Americans can't get enough of their cars. It's a relationship that forces state and local government agencies to constantly devise solutions that minimize pollution and congestion - the two main side effects of our addiction to the automobile.
These solutions aren't always met with enthusiasm, however.
In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, inspired by successes in London and Sweden, announced a congestion-pricing plan for parts of Manhattan. The proposal, which needed legislative approval to become law, would charge drivers $8 per day to drive in notoriously congested areas between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Though Bloomberg's proposal gained support from major players, including the state's governor, it also unleashed a flurry of criticism. The Legislature threatened to not vote on the plan during the 2007 legislative session.
But after a marathon negotiation session in mid-July, according to The New York Times, the Legislature passed the bill, which will create a commission to study different plans for reducing traffic congestion in New York City, including Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed the bill into law in late July.
Across the country, King County, Wash., is using the "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" method.
Instead of charging those who drive in congested areas, the county's Pay-as-You-Drive (PAYD) Insurance Pilot Project plans to give a positive incentive to those who don't. Using GPS technology, the PAYD pilot will monitor driving habits of willing participants and offer lower insurance premiums to those who drive less and outside of rush-hour traffic.
Drive Less, Pay Less
According to a 2006 King County report, more than 1.7 million licensed vehicles shared space on the county's roads in 2004. With a population just under 1.81 million in 2005, that works out to almost one vehicle per person. With 70 percent of the county's residents embarking alone on their morning commute in 2004, according to the same report, that's a lot of cars on the road.
But county officials say PAYD will help reduce that number and the problems it entails. "King County has been looking at a variety of approaches, an entire menu of approaches to reduce the No. 1 emission of greenhouse gas in our area, which is automobiles," said Ron Sims, King County executive. "We've also been looking at approaches to reducing the congestion in our area, which is often automobile-based. We believe that Pay-as-You-Drive brings an incentive for less car use and more and more efficient car use."
Set to launch in fall 2007 or early spring 2008, the five-year pilot will recruit 5,000 drivers, whose cars will be outfitted with GPS transponders. These units will record an array of information, including when, where, how much and how fast participants drive.
"We will be able to look where the car entered certain quadrants during peak hours," Sims explained, "and the insurance will be adjusted depending on when they enter those specific areas on the GIS maps."
The program aims to encourage drivers to use public transportation, ride bikes or carpool whenever possible. According to a county news release, those who choose to drive less or avoid congested areas during peak traffic hours could save as much as $100 on their annual insurance bill.
At the end of the pilot period, the program's objective is to reduce miles driven by participants by 12 percent and increase carpooling by 5 percent. A long-term goal is creating a PAYD product that could be replicated by other governments, but if nothing else, the pilot will reveal potential kinks in implementing such a program, said Jim Lopez, deputy chief of staff for King County's Executive Office, and lead on environmental issues.
"We hope to learn a lot about people's preferences, what works in the program, what doesn't," Lopez said, "and we hope
to be able to build a model of action around the program so that other jurisdictions can use it as well."
PAYD is one component of King County's efforts to minimize its impact on the environment, he said, which is formally called the King County Climate Plan. "It's a comprehensive plan to try to get our region to climate stabilization, which we define as 80 percent below current levels, by 2050, and Pay-as-You-Drive is identified in the plan as one strategic action we can take.
"If the program is successful," he continued, "it could be one strategy we use to reduce our dependency on single occupancy vehicles, or at least to reduce the amount of vehicles miles traveled we use in cars that burn fossil fuels."
Lopez also emphasized that PAYD would be an optional package, which may not be suited for everyone. "There are benefits to folks who have fixed-cost insurance," he said. "If you drive a lot, then you have some stability in your understanding of what your bill is going to be, as opposed to a variable-cost model."
The pilot is the fruit of a public-private partnership between the county, the Washington Department of Transportation and Unigard Insurance Co. It's made possible by a $1.9 million Federal Pricing and Congestion Management Air Quality grant from the Federal Highway Administration, and more than $3 million in matching funds from Unigard.
The insurance company, county and various project supporters will work jointly to promote the program, but with the recent hike in gas prices, Sims said recruiting volunteers shouldn't be too difficult.
"They are going to want to avoid the higher gas cost, and now they can get a good reduction on their insurance premiums," he explained. "We think it's going to be a very successful program."
PAYD is not entirely new - Japan, England and Texas use similar programs - but before GPS technology came along, measuring the results of such a program was much less accurate. In the past, random odometer checks and drivers' good-faith reporting of miles driven were the methods employed to monitor the number of miles a vehicle was driven.
But GPS technology does much more than simply ensure an accurate mileage count; it opens the doors to myriad other parameters that can be used to create insurance plans that fit a wide variety of driving habits. For instance, Unigard also plans to monitor vehicle speed, which could theoretically lead to added savings for drivers who take it slow.
At the same time, the ability to gather such detailed information raises privacy concerns.
A priori, the program has some good points, said Doug Klunder, privacy project director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State. "If they're collecting only the information necessary for the stated purpose, which is looking at mileage, I don't have a whole lot of concerns about knowing that person X has driven 10 miles this day, 20 miles this day. That's just not very sensitive information."
On the other hand, he said, the more information is gathered, the more problematic the issue becomes. "When you really get someone's travels in detail - that tells you a whole lot about that person."
In the case of King County's PAYD program, Unigard, which will be selecting the pilot's GPS vendor, is already considering ways to ease drivers' worries.
"Obviously we recognize that there are potential privacy concerns the customers would have," said Anne Smith, a spokeswoman for Unigard. "We're looking at what options there would be for how this information gets reported into the insurance company and whether consumers would be able to opt out if they didn't want the information looked at."
In one scenario, Smith said drivers could deal directly
with the vendor and choose what information will be shared with the insurance company, but nothing's set in stone yet. "Those details," she added, "haven't been worked out because it's a little too early."
For those concerned with how the government might use the data, Sims said the county will not see drivers' information firsthand.
"The insurance company will be handling the data, and then it will be shared," he said. "We won't have data on the individuals; we will have aggregate data."
Klunder, however, said there should still be concerns about where the detailed data will reside and who will have access to it.
"[If] it's still maintained someplace, then that means there will be access to it under some circumstances - whether it's a court order or some other law enforcement access," he said, adding that protocols could be implemented to regulate the data use. "But one of the dangers there," he cautioned, "is that protocols change over time."
Given the recent rash of security breaches hitting the federal government, states and the private sector, it's becoming increasingly difficult to truly protect information, Klunder said. "The only real protection is to get rid of that information and only store the aggregate information."
A key aspect of the program, Sims reminded, is that it's purely optional, and drivers' information won't be gathered against their will.
"The individual is not compelled to do this. It's an all-volunteer program. If people wish to benefit, they will use the technology," he said. "It's being offered as an alternative package, saying, 'If you want lower insurance rates, here is how the insurance company protects itself, and here is how you receive the benefits.'"