Monday, April 28, 2008

Why we can afford a gas tax .. NOW

UPDATE: As commenter wellbasiclly points out, gas prices are different across state borders, throwing a wrench into my argument. I've e-mailed Professor Baker to see if he can help straighten this out.

This gets a bit wonky, but the bottom line is this: the price you pay for a gallon of gas has little to do with the amount of tax on a gallon. With oil refineries running flat out, according to the oil companies, what determines the price of a gallon of gas is simply demand. This week's record price in Massachusetts is $3.54. It's $3.54 with our $.21 state and $.184 federal gas tax. The market has set the $3.54 price and the market will get $3.54, even if John McCain's ill-considered gas-tax holiday were law -- the oil companies would pocket the $.184 instead of the feds.

The flip side is also true, the market price would be $3.54 with a $.26, .31, or .42 state gas tax. It would just mean a little less for the oil companies. And, a lot more money for Massachusetts to spend on roads, schools, health care, &c.

Oddly enough, it's while gas prices are highest — while oil companies are otherwise making a windfall — that we should redirect some of the price of gas to the Commonwealth's coffers.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Macy's likes bikes!

From Streetsblog, here's a Macy's ad that's running in New York papers as part of an "Earth Week" campaign.

Love the sentiment, however cynically motivated it might be. But, an ad is only a first step. Macy's ought to promote bicycle access to its stores. They have two stores in Newton (or three depending on how your counting). The Macy's in the Chestnut Hill Shopping Center (lower mall) and its corporate sibling(s) Bloomingdale's(es) in the Mall at Chestnut Hill (upper mall). It would really make a difference if Macy's promoted better bike accommodations in the Chestnut Hill shopping district.

So go to the corporate site and encourage them to do so. Here's the message I left:

Loved the bike ad!

If you follow up the bike ad with an organized effort to improve bicycle access to your stores and bike accommodations at your stores, you will have found an undyingly loyal customer.

In fact, I live within a mile of your Newton, MA Macy's and Bloomingdale's. I'm very active in the bike community in Newton and would love to discuss potential projects.

Keep up the good work.

I'm not down with riding in a suit, though. Maybe for a few hundred yards.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

New Globe biking column

It appears that the Globe has a new biking column: Shifting Gears. Great.

Here's a nice column on bike lanes, with this nugget:

Gone are the days when cycling advocates bickered about whether bike lanes actually improve safety for cyclists. Studies prove that bike lanes and other markings boost bicycle use, reduce vehicular traffic and speeding, and in many cases, decrease car-bike collisions.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Too late for Beacon Street?

There is a solution for the problem created when the city did trial striping of 11-foot travel lanes on Beacon Street between Newton Centre and Hammond Street: asymmetry.

But, first, a recap of the problem. While it's just a two-lane road (with some exceptions for turning lanes at the intersections), Beacon Street is wide, really wide. Striping 11-foot travel lanes leaves, at various places, shoulders as wide as or wider than the travel lanes. What initially seemed like a great boon to cyclists turns out to be a problem. The shoulders are so wide that motorists confuse them for travel lanes.

Because parking is legal along much of that stretch of Beacon, you can't just use up the shoulders with dedicated bike lanes. The shoulders are wide, but not wide enough for parking and a four- or five-foot bike lane. The real shame is that the parking is rarely used.

The infrequency of parking along Beacon east of Dalton Street may be the key to a solution: a single bike lane, not two.

For those stretches of Beacon where the road is wider than 37 feet, on one side of the street, stripe one 4-foot bicycle lane and a 7-foot shoulder. With two 11-foot travel lanes, that leaves 4 feet or more for the shoulder on the other side.

Because there are so few cars parked on Beacon, the "other" shoulder will essentially function as a bike lane. (Parked cars in the diagrams are shown for scale only, not to represent parking frequency.) And, a smaller shoulder won't create the very dangerous situation that exists now with cars traveling in the shoulder as if it's a travel lane.

Where the road is wider than 41-feet or so, leave the other shouder at 7-feet and expand the shoulder next to the bike lane. There's less likelihood that the next-to-the-bike-lane shoulder will be confused with another travel lane.

Needless to say, there are other parts of the puzzle. You'd have to figure out the intersections, for one. But, this addresses the main problem.

So, why the headline? Because the city has rendered the temporary, dangerous striping scheme, which was painted, in thermoplastic ... apparently in the last few days. This despite criticism of the scheme from the Newton Bicycle Pedestrian Task Force, aldermen, private citizens, and NS&S and recognition by various DPW officials that the scheme was imperfect.

Note: Between Langley and Dalton Street, Beacon Street is probably wide enough for parking and bike lanes on both sides.


Higher gas prices

I just finished watching a report on Channel 5 news on the record gas prices this week. They listed a bunch of things that you can do to save money on gas. Standard stuff: inflate tires, change your air filter, &c.

Oddly, they neglected to mention the easiest way to save money on gas. Drive less.

No doubt that there's a lot of driving that many of us have to do. (Even the NS&S family is known to get into the car on occasion.) But, few of us are down to necessity-only trips.


Pay-as-you-drive insurance

The Freakanomics team — Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt — explains one of my favorite topics — externalities — in a discussion of what will soon be one of my favorite topics: pay-as-you-drive insurance.

Because there are all sorts of costs associated with driving that the actual driver doesn’t pay. Such a condition is known to economists as a negative externality: the behavior of Person A (we’ll call him Arthur) damages the welfare of Person Z (Zelda), but Zelda has no control over Arthur’s actions. If Arthur feels like driving an extra 50 miles today, he doesn’t need to ask Zelda; he just hops in the car and goes. And because Arthur doesn’t pay the true costs of his driving, he drives too much.

What are the negative externalities of driving? To name just three: congestion, carbon emissions and traffic accidents. Every time Arthur gets in a car, it becomes more likely that Zelda — and millions of others — will suffer in each of those areas.

Pay-as-you-go insurance promises to reduce the problem of negative externalities of driving by eliminating the subsidy that low-mileage drivers pay to high-mileage drivers. With pay-as-you go insurance, drivers' premiums are tied to the amount they drive. Drive more, pay more. Drive less, pay less.

Reduce the insurance subsidy, people pay closer to the true cost of high-mileage driving, and we can expect substantially less driving, reducing carbon emissions, congestion, and accidents.

We still need more pay-as-you-go, in the form of rational road-pricing and pay-as-you-go gas tax. But, insurance is a good start.

Coming soon to six states, but not Massachusetts, soon.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bike to Work Week 5/12 - 5/16

Get yourself in shape for the Bike Newton fun ride by biking to work the week preceding. (Just kidding. The Newton ride is just 2.5 miles. No training required.)

Bike to Work week is officially Bay State Bike Week, May 12-18. There's lots going on on Friday, May 16th, including commuting convoys from around the Boston area and a bikers breakfast at City Hall Plaza.

Newly elected Chairman of the Newton Bicycle/Pedestrian Task Force George Kirby has arranged for a Newton convoy. It's not on the schedule yet, but it will be. More information as it becomes available.

Make sure to sign up for the 50,000 mile challenge, an effort to have bicyclists commute 50,000 cumulative miles over the course of the week.


Microsoft is evil

Microsoft has a service in the works called Clearflow, which is going to help drivers use side streets to avoid congestion on arteries.

Microsoft, bringing traffic to a quiet residential street near you!


Bike v. Car

As if we needed one, here's a reminder that when cars and bikes collide, it's rarely a fender bender for the bike.


Saturday, April 12, 2008

Molly gets things done!

A few days before it was an item in NS&S, friend of NS&S Molly complained to the city about the sign near Boston College that threatened to decapitate a biker.

A few days later it was gone.


Betcha didn't know ...

That Newton has "Share the Road" signs posted.

Not lots of those big, garish "Share the Road" signs like they have in Brookline and elsewhere. Rather just a couple discreet, tasteful, practically invisible little signs on Winchester Street.

(Picture on left taken looking south, just south of Needham Street. The one on the right taken looking north, just north of Nahanton Street.)

Can't quite make them out?

Before he decamped to the Patrick administration, former Commissioner of Public Works Bob Rooney said that the Winchester micro-signs were a mistake and that more eye-catching signs would be posted.

Memo to new DPW Commissioner Tom Daley: we'd love some of those big, honkin' ugly signs. Thanks.


Mayor Cohen supports it, so should you

He supports the ride before the override, that is: the Bike Newton rally and 2.5 family ride on May 18. It is less well known that the ride is also endorsed by both Bike Newton Forward and Newton for Two-Wheel Mobility.

Come together for a celebration of biking and community two days before that other big event.

Don't forget to register.

Note: Graphical association to override-related organizations is purely intentional and not at all authorized.


As if Beacon Street isn't wide enough ...

This driver decided to use the sidewalk.


Monday, April 7, 2008

Gas Tax Sanity

UPDATED: I got a lot of math wrong. I fixed it.

I missed this very smart call for a higher gas tax from the Globe Magazine a month ago. Writer Phil Primack hits all the high points:

  1. The $0.21 gas tax hasn't been raised since 1991, eroding it's value to $0.14 in 1991 dollars

  2. Those who reap the benefits of our transportation infrastructure should pay for its upkeep.

  3. Even a significant hike would not put us out-of-line with neighboring states, maybe not even making ours the highest.

Yup, yup, and yup.

I'd add another point. While the gas tax has failed to keep up with inflation, it's done an even more woeful job keeping up with the cost of gas. In 1991, the average price for a gallon of gas appears to have been about $1.10. (I can't find a more authoritative reference.) A 15-cent 21-cent per gallon levy translates to an effective 13.6% 28% state tax: .21 Mass. gas tax/($1.10 - .21 Mass. gas tax - .141 federal gas tax). In February, the price of a gallon of regular was $2.989. If the effective, proportional rate were the same as in 1991, we'd be paying 40 cents 73 cents a gallon in tax: .28 x (2.989 - .21 Mass gas tax - .184 federal gas tax).

The current gas tax pulls in $600 million per year. Raising it to 40 cents 73 cents would reap an additional $629 million $1.77 billion per year (at $34 million in revenue per cent of gas tax). Think that wouldn't help ease the difficulties we're having paying to maintain our transportation infrastructure?

This isn't just a mathematical game to bolster the argument for a higher gas tax. The cost of maintaining our transportation infrastructure is closely tied to the cost of gas. Revenue from the gas tax ought to rise proportionally with the price of gas.

Instead of a gas tax, we're likely to have a super-regressive cigarette tax.