Progressive Vehicle Registration for Urban Areas

“The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is actually the right to destroy the city.” —Lewis Mumford, “The Highway and the City”

Are vehicle registration policies in line with the aspirations of our urban areas? Practically every city in North America is striving to become more friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders. Research shows that families who own fewer cars are more likely to drive less. These households generate a host of benefits for their communities through reduced air pollution, impact on roadways, and improved health.

However, to my knowledge, state vehicle registration policies generally do not discourage people from owning multiple automobiles in urban areas. (I would be happy to be wrong about this – if there is an example of a state that has a separate registration policy for urban areas, please let me know.)

What might an urban vehicle registration policy look like?

Here is a rough concept for a state vehicle registration policy that would align better with the goals of urban areas to reduce automobile dependence.

  • The state would link the vehicle registration to the home address. From a policy perspective, we are more interested in the number of cars per household than the number of cars per person.
  • The first car registered at a household would cost roughly the same as the current cost per vehicle.
    • In urban areas, additional cars registered at a household would cost substantially more than the first. This additional cost should reflect the societal costs of increased vehicle ownership per household. The marginal funds generated through this increased registration fee could be used to augment travel demand management programs or other investments in non-motorized transportation.
    • In rural areas, additional cars would cost the same as the first.
  • People who did not have a vehicle registered at their residence would be eligible for a rebate at the end of each fiscal year. This may be something that could be integrated into the state income tax system.

This is a rough outline of a course of action for urban advocates. If we want to see our cities become more hospitable to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit, we need to make sure that all our public policies align with this direction.