentives for fraudulent behavior and learn the best ways to police against it in a fair and efficient way. No one likes deadbeats, so we will get innovative. Big deal. We do this for far more complicated things. If we're smart, we'll jigger our wireless technologies to pick up our slack ...and do it more neutrally and fairly while they are at it.

We also need a system that is graduated and offers rebate incentives (just like income taxes). VMT should be graduated on weight of vehicle anyway. And (as Ryan suggests) we can combine all tax approaches, taxing fuel inefficiency, congestion zone travel and VMT as well. We're not far from having the capability to monitor this in a smart and decentralized way. Look at the god-awful amounts of data banks have on you already.

And...I don't know why some are suggesting vehicle-installed (and "hack-proof") devices to begin with. It seems to me we need to think about a more robust monitoring system, utilizing multiple data points. You can use a wireless geo-tagging system for starters. The central monitoring interface can still be at the pump. The wonderful thing about pumps is they are already wired to exchange information and they don't move (easily). What information is exchanged at the pump and how is what we have to think harder about. How we work in incentives should also be pondered and debated, e.g. the greater the VMT per last deposit's gallons and the lesser the percentage of (time/location-dependent) "congestion geo-tags" your vehicle has acquired in that time, the greater the rebate you will see lopped off the fuel charge...right there at the pump! This way, the monitoring equipment works in the driver's favor sometimes. Convenience store owners will need to get deals themselves for relaying the data, perhaps with an opt-in voluntary data-sharing program that rewards customers with deals as well....Kinda like Google-style marketing.

C'mon, people, we gotta get all American about this.


Ben Houck said...

A former mayor of London spoke at the Emerging Issues conference last year about congestion pricing. Someone asked how they handled issues of privacy. His reply was "We don't care about privacy." A pretty telling answer....

Eric Orozco said...

Nice to hear from you Ben! How is UNCC going for you?

The lack of privacy is an issue of perception. We're not really able to insulate ourselves privately, in our insanely wired world, so for me it's an issue of tolerances. So I agree with Ryan, overall, our relative comfort with web-connectedness is already making this "privacy" hang-up moot. I mean, what are credit scores? We are already being tracked.

Relatedly, the web is a great teacher on how to create the balance between privacy/civil liberties and use of personal information.