When I was much younger and far less aware of the complex interactions of governance and political culture, I was very critical of America’s use of the tax system to influence behavior. If the government needs X dollars to pay for the services we want that government to provide, why not simply set a rate or rates sufficient to collect those dollars? Why include provisions–aka “loopholes”–intended to promote or discourage targeted behaviors?
I’m still aware of the considerable pitfalls of using tax policy to mold desired behaviors; after all, we humans remain blissfully ignorant of the ways in which human incentives/disincentives actually work, and far too often, a provision intended to produce outcome A turns out to produce an altogether unanticipated and negative outcome B.
That said, I’ve reluctantly come to admit that carefully crafted and thoughtful policies can advance important goals. My husband recently shared with me an article from Bloomberg, reporting on one such success.
Cities, states and the federal government are trying to reduce traffic congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, but a Catch-22 in the federal tax code works against these goals. The income tax exemption for employer-paid parking subsidizes solo driving to work, which helps explain why 81% of American commuters drive to work alone.
The tax exemption for employer-paid parking creates three big problems. First, free parking at work increases the number of cars driven to work by about a third, mostly at peak hours. Second, higher-income commuters are more likely to get tax-exempt parking subsidies. The tax exemption is also worth nothing to the 44% of American households who pay no income tax because of their low incomes. Third, free parking doesn’t help transit riders, who are disproportionately communities of color. In Los Angeles, for example, 92% of Metro riders are people of color.
Repealing the tax exemption for a popular fringe benefit is unlikely, but the discussion doesn’t end there. In a bid to reduce driving and increase fairness, the District of Columbia enacted its Transportation Benefits Equity Amendment in 2020. If an employer with 20 or more employees subsidizes parking at work, the law requires the employer to offer an equal benefit to employees who do not drive.
Called “parking cash out,” this policy gives commuters flexibility to choose between free parking or another benefit of equal value. Commuters can continue to drive and park free, or they can take the cash value of the parking subsidy and use it for anything they want, such as putting it toward the rent of an apartment within walking or biking distance of work.
California enacted a similar cash-out law in 1992. The California Air Resources Board examined the law’s effects in a travel study of 1,694 commuters at eight firms in Southern California. The 1997 study found that after employers offered the cash option, solo driving to work fell 17%, carpooling increased 64%, transit ridership increased 50%, and walking or biking increased 39%. These changes reduced vehicle travel to work by 12% — equivalent to removing from the road one of every eight cars driven to work. Employers reported that parking cash out was cheap, easy to manage and fair. It also helped them to recruit and retain workers.
This appears to be an example of policy done right: it was simple and easily understandable, it corrected inequities in the existing tax structure, and perhaps most importantly, there was ongoing monitoring by California–research to confirm (or not) that the policy change was working as intended. (One of the frustrations of policymaking in the U.S. is the usual lack of such follow-up and the difficulty of changing or abandoning interventions that have proven to be counterproductive.)
It’s getting more and more difficult for the science deniers to ignore climate change. As California and Oregon burn, as Miami spends billions of dollars trying to elevate its airport above the encroachment of the ocean, as national and international weather patterns become more and more destructive, it becomes critically important to identify and enact policy interventions that retard or at least minimize our more ecologically destructive human behaviors.
That may mean that the tax code continues to be considerably less than straightforward, but I guess I can live with that…..