The Perverse Hybrid Incentive

W Hotel parking sign photo

Image credit: Method

The hybrid car has become the icon of eco; a status symbol of responsibility. Roll up in one and you have instant green cred. There is even a sub-culture of hybridism, talking up the benefits and doling out deals to hybrid owners. But what is the real intention of all these incentives? Did someone consider the effects of these perks when they were designed?These were questions I found myself pondering as I strolled up to the W Hotel in San Francisco recently for the Global Green annual San Francisco fundraiser event.

Ten dollars off the price of overnight parking if you drive a hybrid. Sounds good, right? At first glance, it's a discount for being greener. That's cool. But a closer examination reveals the unintended consequences of such a policy.

My mother-in-law drives a hybrid. It's a Toyota Highlander SUV, and while you drive it, the in-dash monitor proudly displays the car's mileage, usually between 21-23 mpg (sorry, Carol, you know I love you).

My car is VW Jetta diesel. It gets low 40s mpg, and it runs exclusively off of secondary biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil. It gets twice the mileage and uses no petro-fuel. Yet, I have to pay $45 to park it at the W while my mother-in-law and that guy in the Cadillac Escalade hybrid (rated at 21 mpg, but you'll get less) both pay half. If the intention is to create an incentive for low-carbon transport, then wouldn't it be better to have a discount for high mileage vehicles? Or better yet, how about a discount on your room for not having a car at all?

Method had an experience with this same perverse employee incentive in our early days. After creating a $1000 incentive toward a hybrid vehicle purchase, we had people come and ask us what the incentive was toward a new scooter or bike. And what about those who walked to work? They were right. When we thought about the behavior we were trying to encourage, we abandoned the hybrid incentive and offered benefits and subsidies for low-carbon commuting instead.

Ultimately, a policy is just a rule that is applied to encourage us to do one thing over another. Underlying every policy is an intention. So policy making is a design exercise, and if we are to design policies for effectiveness, then we must begin the process by asking what it is we intend to do; what behavior we want to encourage.

While it can be a little more complicated to start by defining your intention, and it requires thinking more broadly, it is the way we design policies that are truly effective rather than merely superficial. Just imagine if we taught our politicians a little design thinking....

Read more on this topic:
Hybrid Cars: Not Always the Right Answer
How To Make Your Own Biodiesel or Find it Nearby
Better: Hybrid or Biodiesel?

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