“Driving, of course, is not free. But driving often seems free because most of these costs are hidden on a per-trip basis”. Fearghal, our Smart Cities Project Lead weighs in on Willa Ng’s view on why we insist on driving, and why paying commuters to cycle might be the solution.
Just why is driving our default approach to commuting? Willa Ng, Mobility Lead at Google’s Sidewalk Labs argues that a lack of transparency in the cost of driving leads us to drive by default. If we could outline the cost of a single journey by car, like we know the exact price every time we pay for a bus or train, we could tackle congestion head on. She states, “Driving, of course, is not free. But driving often seems free because most of these costs are hidden on a per-trip basis”.
You can read her full analysis here .
The effect congestion has on our happiness (lower life satisfaction and higher anxiety ), time (32 hours wasted per year per person ) and GDP ( Congestion costs the UK economy £4.3bn per year, and the number is growing rapidly ) is astonishing. No wonder traffic and road congestion are often the centrepiece of Smart City initiatives.
From a purely economics viewpoint, the natural solution would be to impose an additional financial cost on commutes by car. Road pricing, the most direct approach, is also a highly controversial policy. It is a political minefield, highly unpopular with the electorate, and is a major reason for the slow expansion of ‘charge by use’ schemes globally.
So instead of facing a charge to drive, how about incentivising a commute on bike? On some level, we all recognise the appeal of a less polluted, less congested city but it appears that adding a direct, selfish benefit is key for uptake.
Holger Haubold, a fiscal and economic policy officer at the European Cyclists’ Federation suggests that. “The fiscal incentive is the most efficient way to promote cycling to work. Companies that have this incentive in place have significantly more employees cycling to work than those that don’t.”
1. Office of National Statistics - ‘Commuting and Personal Well-being’, 2014
2. Inrix Global Traffic Scorecard, 2016
Incentive schemes are already in place across mainland Europe. France, Belgium and Italy have all had citywide schemes introduced, albeit with varying degrees of success . The general feedback is positive though, with a noted uptake in cycling as the primary method of commute.
However, financial incentives are not enough in isolation. The have to be married with a performing cycling infrastructure to change behaviour on a significant scale. Cycle lanes, safe storage space and showering facilities multiples the desire to ditch the car.
With the realisation that the time and money costs associated with commuting by car are unsustainable, it appears even car manufacturer Tesla are pedalling the idea of paying their workers to cycle. An unexpected endorsement for sure, but one that might just herald a shift in attitude regarding mobility in our cities.