“Think of the Hardworking Families”

ChildrenthinkWhat will they do? You hear the rhetoric every time transportation budgets are planned. It’s happening again now as the DFL and GOP wage intellectual war over the right path to fund roads, bridges, and transit across the state of Minnesota. Political gamesmanship ensues; current DFL Governor supports an opaque wholesale gasoline tax (and other increases) to support funding MnDOT, conservative group calls said governor out for formerly opposing raising taxes on behalf of MN families, GOP fires back with a no light rail promise (plus a plan that says nothing about additional transit funding of any kind, but that’s not here nor there for this post).

The gist of the argument goes like this: “People depend on their cars to get to work, drop the kids off at daycare, etc. A typical family drives 20,000 miles a year. At average vehicle fleet fuel efficiency and the proposed wholesale tax, families would spend an extra $120-250 a year on gasoline. Hardworking Minnesotans cannot take this hit to afford luxuries like bike lanes and trolleys.” Politicians further enable this, letting the general driver continue to be fairly ignorant of  road funding mechanisms, local expenditures on many roads, federal contributions, and the gas tax being constitutionally dedicated – leading many to believe they already pay the full cost of every inch of pavement.

At the same time, people like being told their problems are real. Bad roads. Congestion. Metro vs outstate funding equity cries. Politicians like being elected, and doing so means telling constituents they’ll deliver on fixing those issues. It’s how we end up with two parties (one of which operates under a fiscally-conservative mantra) coming up with these road funding plans:


Source: MinnPost

Note that both proposals include an increase in total transportation spending. I’m not going to say what the “right” dollar amount or proposal is, but it’s interesting that the party who wanted to give back the entirety of a state surplus is now proposing to spend that slush fund money on additional road spending. In other aspects of public policy (both state and national), conservatives typically argue for more privatization, less spending on frills, and entitlement reform, making it odd to see a proposal that not only doesn’t address a longer-term infrastructure plan but cross-subsidizes one economic activity (driving a personal or freight vehicle) with money from mostly unrelated sources.

So the question is: what would happen to hardworking Minnesotans if we really did increase the gas tax? But first!..

Background Thoughts

  1. About that congestion thing. The MSP metro area has it pretty good, with the average driver having access to the fifth (5th) most jobs of any major metro in the country (ahead of places with WAY more jobs like Houston, Dallas, Washington D.C., and Boston). I may have said this before, but that means our road network is pretty mature and we could coast into maintenance mode for a long time and remain commute-competitive.


    Source: University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies

  2. We need to question what luxury in transportation means. Take a look at the following series of images and tell me which seems the most luxurious to you:
    Luxury_TranspoThat car on the left is a 1999 Dodge Neon – pretty basic (no offense to any Neon owners), and it’s quite a bit more luxurious than the other options (this coming from a pro-bike/transit guy). Cars are great inventions – they’re like the future (I even own a Honda Odyssey just like that one!), but even a cheap car (with actual heat! and a dedicated seat! and a radio!) is a more attractive option to people than their alternatives.
  3. However, infrastructure (roads + sewers + etc to serve auto-oriented places) cost a good amount more than other modes. We should see catering to them as the luxury option, like Keurigs.

    Re-using this from my last post. (Source: VPTI)

    Re-using this from my last post. No fear. (Source: VPTI)

  4. A large portion of people who commute in MN drive relatively short distances. I talked specifically about the bikewalkbus gap in Minneapolis where 55% of workers live 5 miles or less from their job. Spot checks across the state show that on average 20-30% of people work in the same city they live. 47% of Hennepin County residents work within 10 miles of their home. Many other trips are even closer than that. Point being, there’s a lot of discretionary mode choices going on across Minnesota.
  5. The Minnesota State Highway Investment Plan (SHIP) details out projects it would spend additional revenues on. While there is a lot of maintenance in there, I count a whole lot of dollars for capacity improvements. So, it’s realistic to imagine a scenario where the state raises revenues to maintain what it has, but doesn’t have enough to build additional capacity to relieve congestion (real or perceived) or handle regional population growth.

So What?

The appeal to “hardworking families” is powerful and emotional, but a lazy one since it assumes there are no alternatives to spending extra at the pump (or admits we have a transportation system and land use pattern that requires driving).  However, there really are options:

  • One member of a household bikes to work to save on gas (and new gas taxes). Even if it’s just from April to October (but year-round isn’t out of the question).
  • One member of a household takes the bus to work. (maybe suburban opt-outs like Southwest Regional Transit will run more local circulators)
  • Families or friends carpool more often
  • One or both members of a household shift what time they leave for work to avoid growing congestion
  • Parents opt out of buying (or helping) their 16-year old a car. They bike to school or take the bus (and are likely much safer and healthier as a result)
  • Rent out a basement bedroom to a stranger to offset costs
  • Pay the increase because driving is still more attractive or practical than options listed above

There are probably more options rational actors could come up with. If any of those things sounds super terrible, we should probably check our first-world privilege. Not to get too political here, but telling (mostly middle class) people they can continue driving, for every trip, for every member of the family, as a right of American existence, without paying more for the infrastructure that very act requires, seems like an entitlement we should prioritize way below other spending cuts that have been on the table.

I really do sympathize with folks who for whatever reason have no way around long commutes, or lower-income families for whom an extra couple hundred dollars a year really may push them over the financial edge. We have ways to soften those blows in the tax code. But promising more roads without charging users anything extra seems like bad policy.

19 thoughts on ““Think of the Hardworking Families”

  1. Steven Prince

    Excellent Post with great data. I suspect the options you outline are not really available to families in rural and exurban settings. Perhaps that is the political rub – families who live in those settings are economically stressed and see streetcars, light rail and bike lanes as further state investment benefiting “those folks in the Cities” who are perceived to be doing better economically.

    That creates resentments that investment in a multimodal transportation system benefits higher income people (based on regional location) not middle class people (who also live in more urban areas).

    There is some truth to this – we have built many homes over the last 30 years that are only accessible by private vehicle, it is hard to imagine how densities and road systems in many suburbs will ever economically support mass transit as a substitute for car ownership.

    If we could figure out a way to extend bike paths while educating people on how much money they could save by parking their car and riding a bike (using the data you already have on how much cheaper it is to build bike paths), that could be a winning political strategy.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Thanks for the comment!

      I guess I don’t really buy the metro/outstate divide. There are probably truly rural farm households where one person drives long distances to a job. But ‘rural’ means ‘small town’ to a lot of people (I’ve seen <50k and not in a major metropolitan area), and there are plenty of folks living in small towns where one member works in town and many shopping trips are less than 2 miles away. It's not any more outrageous to think that they could save a few bucks at the pump by just riding their bike half the time, just like someone in Lakeville or Eden Prairie could do the same.

      As for suburbs, it's hard to envision every single one in the metro getting a major transit makeover, but certain nodes can transform (think the DC metro area treatment) over time and soak up demand, and cheap investments in comfortable walking/bike connections to surrounding neighborhoods could be the difference maker (supplemented by behavioral changes like carpooling, trip consolidations, etc).

  2. Wayne

    As a hard-working, tax-paying, bus-riding type fellow, I’ve pretty much had it with this state. I’m saving up to move to another state with more sensible transportation and land use policy.

  3. UrbanDoofus

    Good article, preach!

    The real juicy stuff in your article is the positive economics of ditching a car. Any fiscal conservative talking about “hardworking families” should easily be able to do the math and see that car ownership is going to run you AT LEAST 6,000 a year with gas, insurance, and payments.

    One quibble. Can we lay off the biking as a real transit alternative? if you’re non able bodied, live in a rough hood, don’t own a fat tire, don’t have easy access to bike friendly spots, or value your safety, this isn’t an option for you. My female friends who like to wear dresses or skirts to work aren’t fond of it either. We don’t sway anyone by pushing this idea, except each other. Not sorry.

    Gimme dat TC subway!

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      I’d say that for many people, the cost of owning/operating a car is actually quite a bit lower than $6k a year. Especially if you think about the “second” family car (or the only one for a young single person) usually being a cheaper, older, beater. I drove a 2002 Mazda Protege5 in not-terrible condition. There are worse cars out there that cost less up front. If you have a 10-12 mile one-way commute, plan on replacing it every 7-10 years with another comparable used car priced at ~4-6,000, you’re really only spending somewhere in the $2-4,000 range including everything (depreciation, maintenance, insurance, gas, registration, etc).

      That’s not to say ditching it isn’t a huge savings (especially when $150-200 is pitched as a real hit to the pocket book), but it does change the mental calculus when factoring accessibility. If you plan on keeping it around, you’re paying all the fixed costs and only saving on gas, lighter maintenance, and maybe parking. The point is that if $150 is enough to push you over the edge, then fine, keep the car, but bike in the spring/summer/fall months on nice days.

      Re: biking not being a real option. I think those are almost all mental hurdles to get over in most cases rather than real barriers. Most adults are able-bodied enough to ride 2-8 miles, you can change at work, ride only on nice days, etc. If distance is an issue, consider moving. There are always exceptions of course and we should be mindful of real barriers, but the vast majority of commuters and shoppers could easily get by substituting biking for driving for a good chunk of trips. If the local infra isn’t good enough, I’ve got a list of real cheap projects suburbs can do to make it better.

      1. wayne

        Even if we accept the lowest low-end estimate you put forth ($2000/yr), that’s still twice the price of transit for a year (~$1000 or so, give or take). Local transit sucks, I know, but financially it’s a no-brainer if you value money over time.

        It shouldn’t be such a huge trade off, though–that is to say the amount of money saved per extra time wasted is not really high enough and that’s because there is way too much time wasted. If we could improve that side of the equation with inner-city transit that doesn’t suck, it would be a way more convincing argument for a lot of people. I save so much money taking the bus and walking to everything else I need that I don’t even mind taking cabs when I need to get heavy/bulky stuff. But when I worked in Bloomington the commute ate up over 2 hours a day when I lived what was apparently a 15 minute drive away in south Minneapolis.

        Side note, I guess one could also argue that the time on transit isn’t necessarily time wasted if you read or catch up on emails on your phone or whatever else that you can’t (safely) do while driving, which would somewhat reduce the amount of ‘wasted’ extra time on the bus. But I’d still rather be at home if given the choice.

      2. aexx

        I’m an urban car-lite person as I take public transit to work. I spend about $2000/year total on my car (actually less, but I added in $600/year to cover the expense of a car bought outright meant to last about five years before replacement).

        I have a MetroPass that runs me just under $1000 (it’s federal tax deductible, but I’m in a low enough income bracket that I was likely to get back most of the money anyway…who would have thought tax-discounted bus passes would be technically regressive?). That means I spend about $3000 a year–or $250 a month for nearly all of my transit needs, minus the occasional Uber.

        That’s really not a bad deal, so I’m more than happy to shell out more at the pump to pay for maintenance. While I don’t drive to work, I do a lot of other activities with my car – most evening errands and stuff on weekends, unless alcohol is involved. So anyone in a decent neighborhood can get by pretty cheaply if they don’t need a brand spanking new car.

        One argument that I dislike that you’re making is one that so often gets slipped into urbanist commentary – the “if it’s too expensive, just move”.

        No doubt people moving into more walkable/bikable/transit-rich areas is ideal and probably necessary, but housing (and transportation, by proxy) is a pretty inelastic market. You can’t just get up and move your house right away – you may owe more than it’s worth, it might be close to work–even if you have to drive to work–or it just might not sell. Housing can also potentially too expensive, even if that’s not the case in Minneapolis for the most part.

        There’s more than a little privilege (of the class and educational variety) in anyone saying, “Don’t like the prices you have to pay? Just move and get a different job.” I’m in no way saying you’re being classist or elitist, but it’s good to be mindful that situations in housing/transportation often aren’t super fluid.

        1. Wayne

          As a transit-dependent person, I have moved many times in order to get better transit service (since there are plenty of parts of town where service is intolerably bad). Why is it fair that I have to move and restrict my job search but the same argument can’t be applied to someone who has a car? It’s not my fault they purchased a house instead of renting. Why is their bad decision supported and rewarded over and over again? I mean, they have their own fun giveaway written right into the tax law! When homeowners were getting their mortgages reworked because they bit off more than they could afford, why wasn’t the government capping my rent at the same time?

          The housing/transportation market doesn’t act the way you’d expect because we incentivize and subsidize a certain set of choices–namely driving a car and living in a single family home in the suburbs that you own (or pay a mortgage on for most). Then we cry when those choices were bad and throw more money at a sinking ship.

        2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          Maybe I’m missing it, but did I make the suggestion for people to move? While I think that’s actually a more reasonable alternative for many than they’re willing to admit, I also understand that for people who own homes or work multiple jobs in different locations, moving is very difficult. That’s why all my suggestions were things people can do in their existing environs – carpool, ride a bike, forego additional cars in the household, etc.

        1. aexx

          I pay under $40 a month for insurance. It’s probably my biggest monthly car expense (especially with gas so cheap) and it’s still not that bad.

          How anyone can find hundreds of dollars for a car payment, plus full-coverage insurance, plus all other expenses is beyond me. But then again, I’m just a poor millennial. Ha

      1. UrbanDoofus

        Who said I was speaking for all women? Just the one I know who have expressed such a viewpoint. I also know some who don’t give a rip and ride around all winter. Relax.

        1. Matty LangMatty Lang

          Well, you did write the following statement: “Can we lay off the biking as a real transit alternative?” And then you wrote this: “We don’t sway anyone by pushing this idea, except each other.”

          You did not add any qualifiers that would lead one to believe you were speaking about a small subset of the population. There’s a huge majority of the population who says biking is not an option for them because there is not a network of safe and inviting facilities for bicycle transport in MSP. Given a network of safe and inviting facilities that connected well to origins and destinations many of these people state they would give bicycle transportation a try.

          I’ll go relax now.

    2. Rosa

      I’m a skirt-wearing bike commuter. It is kind of a luxury – I’m lazy enough that I won’t bike more than 5 miles to work, so we have to live in the city.

      And I can replace a stolen or salt-destroyed bike every single year for less than it would cost us to have a second car.

      Complaining about mentioning bikes because it doesn’t help people unless they live in bike-friendly places is like complaining about mentioning cars as transportation because lots of us can’t afford offstreet parking and risk getting towed every snow emergency.

      Also, to the predictable cost of the car you have to add the unpredictable distribution of those costs. Most people’s “emergency funds” are mostly “emergency car expense funds” and sudden car repairs/replacements are right up there with medical emergencies in terms of pushing families into debt.

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