Annoyance tax

There was an interesting article in the NYT Sunday magazine the other week with a punchily titled “A Tax on Annoying Behavior?’ The premise was “What if we could impose a tax or fine on certain negative externalities to discourage people from generating those externalities. With such a tax, “. . . we would probably do less [of those damaging things] if we had to pay for them.”

It’s a theme that I daydream/fantasize about, often. I suspect many people do as well, even if their pet-peeve externalities are different from mine.

(There already are ‘taxes’ on externalities, but in some cases the revenues don’t cover the actual costs, or cannot be applied to directly to mitigate the cost of damages. Or in many cases, there is no practical way to collect the tax.)

A couple of my fantasy taxes/fines (transportation-related, of course) are:

1) Bike carcasses on locked up on bike racks:
Where there are clusters of bike racks, you often see bikes locked up to racks amputated of parts: front wheels, rear wheels, frames. Some deadbeat owners never return to retrieve/unlock the bike carcasses, as I call them, from the racks. Their lack of responsibility in unlocking and removing bike carcasses really annoys me. The owners should be fined.

Externality 1: As the unused/abandoned bike takes up a useful bike parking space, it is a waste of public resources. It’s also a nuisance, as it may reinforce the impression on bike thieves that the area is vulnerable for easy pickings.

Externality 2: Extra work is imposed on maintenance folks who should, but rarely, forcibly break the locks to remove the carcasses. Yes, it’s probably a hassle to have to come by car to take the bike away, since it can’t be ridden. Yes, it’s probably easier, or even cheaper to buy a new bike than to buy and install missing parts. But this is littering writ large!

A fine should be imposed on owners of locked up bike carcasses who do not remove their bikes from the racks within a reasonable time period, say 3 weeks. The financial fine should be substantial enough to motivate the owner to respond quickly. (In theory, if bike registration were mandatory just as it is for cars, all owners would be traceable, and the fine could be sent by mail.) An additional incentive would be to provide a rebate for owners who do remove their bikes upon notice, scaled to their promptness in doing so.

Plus some good could still be salvaged from those bike carcasses: by donating them to worthy fix-and-donate bike non-profits; there’s at least one in any urban area. My local favourite, Bike Exchange, is run by Jack Miller and Dave Fork, two of the coolest pedallers I know.

2) Fines for drivers who cause incidents/accidents which generate congestion:

You’re free-flowing on a freeway when traffic unexpectedly slows down. Some car has caused an incident, and the rest of the passer-by traffic is slowing down for (a) safety: in case the driver or responders are standing around; and/or (b) curiosity: what kind of car (s), and what type of driver(s) were involved? How gruesome was it? Humans can’t resist looking at crash scenes.

Whether the incident was an avoidable one (i.e., negligent driver at fault), or “unavoidable” (i.e., unexpected mechanic malfunction), the fact remains: the incident caused a traffic jam. Other people who were driving along were inconvenienced; they were forced to travel slower than they should, and expected to have to. Extra fuel wasted, increased pollution, wasted time are all externalities. The driver(s) who caused the incident should be charged a fine for causing the congestion (externality). The fine would be based on the vehicle-hours of delay generated, which can be calculated and/or measured based on the volume cars driving by in the vicinity and the decrease in speed relative to before the incident.

The prospect of such a fine should influence drivers to be more careful to avoid causing incidents and the attendant congestion. The revenues from these fines would be used for operational improvements for the roadways (i.e. more communication to drivers to enable them to avoid downstream congestion caused by a incident, etc.)

I wouldn’t mind some sort of social fine either: highlighting the embarrassment or shame of the at-fault driver for literally causing a scene that so many passers-by are slowing down to stare at. That should also change the driver(s)’ behaviour to drive more safely. Maybe it would be in the form of an indelible ink bomb on the car (like those used for money stolen from banks)?! (I personally impose my form of this by staring pointedly at the culprit driver as I drive by, although s/he is totally unaware of it. But it helps me vent a tiny bit of my frustration with the unexpected traffic jam.)

If you’re wondering if annoyance taxes exist in real-life, see below:

Cigarette tax
Do cigarette taxes really cover the cost of treating lung cancers, and laundering the smell that clings to clothes and furnishings? What about the externality of the yucky whiff of a lit cigarette that drifts towards me from the pedestrian in front of me? If only I could collect a penny from him as the fine for the annoyance he has caused me, as I overtake him in order to be upstream of his smoke – the annoyance tax.

Congestion pricing
There’s two versions: (1) the option for solo-drivers to pay to drive in the Express/HOT lanes instead of the mixed-flow lane traffics, since traffic in HOT/HOV lanes generally moves faster during peak periods (Bay Area freeways); or (2) to drive into/within in a CBD (Singapore, London.) You can either see it as a tax on the act of causing congestion: if you don’t want to pay, then don’t add to the congestion by driving at that time/place. It can also be seen as elitist: you can pay for the privilege of using the faster lane. This is the more common perception, hence the nickname ‘Lexus lane.’ Some claim that it is unfair to low-income drivers, who can ill-afford the fees.

In either case, the fee is intended to discourage demand of the road capacity and thus reduce crowding. There are alternatives though: drive at a different time, i.e. at off-peak hours (when there’s no or lower fees), a different route (which could be a longer distance, but has more capacity/less congestion), or best of all take transit, walk, or bike. Carpooling is an option for the Bay Area – you can drive on the HOT lanes and bridges and avoid paying if you have 2 or more in your vehicle. (3 people for the Bay Bridge.)

I have no problem with this kind of fee. But irrationally I hate the two-tier security check queues at airports, where people who have are traveling business or first class tickets (or paid for pre-screened security clearance programs) get priority to bypass the queue and go through first, and leave the rest of the passengers feeling like second-class citizens, fuming with frustration at how inordinately slow the regular queue is processing. Even though it’s no different conceptually from automobile congestion pricing!


2 thoughts on “Annoyance tax

  1. Someone gets their bike parts stolen and then you want to fine them to boot? It wasn’t bad enough that their bike got cannibilzed and all the parts stolen – now they have to move their useless bike and get rid of it? Talk about adding insult to injury.

    • @T: It’s easier for owner to unlock the bike with their own key, than to have maintenance/facility folks come to break the locks. It’s a low priority for maint folks, so the bike carcass could be attached to the rack for months . . . imagine if a junker car was parked for months in a parking space that other drivers wanted to use, how frustrating that would be.

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