Taxing actual miles is better, but vehicle weight should be a factor for VMT

Because I’m in the 99th percentile for having strong opinions, a recent Washington Post article about some states experimenting with “vehicle-miles driven” (VMT) taxes in place of gasoline taxes got my attention. I’ve been complaining about the rampant up-ramping inadequacy of taxing only gas as a proxy for road usage for years.

Wear & tear is a cost of all cars, not just gas burners

Though they use less gasoline, it is obvious that hybrid and electric cars also cause wear and tear on roads, just like those powered by internal combustion engines do. Excluding those which weigh less than an average human being, every driver of any* vehicle on the asphalt should be paying a share of maintenance for streets, tunnels, and bridges.Pile of money

First let me point out that I think eliminating the gas tax entirely would be stupid. We should continue to tax fuel purchases for as long as they occur commercially because burning gas directly tracks with carbon dioxide emissions. Every breathing creature on the planet is affected by that pollution, not just the people driving automobiles. Taxing it is just!

I believe America’s leadership made a terrible mistake when it didn’t radically increase the fuel tax after 9/11. At that moment, patriotism might have mitigated the political hit. The true cost of every gallon of gasoline includes our spending on wars in the Middle East, defense against terrorism, and the ongoing environmental damage of carbon emissions and oil spills.

Gas is a dirty fuel in every sense of the word.USA flag - 1

With that being said, even 100% electric vehicles are not without deleterious effects upon our motorways. Never mind the generation of electricity—environmental issues there can be managed via different levers—but consider the physical reality of the cars themselves. A 2021 Toyota Camry rolls 3310 to 3475 lbs around our pavements depending upon trim level; a Camry Hybrid weighs in at an even heftier 3580 lbs.

That hybrid is eating some asphalt.

Space is occupied by hybrids as readily as by conventional cars

Add road congestion, parking issues, and traffic to the question of wear and tear. Engine type doesn’t affect those either.

To be clear, my position is that a combination of a fuel tax collected at the gas pump and VMT computed from individual vehicle data should start out with a total tax burden similar to today’s for a typical driver—specifically, those opting for efficient, mid-sized cars traveling an average number of miles.

I’m not advocating for a sudden huge jump in tax collection—though I believe most of us should be paying more than we do now to reflect the true cost of operating private vehicles—but for the choice of vehicle combined with actual miles driven to dictate the total tax burden per driver.

Allowing these rates to rise gradually over time would protect commuters from a sudden financial shock while allowing for desperately needed infrastructure improvements to begin across America. Escalating costs for operating outmoded, oversize vehicles in inappropriate environments would also nudge manufacturers and consumers toward more rational conveyances designed specifically for the types of trip actually being made day in and day out.

That Camry I mentioned occupies about 96.6 square feet (192.1″ x 72.4″ per Toyota’s specs) standing still. I’m pretty broad in the beam, yet my own standing square footage requirements are about 1.5′ × 1′ or 1.5 sq. ft.  math working out square footage of Toyota Camry

For reference: An average bicycle is 68″ long by roughly 24″ wide; therefore, a bike occupies about 11 ¹⁄3 sq. ft.

Here’s a quick visual comparison of the relative square footage occupied by a human body (lady) vs. an average bike vs. that same Toyota Camry. Remember to consider this graphic should be multiplied by the almost 8 billion human inhabitants of planet Earth to fully grasp the big picture.sketch on graph paper showing relative sizes of lady, bike, car

As a person with some physical disabilities, I’m hardly suggesting that all of us should walk or bike everywhere instead of using powered machines we’ve improved for that purpose over the course of millennia. Still, I’d argue that the ideal single person vehicle should be much closer to the size and weight of a bike if not the human body itself vs. a Heavy Duty pickup truck or even a sedan like that Camry on which I keep picking.

Even “compact” private vehicles operating with single passengers are a wildly inefficient use of space. That’s a more noticeable issue in dense cities, but the inappropriateness is blatant in any context given a modicum of though.two children stand next to blue hatchback

Again, as a person with physical limitations, I remain loathe to ban passenger cars outright from most spaces—even urban cores—but I absolutely support governmental policies that reflect the full, true costs of our dependence upon personal vehicles sized to hold entire families or a small sports team yet routinely carrying individual bodies.

A preposterous percentage of Americans—who carry multiple occupants on a given vehicular trip only 49% of the time, on average, per 2011 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics—elects to drive something rather larger than a sedan.

According to Edmunds, in 2020, four of the top ten “Most Popular Cars in America” were full size trucks; three others were SUVs. That makes 70% of the favorite American choices for mostly carrying one human body even larger than the Camry I’ve been offering as an example of a standard passenger car.

According to this Bloomberg City Lab article, “Since 1990, U.S. pickup trucks have added almost 1,300 pounds on average. … the biggest vehicles on the market now weigh almost 7,000 pounds.” It would appear that human bodies in America aren’t the only ones experiencing an obesity epidemic.

The way that larger trucks have regulatory status as commercial machines, not passenger vehicles, making them exempt from EPA fuel economy reporting rules must be addressed. A solo commuter to an office should pay—literally, via her tax bill—for inefficient choices that affect others.

Those hauling heavy machinery or farm equipment may be reasonably held to a different standard of taxation. Differentiating between legitimate commercial vehicles and passenger use in calculating VMT strikes me as wise.

Major popular objections to VMT as implemented in 2021

Returning to the specifics of the states currently enacting—or testing— VMT in 2021, two major objections are noted (from the same Post article from paragraph one, bolded emphasis mine):

“Surveys of drivers involved in pilot programs revealed questions of privacy and data security as top concerns. Many environmentalists also are opposed, saying that taxing gasoline also[sic] is also an effective tax on carbon dioxide emissions. Under a miles-driven system, the highest-emission vehicles stand to gain a tax break.”

I see simple solutions to both of these non-problems with implementing a sensible VMT.

Environmental solution via VMT: factor in weight

To address the concern that fuel-guzzling trucks and SUVs will be under-taxed given their tendency to pollute, the miles driven tax rate ought to be multiplied by the weight of the vehicle.

Accounting for actual weight corrects for the environmental damage done by over-sized SUVs and pickups used frivolously in place of fuel efficient passenger cars for urban commuting. A Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) is already required of all manufacturers. Use that information to tax drivers based upon their chosen vehicle multiplied by the number of miles s/he drives. That result offers a pretty reasonable assessment of how much wear and tear one individual puts on our public roads.

I believe the best policy in a free society is to allow the real price of operating even the most bloated conveyance to convince drivers to make better choices when conscience fails. I wouldn’t ban Hummers, but I’d like to see their owners pay for more of what they’re currently getting away with stealing from future generations.

Allow people to continue to “express their individuality” by driving one of the most popular “cars” i.e., full sized trucks if they wish, just make them pay their fair share of what they’re using.

Privacy objection to VMT: read the odometer, stupid

The privacy issue is hugely important to me, but carrying an intrusive GPS tracking device at all times is hardly the only option for implementing VMT.

You don’t need location data to assess miles driven. There’s an odometer built into every modern vehicle.

States like mine already require annual safety inspections of any vehicle operating on public roads. Adding an odometer reading to that process—done in state-certified facilities in every community—would add only a trivial amount of time and effort to that process. Remitting one’s “actual miles driven” tax after an annual safety or emissions inspection could be required before new window or license plate stickers were provided.

States could offer tracking devices like those used in Oregon’s program to those who prefer to pay smaller, more manageable, more frequent periodic bills, but also allow drivers to accrue billable mileage with collection due quarterly, annually, when registrations are renewed, or simply upon sale of the vehicle. That could lead to a large tax bill for someone making the latter election, but it effectively removes all privacy issues from the tax.

Odometer readings could be self-reported or taken at government facilities or in approved private garages such as car dealerships or service stations; any discrepancies could be caught upon sale or transfer of the vehicle. Deposits based upon averages—the individual’s historic mileage as these programs persist over the years or from data captured by auto insurance actuarial tables—could be held in escrow by the state if necessary.

In the longer term, odometers could be designed to transmit readings without coupling that information to GPS location data. Data transmission of this type is well within the bounds of current technology.

In short, there are no insurmountable technical or privacy obstacles to implementing a fair, cost-effective collection of VMT in 2021.

Bigger, heavier vehicles take up more than their fair share of space, they cause roads to deteriorate faster, and they represent a greater threat to the health and safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. A properly designed VMT should tax individuals for their choice of vehicle in combination with the quantity of miles driven. That would be by far the most fair and reasonable option I can imagine.

* Though this may not be a universal position, I believe that every human has the right to navigate the world under his or her own power without taxation. Bicycles and skateboards probably do exert a small toll upon the surfaces they transit, but I suspect their effects are negligible compared with that of most powered conveyances.

The electric bike pictured in the photo to the right of the construction trucks was used by my father to commute to his last full-time professional job before retirement. He was in his 60’s at the time and found the electric motor assist necessary to cope with a particularly steep hill between home and office. To be fair, he always had access to a car for days when the Oregon weather made cycling miserable or unsafe, but Dad makes a fair proxy for a non-young, not-above-average-in-fitness commuter.

Again, from the same Washington Post article, here’s a description of how Oregon is currently implementing its VMT program:

“Participants in the state have three ways to sign up — two privately run systems and one administered by the state Department of Transportation. The private companies send drivers a device that logs where and how much they drive or pull the data directly from vehicles. Then they send out bills and turn over the revenue to the state. Drivers get reimbursed for gas taxes they pay at the pump.

The companies keep drivers’ data for 30 days, and participants have options that include not sharing information about their locations.”

BraceletStreet offers accessible necklace manageable by arthritic hands

I like to wear a little jewelry even when I’m “only” visible to my household. The pandemic hasn’t affected my daily wardrobe at all!

Rings, watches, and most bracelets feel to me as if they interfere with my daily activities, but earrings and necklaces make me happy. Adding a little sparkle—and even more color—to an outfit is something I do for myself, not to show off or impress others.NZ capsule wardrobe jewelry - 1

Yet another annoying side effect of systemic arthritis is the sometimes unpredictable stiffness in my fingers that makes tiny clasps difficult to manage. It’s no accident that all the earrings in my photo above are hooks that don’t require attaching itty bitty backs!

Add slightly paranoid tendencies to even mild physical disability, and I can end up feeling frantic* about a necklace that I can’t get off when I want it gone. This scenario triggers my claustrophobia, in fact.

For this reason—and because my only simple, black vinyl? pendant cord c. 1994? recently broke, leaving me with no aesthetically pleasing option for wearing a favorite amber bead—I went looking for a replacement with an easier to manipulate clasp. I wanted to upgrade to a thin, genuine leather strap with a magnetic fastener.

Et voilà!

Bracelet Street 15" black leather 3mm necklace with magnetic claspI turned to Etsy, though I often struggle on that site to identify actual self-employed artisans vs. foreign outfits with unknowable labor practices. I ended up buying two leather necklaces with magnetic fasteners made by Bracelet Street USA, a woman-owned business in Kentucky if I’m reading their About page right. I’ve had no personal contact with this company aside from making the single online purchase.

First, allow me to admit that I feel like an utter fool for having waited this long to seek out more manageable jewelry clasps. Obviously, it could be costly or impossible to retrofit a large collection of mostly inexpensive, costume jewelry, but there was nothing preventing me from making this useful discovery except my own lack of attention.

Sometimes, the steady barrage of failures that come from living with autoimmune disease can prevent me from even trying new solutions that turn out to be easy fixes.

When everyday life confronts you constantly with “trivial” activities you can no longer manage for yourself, it is easy to become disheartened and just give up on stuff. This sometimes applies to things you love. Even silly little victories—like wearing a favorite pendant—enhance the texture of life’s fabric, and are worth pursuing.Pendant necklaces: amber bead on black cord, ammonite fossil pendant on brown cord, blue stone on bronze cord

For those with fully able bodies, some of the visible manifestations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can seem excessive or superfluous—“too many” empty handicapped spots in an otherwise packed lot, or the lift at the public pool that a healthy observer never sees used—but the reality is that, for those who have been cut off from so many common daily tasks, accommodations like these make the difference between feeling welcome to participate in the world at large…or not.

My new necklaces aren’t going to suddenly empower the disenfranchised or fundamentally change the world, but they do look nice, work precisely as they should, and offer me the dignity of doing one more thing for myself. That makes the purchase money well spent.Etsy order confirmation for two 3mm round leather necklaces with magnetic clasps

I ordered two magnetic clasp, 3mm diameter necklaces, one a #25 Natural Black (15 inch) and the other a #3 Bronze Metallic (18 inch), paying $26.56 including tax. I was sent a third (18 inch Metallic Tamba) for free as an unexpected “gift with purchase.”Bracelet Street 18" leather cord, magnetic clasp necklace with 3mm diameter in Metallic Tamba color

I’m assuming such little additions are par for the course with this company. Bracelet Street could have had no way of knowing I am a blogger** who might write about the purchase. I didn’t even login to my existing Etsy account since I was accessing the site from my phone instead of my desktop and I couldn’t remember the password. I wouldn’t have seemed like a special customer of any sort.

Bracelet Street USA shipped their products in sufficient, simple packaging that protected what was inside without creating too much superfluous waste. Each necklace came in a labeled mini zip top plastic pouch. I save these for use to keep earrings separate and chains untangled when I travel, so they will be re-used.

The inclusion of a hand-written thank you note made an impression on me, and very much increased my desire to share my positive experience with the company. I appreciate a human touch to my purchases, especially when I’m buying hand-crafted items online. I always hope I’m supporting small businesses with satisfied employees, but it can be so hard to tell who you’re doing business with on the web.

If you plan to wear an existing pendant with one of these magnetic clasp necklaces, be aware that I had to have a larger ring added to my amber bead in order for it to fit over either end of the Bracelet Street USA 3 mm leather necklace. The non-opening end of the simple metal “springring” clasp on my old vinyl cord was smaller.

Fortunately for me, my mother-in-law is a hobbyist jewelry maker, so it was easy for her to add a larger link to my pendant. Actually, I believe she gifted me all three of the pendants featured above on my new Bracelet Street necklaces. If, like me, you are buying magnetic clasp necklaces due to a lack of dexterity, you may need a friend or loved one to help you attach a larger bail to some of your own pieces to make them compatible with these thicker fasteners.Close up of Bracelet Street magnetic necklace clasp slot end

I would also like to add that the little bump or nubbin on the insertion side of the fastener is not a button requiring fine manipulation. I wasn’t sure how it worked when I first looked at it. The two ends of the magnetic closure will “snap” together on their own due to the magnet’s attraction, but you aren’t quite done when it does! A slight twisting motion slides the nubbin into the slot on the other side. This seems to provide extra security to what could otherwise be a “breakaway” clasp.

Breakaway jewelry might be ideal protection if you’re operating a lathe, but it’s kind of a bummer when you’re wearing the pendant great-grandma carried with her from the Old Country.

With a lightweight charm, I believe you could get away without the gentle twisting required to get the clasp fully closed, but I did have a heavier pendant (the ammonite fossil visible in my photo above) fall off into my lap before I’d quite mastered the fastening process. Since I learned to fully secure the clasps by twisting, this hasn’t happened again. To be clear, though, I rarely wear heavy jewelry as it exacerbates the discomfort from my systemic arthritis.

If you’re looking for a simple necklace that can be put on and taken off in spite of mild- to moderate-dexterity issues in your hands, I recommend those sold on Etsy by Bracelet Street USA. They are fairly priced, functional, and the company really seems to care about pleasing its customers. Each has a clean, simple aesthetic—appropriate for anyone, masculine or feminine—with 36 colors available in lengths ranging from 12 to 26 inches. I can’t speak to longevity after just a couple of weeks, but my initial impression of the three necklaces in my order is that they offer good quality for the price.

* Even my kids have been subject to my sudden demand to “help, help, help me get this off before I have to start yanking on it!” Since some of my jewelry was my departed mother’s finer stuff, ripping it apart would be less than ideal…

FYI, “Metallic Tamba” as a color name doesn’t mean much to me. I’d describe the shade as a multi-hued, warm-toned, mostly dark brown metallic melange

** Frankly, I’m also not a very significant blogger, so I’m not sure “knowing who I am” would have any effect on the way any merchant would treat me!

I had to look up the proper name for the round, metal circular fastener with the tiny lever you have to pull with a fingernail to open it, pulling an itsy bitsy wire out of the center of the hollow hoop. The internet told me it is a springring clasp, invented around 1921.

The best “Thermos” insulated food jar is a LunchBots brand Thermal

My search for a replacement insulated food jar when Thermos dropped the ball

I bought Thermos brand food jars in 2010, then again in 2015. These 10- and 16-oz jars have interchangeable lids and have served me well enough for a decade. After 10 years, however, I’m down to six jars and four lids having purchased seven in total between the two sizes.

Thermos insulated food jars, 10 and 16 ozYou can find reviews out there by people who have done scientific measurements of heat retention over time in this type of container, but my requirements are very simple. To wit, if I send a hot meal to school or work in the morning with my loved one, does the food stay warm and enjoyable until lunchtime?

Venerable Thermos brand no longer signifies quality

My first choice would’ve been keeping my existing jars in service with a few new replacement lids. Thermos in September 2020 replied to my email query, however, saying that I was out of luck. Thermos discontinued my jar model(s), and they have no replacement lids to offer.

I made it clear I would purchase lids if necessary, and that I was not asking for extended warranty coverage for old products. Thermos customer service appeared to give little attention to the details of my query; they don’t seem to care about my business.

I got a boilerplate email response indicating only that one item of the two I’d mentioned with model numbers and dates of purchase was out of production, and welcoming me to peruse their current offerings to find my own replacement. No notice was given to my specific question about sustainability or offering replacement parts in the longer term. No attempt was made to point me to the closest current model that might meet my needs.

Total customer service fail by Thermos!

Lids without plastic inside may be a healthier choice

Seeking a totally new product, I discovered that there was no Thermos food jar listed on their consumer site that day with stainless inside the molded plastic lid where it will touch the heated food therein.

BPA free plastic is a red herring; all plastic in contact with warm food should be viewed with caution, but not paranoia. The health effects of plastic use with hot food remain dubious yet suspect. Read up on this case of regrettable substitutes in National Geographic.

Instead of focusing on quality or innovation, Thermos seems to be competing with no-name international brands offering cheap products designed to fail and be quickly replaced. Today’s Taiyo Nippon Sanso* owned Thermos brand is obviously a poor fit for my eco-conscious, health-conscious consumer preferences.

I looked to a pair of modern, sustainable food container brands that I already trust for a suitable replacement to these insulated staples of my lunch-packing arsenal: LunchBots and U-Konserve.

LunchBots Thermal is the best insulated food jar for my family as of 2020

The best insulated food jar for my family turned out to be a LunchBots Thermal. I bought two, in September, 2020—one 12 oz and one 16 oz—from Amazon. I paid retail price, but I did use an Amazon coupon to save a few dollars off the order.

Amazon invoice for LunchBots order including Thermal food jar and insulated stainless steel water bottle Continue reading

“Accessible” space differs for every disability; hand washing with arthritis requires warm water

Before one has experienced a measure of disability, it can be easy to dismiss accessible space as a one-size-fits-all inconvenience to the rest of the world.

No parking space for you, but six empty handicapped ones? Sigh.

You make do, go about your day, and think little more of it.

Even I, living every day with an array of symptoms, still regularly find myself drawn up short when some mundane activity suddenly presents an obstacle I didn’t anticipate.

This winter, a frequent such shock was public restrooms that lack hot water for washing.

Lavatory sink in primitive restroom with only one cold water faucet

I have arthritis which troubles primarily my small joints, i.e., hands and feet.

It’s pretty easy to manage one’s feet in public. Socks and shoes keep them warm and protected, though walking long distances raises challenges. These are foreseeable challenges, however. I can plan for them.

Hands, however, are another story. Grabbing, twisting, the hard jabs required by the ever-more-ubiquitous touchscreens replacing human clerks… Life can be hell on an aching hand.

I become more grateful every day for the power doors that open themselves for me.

For those that don’t require a powerful push with aching fingers to activate, I mean!

Add to those unavoidable discomforts the regular painful shock of a blast of ice cold water in a public lavatory. The pain can be momentarily crippling. The effect of washing in very cold water can persist via stiffness and discomfort for the next couple of hours.

I have the option of not washing, of course, but that’s disgusting. It also means I’m selfishly exposing others to nasty germs until I find a better option for a thorough hand washing. Hand sanitizer is no substitute for soap, warm water, and sufficient agitation.

I expect primitive facilities without hot running water at parks and campgrounds, but the specific washrooms I can recall with this problem from this winter include my sons’ pediatric dental office and a Starbucks in the densely developed suburban community where I live.

There’s no excuse for medical offices’ or chain restaurants’ premises to lack warm water in public restrooms. It lowers hygiene standards for everyone, and presents an actual health hazard to some of us with special needs.

Do building codes allow public spaces to offer these sub-standard facilities? If so, how and where do I report them? If not, is local government and the permitting office the correct level at which to agitate and ask for better?

With tiny, on demand water heaters available to fit beneath any sink, this isn’t a technical problem to overcome. Instead, it is a question of what we can reasonably expect in a developed society that likes to claim superiority over the rest of the world.

American flagUniversal access to clean hands seems like an easy achievement in the United States of America!