OHIO | Commentary: A “new normal” for commuting?

By Rob Moore

Ohio Capital Journal

People are driving a lot less in Ohio these days. A report from the Ohio Department of Transportation suggested there have been a little more than half as many cars on the road as usual statewide since implementation of strict social distancing measures in March.

This is good for many Ohioans, and not just because of the benefits of reduction in risk of transmission of COVID-19 afforded by social distancing. For instance, despite the inconvenience of reduction of driving, reducing time spent on the road means less emission of pollutants.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the state of Ohio’s petroleum use led to emission of 75 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air. Less driving means less carbon emissions and slower contribution to global climate change, not to mention the benefits from reduction of harmful local emissions.

Another benefit of reductions in miles traveled is reduction of use of nonrenewable resources. Less cars on the road means less use of petroleum and less depletion of nonrenewable resources, which will help stabilize the price of transportation and energy use in the long run.

Most concretely for Ohio families, however, less time on the road means more time doing other things they care about, whether that is working, spending time with their family, or even something as simple as sleeping. The average person in Ohio spends 46 hours a year commuting — more than an entire work week each year spent on the road. Less cars on the road means less time spent in traffic and more time doing things families would rather do with their time.

Over the next few months, we will see traffic numbers climb back. At the same time, state policymakers will be scrambling for options to close a historically large budget gap. Easing of social distance restrictions will lead to a new normal for drivers, and policymakers have some tools they could use to make that new normal a healthier one for Ohioans while at the same time raise revenues for essential state programs.

A straightforward tool is more road pricing. High occupancy toll lanes or express lanes could be easier to implement in this moment of lower traffic than they would otherwise. These types of strategies would reduce traffic while generating revenue that could be spent on public transportation or other state programs.

A more ambitious approach would be to assess a pollution fee on fuel usage. This could be collected at the retail level for gasoline and would be tied to the social cost of pollution as determined by the cost of emissions to public health and environmental degradation. In an ideal world, this fee would apply to more than just transportation, but transportation could be a first step in curbing the cost of emissions.

An old tool that could also be helpful here is the gas tax. While Ohio increased its gas tax at the beginning of the DeWine administration, it is still below the level of Indiana and Pennsylvania’s. With gas prices at a nadir due to a mixture of a demand shock due to social distancing and a supply shock due to international oil production, the gas tax could be a strong tool for raising revenue, pricing driving, and not particularly hurting consumers.

Tools such as these will increase telecommuting, busing, biking, and walking while reducing driving and raising revenues for the public sector. Ohio has been wise throughout this crisis and intentionally shaping our transportation system in a post-shutdown world will take further wisdom from both policymakers and the public. 

Rob Moore is the principal for Scioto Analysis, a public policy analysis firm based in Columbus. Moore has worked as an analyst in the public and nonprofit sectors and has analyzed diverse issue areas such as economic development, environment, education, and public health. He holds a Master of Public Policy from the University of California Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Denison University. Read more Ohio Capital Journal stories here.

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