The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Death and Taxes


Your tax dollars at work: More Americans have died in traffic accidents than in all wars in U.S. history. Rather than subsidizing our automobile dependency, we should be taxing it.


This is the story so far: 


Almost everyone agrees with the science-based research: Traffic congestion in urban areas is growing steadily worse. “Automobile” has become an oxymoron.  


There is broad agreement that the lack of mobility and access causes significant economic, social and physical dysfunction in the urban areas where 90 percent of the citizens of the United States live, work, seek services and participate in recreational activities.


It is also well documented that new transportation projects and facilities do not solve the traffic congestion problems unless they are coupled with Fundamental Changes of the human settlement pattern to create Balanced Communities. As we saw in the last column, “Self Delusion and Fraud” (June 7, 2004), transportation/land-use dysfunction is reinforced by the acts of transportation planners and governance practitioners.


These facts of land-use/transportation reality can be stated as follows:

The current strategies to provide transport services are tragically flawed.  Building more facilities a without Fundamental Change in the human settlement pattern costs billions of dollars and makes congestion worse.  The flawed mobility strategies are perpetuated by fraudulent claims that new projects will solve congestion problems.

In this context, we examine two timeless topics as they relate to the transportation system: death and taxes.




The United States and its allies have just come together to dedicate a World War II Memorial to celebrate the 60th anniversary of D-Day and remember those who died in the conflict. More than 400,000 men and women lost their lives in service to the United States in the five years from 1941 to 1945, making the Second World War the bloodiest in our nation’s history.


As horrific as World War II was, it takes only 10 years of daily use of the highway system to equal the human toll of the war in traffic deaths.


Since the close of hostilities in 1945, at the current kill rate, the highway system has ended the lives of six times the number of World War II deaths. It only takes 25 years to kill as many men, women and children on the highways as have died in all the wars since the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775.


This would be a terrible price to pay for a mobility and access system if it worked. It is an unthink able toll for a system that it growing worse by the year, all the more so considering that new construction, under current conditions, only intensifies congestion and dysfunction.


The problem is not that we have designed or maintained our road system poorly; it is that this system has spawned a human settlement pattern that requires far more driving than would be needed with functional patterns and densities of land use. Many transportation-

related deaths result from the scatteration of urban dwellings that put young and old drivers on the roads.


The dysfunctional distribution of the origins and destinations of travel results in the practice of driving at high speeds to get from where one is to where one wants to be. This leads to road rage. Congestion also results in thousands of person years wasted in automobiles. This is termed “roadway person slaughter” in my book, The Shape of the Future. The Texas Transportation Institute calls it “person hours of delay.”


Even those who are not using automobiles are killed.  The current human settlement patterns created by least-common-denominator mobility strategies take a high toll in pedestrian deaths. The current modus operandi is to build the roadways for cars and let those not in cars get out of the way. 


It is not just automobiles that deal death. Trucks are involved in accidents that kill about 5,000 citizens each year. There so many trucks on the roadways because current government mobility strategies undermine a system of shipping freight by rail which is relatively safe and far more energy efficient. Federal and state mobility strategies require taxpayers to subsidize long haul, heavy trucks and scatter the origins and destinations of freight movement. These policies, programs, incentives and “education” efforts cause the rail system to be less efficient and effective. By subsidizing the use of trucks on streets and roads, there is inevitable conflict between big trucks and ever bigger automobiles.  Government action has made freight movement more profitable for some, but it comes at a high cost for almost all.  


Similar government strategies have reinforced the short-term economic goals of a few and dismantled potentially efficient intra-urban passenger systems (confusingly known as “Interurban” systems). These systems are now being reinstalled in some regions at a cost of billions. The same forces have also nearly eliminated efficient long-haul ground passenger service.


With freight, intra-urban passenger and package-delivery systems, as well as long-haul passenger service, the scenario is the same. Transportation policies, programs, incentives and "education" born of the conventional wisdom have undermined improvable systems. These strategies have made a few people richer, faster, but impoverished the nation-state and its citizen-taxpayers.


As we will explore in the next column, the public agency response is, “We did it all for you.” Governance practitioners say the current system is what citizens want and what the market “demands.” This is the way self-delusion and fraud come into play, as noted in the last column.


Traffic Deaths as a Global Problem


It is not only in the United States where death is an indicator of transport dysfunction. Worldwide, 1.2 million humans die in roadway/automobility accidents every year. With the accelerating “motorization” of the Third World, millions more per year will die unless the current paradigm changes. If the United States  is to be a “world leader,” it needs to show the way, and not just with slightly lower kill rates.


The fact that there is a lower percentage of deaths in the United States than in some other nation-states causes highway advocates to hold up our transport system as a model of “safety.” In the U.S., we do kill a lower percentage of the automobile travelers per mile traveled than in Africa, Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia.  


The places with the lowest rates of death from automobility, however, include Greenland and Western Europe. There are almost no roads in Greenland. There are lots of big, fast roads in Western Europe.


Why are the roads safer there? The human settlement pattern in Europe allows many more citizens to meet their daily mobility and access needs without resorting to a vehicle. Further, the patterns and densities of land use in Europe make a shared-vehicle the easiest and most intelligent option for many trips. And as noted below, unnecessary and unenjoyable automobile trips are discouraged by the total cost of gasoline.


Ironically, millions of American tourists vacation in European urban areas precisely because they do not require the use of an automobile. Not many visitors to the National Capital Subregion will choose to camp out under the new “Springfield fly-way-way-over.”


Death Summary


The national strategy on mobility and access is not working. Building more facilities without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns makes congestion worse. The current system conceived in the '20s, legislated in the '50s, and dominant for the past three decades, has killed more citizens than all of our wars.


In theory, automobility may work for up to 20 percent of a 20th century population at great expense. Basic physics dictates that automobility will not work for 70, 80, 90 much less 100 percent of an urban population. In a contemporary urban democracy, that is a long-term non-starter. 


The transport/land-use relationship must undergo Fundamental Change because, among other things, it is killing us.


Even in the face of these facts, highway advocates and politicians love and defend the current system. It gives them a source of easy money and gets them reelected.  They give every sign that they will not change until someone pries their cold hands off the steering wheel. 


There is a force, however, that often has proven to discourage citizens from using single-occupant vehicles and locating where the settlement pattern requires their use. Money. That brings us to this week’s second topic: taxes.




This discussion of taxes is not about keeping levies low to encourage economic growth and entrepreneurialism, a theme frequently sounded in Bacon's Rebellion. I am suggesting instead that certain taxes should, in fact, be higher in order to to conserve energy, especially imported energy. Taxes on energy consumption also would improve health and the environment, preserve economic prosperity and promote social stability.


There are many ideas for comprehensive energy-related taxes on the table that need to be considered. In a 1 June 2004 column titled “Why Gas Prices Are Too Low,” David Ignatius in The Washington Post outlined the issue and its context with clarity. He noted the political history and the current stance of pandering politicians who have subsidized automobility and, thereby, edged the United States toward and economic and strategic catastrophe. Ignatius summarized a current proposal by energy economist Philip Verleger, who proposed a 50-cent gas tax to the Ford Administration in 1973. He later renewed this suggestion, and it became the often scoffed at “Jimmy Carter 50-cent gas tax.”


Verleger now advocates a major gasoline tax with a specific purpose – to raise money to buy up gas guzzling cars on the road and ease the transition into energy reality.  Under the Verleger plan, a $2 a gallon tax would go into effect in 2009. The tax would then escalate a dollar a year to $5 a gallon by 2012. That would mean the total gas price would then be at about the same level as it will be in the European Union by that time. In the Verleger plan, the future tax revenue stream would be leveraged to buy up gas hogs and get them off the road. Delaying implementation to 2009 would allow for a phasing in of the economic, social and physical adjustments. Without a phase-in, these “adjustments” will be dramatic, immediate and painful when Middle East oil (two-thirds of known reserves) runs out or the flow is cut off. Did not someone blow up an oil pipeline just yesterday? Who wants to bet that today’s Saudi regime will be in power in 2012?


This column is not a forum to debate the right tax strategy, but we outline one proposal to indicate that it is time to take definitive action. A 50-cent gasoline gas tax would have helped in 1973. Now we need real, effective energy taxes that reflect the true cost of the consumption of imported energy resources and encourages intelligent market and consumer responses, especially vis a vis mobility and access. That means Fundamental Change in settlement patterns.


The Ignatius column has generated significant reader interest. On 5 June, The Washington Post editors published a suite of letters-to-the-editor in response to the column titled “Pain At the Pump.” The letters document the level and scope of reader illiteracy on transportation/land-use relationships and related topics. The letter writers are misguided on precisely the topics upon which we have taken The Post to task for obfuscating the facts. (See “Clueless,” Jan, 19, 2004 , and “No Context,” Feb. 2, 2004.) (1)


Energy Policy


Most people do not think of human settlement patterns when the topic of energy policy comes up. Rather, they are concerned about the continuing parade of record balance-of-payments deficits and the economic and security (as in, two wars in a decade) dependence on foreign oil that is controlled by unstable anti-



Thanks to the transportation strategy adopted in the 20s, oil has driven not only the domestic economy but foreign policy. The United States and its World War I allies attempted to create “nations” from medieval city states, scraps of the Ottoman Empire and nomadic tribes. They have coddled and catered to despots, dictators and ruling families because they controlled oil reserves. As yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s headlines document, we have made a hash out of their lives and ours. This is why there is a need for taxes and other incentives to shape the energy market. 


Cost- and supply-based incentives do work. Between October 1973 and October 1974, the percentage of those who both lived and worked in Columbia, Md. , increased from 17 percent to 37 percent. When oil crisis went away, so did concern for living and working in the same (Balanced) community.


While the United States has seen gasoline consumption grow steadily since the 1970s, Germany and Great Britain have cut consumption. The gross indicators of economic expansion have not grown as fast in Western Europe as in the United States. This is because the European Union and its member states have chosen to devote resources to shorter workweeks, longer vacations, better social safety nets, Fundamental Change in governance structure and more humane settlement patterns. These things benefit all citizens, not just a few at the top of the economic food chain who have benefited most from higher GNP growth.


Why It is Necessary for Citizens to Understand Transportation Strategies  


We open Chapter 13 of The Shape of the Future with the rationale for the proposition that “Transport is a Waste.” Transport facilities and energy are the resources used to get from where citizens are to where they want to be.


S/PI has argued for years that if citizens were smarter about where they chose to live and work, they would not have to travel as much and, thus, waste as much time, infrastructure and energy. They would already be at or near where they wanted to be -– where they worked, lived and sought services and recreation.  


These well-located citizens would be smarter, have more leisure time, have more time for their children and be better off economically. That's because there is more economic value created in places people that want to be –- think Richard Florida’s creative people. The places people want to be have higher value just because people want to be there, and the market reflects this reality. 


The reason these places cost more is not that they are inherently more expensive to build or maintain; it is because there are not enough of them. This is a pure case of supply and demand. The shortage of good places is due to the fact that those who provide shelter and mobility make more money in the short term from building and providing shelter in cheaper and thus dysfunctional, hard-to-get-to places. It is also because current transportation strategies open cheaper but more poorly located land to development. (See “Wild Abandonment,” September 8, 2003.)


The “cheaper” houses, land and buildings cost less because they are badly located. In this case, less expensive is not a bargain. (See Affordable But No Bargain”, Feb. 17, 2003. In fact, it costs more to live in one place and work, seek services and participate in recreational activities in other scattered locations. Even though the house may have initially been cheaper or municipal taxes lower, the total cost in time and resources is higher. These dysfunctional places are marginally acceptable as places to live or work only as long as there is cheap fuel and an uncongested road to get where one needs or wants to be and back.

The uncongested roads are disappearing and the cost of fuel is rising. Now you can see why it is important to understand death and taxes as they relate to mobility, access and human settlement patterns.

As we saw in the last column, “Self Delusion and Fraud,” to make matters worse, transportation professionals are reinforcing the myths that cause citizens to make the wrong decisions in the first place.


Next time the response: We are from the government...


-- June 7, 2004



1. The letter by Rowland laments the impact of her bad location decisions for which she expects the public to subsidize her chosen lifestyle.  (She believes the Private-Vehicle Mobility Myth.  See “The Myths that Blind Us,” 20 October 2003 .)  The Kimmel letter misunderstands the reality of affordable and accessible housing.  See “Affordable, but No Bargain”.).  The Schlosser letter is a form letter that rabid anti-tax groups circulate when anyone proposes a “tax.”  This form letter is sent without regard to the content or the fact that the column addresses the specific purpose of a specific tax.  The final letter is from John B. Anderson (aka, Anderson of Illinois) who reprises a 1980 presidential campaign proposal. 




































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at


See profile.