Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Price is Right: Federal Ecological Incentive for Long-Distance Travel

                Walking on the Amtrak platform with my rolling luggage, I can’t keep myself from smiling. I love trains, for ecological and recreational reasons, and the fact that my partner and I are currently replacing round-trip cross-country flights with train trips makes me love them even more. And seeing a large majority of seats full gives me hope that one day train travel will become a viable travel option again for the American population.

                However, back in January, after two gift cards and a coupon, my sister and her family finally justified the high expense of taking the train for a visit from Eugene to Portland, a stretch that sees a high amount of automobile travelers on a daily basis. One would think the train would regularly see a decent number of riders, as well. But while I was happy for my sister and her family on a personal level for their opportunity of an entire car to themselves (with two kids and a toddler, you couldn’t ask for better accommodations), this lack of consistent ridership was somewhat disheartening. It’s no surprise though, since the round-trip price of train tickets for a family of five between Eugene and Portland is likely to be more expensive than driving. So the big question is, “How do we encourage more ecological long-distance travel within the United States?” Through federal taxation measures that affect pricing, the travel options with less environmental impact can become more affordable, feasible and attractive.
                With any new travel program or innovation, there are three things to consider: time (speed and flexibility), price, convenience, and quality (of both travel experience and energy sourcing). Do we build high speed rail systems as both a convenience and quality marketing tactic to increase ridership? It doesn’t make sense to dive into large construction projects without high demand levels because there is a very good possibility that the environmental benefits will not outweigh the costs. Do we focus on travel systems that can appeal to travelers’ time constraints? Well, we’ve done that already. They’re called “automobiles” and “planes” and look where they’ve gotten us—the ecological impacts of both are devastating.
                There are several things (employment, disabilities, family size, etc.) that disrupt our ability to make concessions to sustainable travel, even when we are given a highly competitive price. But we don’t need 90% of the population to immediately make the switch to more efficient travel. We just need a significant (not necessarily majority) portion in order to jump start demand for more efficient long-distance travel. And this significant portion can be swayed through price. By federally taxing less sustainable travel industries and tax incentivizing more sustainable travel industries, we can reflect the ecological costs of certain types of travel in their monetary costs (e.g. the higher the impact, the higher the price). The environmental costs of travel are often externalized, so they currently make the more destructive travel options more affordable than those with less environmental impact.
                In Two Billion Cars, while the authors note the importance of changing consumer behavior, they argue that the first step is always technological energy-sourcing research and advancement (a quality improvement). I disagree. From a conservationist perspective, it’s imperative to try to use the resources and infrastructure already in place through pricing incentives to build demand. Our rates of energy consumption are unsustainable no matter the source. I’ll admit that it is important to develop alternative energies with a smaller carbon footprint, but the ultimate goal should be to consume less energy instead of just consuming the same amount but from a different resource. While research and development in alternative fuels leads to greater efficiency, it is extremely time-consuming, resulting in decades of immense energy and resource consumption, waste, pollution, tax dollar allocation, etc.; it contributes to the very issues which it is trying to solve (Wiki, 2013; Wikipedia-Hydrogen, 2013; Wikipedia-Solar, 2013). Mining for precious metals is required for solar and wind energy, immense tracts of land are needed for placement of panels and turbines, and currently, one of the biggest obstacles facing hydrogen power-sourcing is that it requires huge amounts of energy to produce (irony anyone?) (Zyga, 2006). Again, this is not to say that we shouldn’t pursue solar, wind, or hydrogen research, but the popular (and false) idea that they are carbon-neutral is possibly keeping many of us from changing our destructive habits because we feel that we don’t need to.
                Many of our environmental movements and projects are trying to attract consumers or users by focusing on quality, convenience or time. This is often done by making public transit more attractive through rail, using alternative packaging instead of less packaging, and marketing speedy, sustainable goods and services, even when speed is sometimes part of the problem. Consuming less is a close cousin to moving slower, working fewer hours, eating and buying locally, growing locally, and not being so attached to instantaneous fulfillment. Many people cannot work towards these habitual changes unless the price is right, and through taxation and public-private collaboration, that can be achieved.
                Let’s take a look at “price” with the following scenario: You’re a college student and you plan to go home across the country for one-three weeks during winter break. You have some flexibility in when you leave and come back. If you save $50 (round-trip) and it took two extra days of travel to take the train instead of flying, would you do it? What if you saved $200-$300? What if the whole trip cost $50, you could only leave on certain days of the week but you received a voucher that was good towards discounts on textbooks for class or small subsidies for housing on or near campus? At what point do we (or you) bend our time, convenience, and/or quality expectations for a highly desirable price?


Sperling, Daniel, Deborah Gordon, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Wiki Answers. “How is solar power bad for the environment?” Answers Corporation. 2013. Web.

Wikipedia. “Timeline of Hydrogen Technologies.” Wikipedia. May 24, 2013. Web.

Wikipedia. “Timeline of Solar Cells.” Wikipedia. May 21, 2013. Web.

Zyga, Lisa. “Why a hydrogen economy doesn’t make sense.” Phys.Org. Dec. 11, 2006. Web.

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