Just price our roads! — stop blaming TNCs for all of our transportation woes

TNCs didn’t cause this alone. We need to address the impacts of all the users of our streets. (Source: Wikipedia)

Bruce Schaller’s report on transportation network companies (TNCs) and congestion sent shockwaves through the transportation landscape, finally disabusing us of the notion that, left to their own devices, Uber, Lyft, et al. would be the saviors of our transportation woes. Even pooled services — touted as the most beneficent form of ride-hailing — add 1.5X the driving over personal cars. It’s abundantly clear that these findings extend to the future of autonomous vehicles (AVs), but only more extreme, further exacerbating the trends of public transit cannibalization & collapse and empty (aka zombie) vehicles. What’s also clear is that a road charge for all cars is a necessity. Hell, even Uber is on board!

In response to Schaller’s report, the New York City Council leaped into action with surprising speed, proposing an immediate cap on the number of vehicles, on top of next year’s coming $2.75 per-ride fee.

However, as Robin Chase points out, pinning congestion squarely on TNCs’ shoulders misses the larger picture (or in the latest parlance fails to see the scooters from the cars), where personal vehicles still make up the lion’s share of traffic and associated impacts. TNCs are merely the latest iteration of a new transportation mode revealing our deficient regulatory schemes. What differentiates this crisis from priors is that machine learning algorithms are exploiting our free roadways in ways that humans alone could never do, and advancements towards AVs will push this forward with ruthless efficiency. What good is a driver minimum wage in a future without drivers?

Further, these caps and similar fees are lazy regulations, as former Portland mayor Sam Adams dissects: flat fees without a clear policy intention (beyond making legacy taxi companies whole, perhaps). Instead, we should view this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the transportation ecosystem towards our stated goals of increased mobility and access, at fair costs.

We can take a page out of Uber and Lyft’s book and charge vehicles for their usage of the road, i.e., time, distance traveled, as well as their specific, real-time impacts on congestion & demand. We can take that further, penalizing driving without passengers (zombie miles) and fuel-inefficient trips, while incentivizing sustainable modes or off-hour trips. We can even implement versions of fair fares, providing discounts for those with limited means and limited options. And we can do all this while simultaneously recouping much-needed revenue to improve our deteriorating public transit systems and funding the space for bikes and scooters, and next-generation smart and green roadways.

Lazy taxes and fees have real costs, further shifting the burden to ride-hailing drivers already breaking under current conditions or encouraging more personal car ownership. We finally have the technology, today, to bill vehicles for their usage of the roads and impacts on congestion, by pulling from cell phones and connected car technologies. Road usage pricing is no longer perpetually just over the horizon, now the question is whether we have the will to implement it.

ClearRoad is building the financial processing infrastructure for the future of mobility, enabling road usage pricing for any road. ClearRoad acts as governments’ interface to connected car and mobility data, providing regulatory design flexibility and tailored reporting capabilities, while ensuring driver privacy and data security. ClearRoad currently processes mileage-based user fees (MBUF) for road usage charge (RUC) programs in Oregon and Washington State, and partners with leaders in the tolling and telematics industries.