Do vehicle license fees harm the poor?

Even if car fees actually are regressive—and I think the answer is far from clear—it’s wrong-headed to think that voting down a fee will somehow make driving affordable. Even a cursory look at history shows turning driving into a necessity is what really harms the poor.

In the early part of 2005, a driver in Seattle could fill up at less than $2 per gallon, but by 2011 that same driver was paying twice as much at the pump. Given typical driving habits, fuel prices alone added more than $1,000 to the annual cost of operating a car since 2005. In other words, world oil prices tacked on the equivalent of 18 of Seattle’s proposed vehicle license fees.

So let’s get this straight: driving in Seattle is not expensive because Mayor McGinn adjusted meter rates. It’s not expensive because the King County council floated a $20 car fee to preserve bus service. And it’s not expensive because a commercial parking tax raised the price of downtown garages by a buck or so. It’s expensive because oil companies get rich by selling expensive fuels that we’re addicted to.

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  • That’s the bad news: driving is no longer an affordable option. It hasn’t been for years now, and there’s really not much we can do about it.

    But there’s good news too: unlike rural areas, cities actually do have the power to make transportation affordable for those with low incomes. That’s because cities can provide real alternatives to driving and buying fuel. Cities can foster land use that puts housing in proximity to services and jobs, and cities can build low-cost transportation options that are safe and reliable.

    There is a very uncomplicated reason why nearly 1 in 6 Seattle households goes without a car, including more than a quarter of all renters and 40 percent of the poor. Driving is just plain expensive.

    It’s no accident that Seattle’s low income folks are already far more likely than others to get to work on a bus, on a bike, or on foot. It’s just basic economics. If we’re looking out for the interests of poorer households, the question is not whether we can somehow make driving affordable—plainly, we cannot—but whether we can provide alternatives.


    Notes: I calculated fuel costs from the US Energy Information Administration’s retail price data for Seattle, comparing the average price of gasoline during February 2005 to the average price during September 2011. I assumed 11,000 miles of driving per year in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon, which are typical figures. Obviously, driving less or driving a more efficient vehicle would reduce costs.  

    Also, my previous post on vehicle license fees garnered some good coverage (and comments) over at the news site PubliCola, here. It also earned me a few minutes on KUOW’s “The Conversation” with Ross Reynolds, starting at about 4:45, here.