What does it cost to drive a mile? I’m sure your mind went immediately to the 15 to 20 cents it cost to put gas in the tank, but of course there are many other factors — taxes, fees, depreciation and maintenance among them, as well as costs to your health, work productivity (due to traffic congestion) and our planet in terms of your tailpipe emissions. The True Cost of Driving site puts the bottom line at $1.39 for that mile.

Don’t worry, you don’t have to pay it all…yet. In Europe, they’re seriously talking about programs that actually do use high-tech tools (GPS, the Internet, a dash-mounted electronic meter) to calculate how much you drive, and assesses you with taxes that factor in everything from greenhouse emissions to road damage. I think it’s a pretty cool idea, though getting it through to become law is going to be a stretch.

The one program now, in the Netherlands, is voluntary. People, presumably those with guilty consciences, pay 4.5 to 45 cents per mile to offset their impact. It’s interesting to note, however, that the system rewards people who don’t drive very much. According to government studies, up to 70 percent of the population would pay less under this plan than under the current tax plan for cars.

As the New York Times reported, governments all over the world are looking into ways to make people pay for the true cost of driving, but so far, “Even in environmentally conscious places like the Netherlands, voters and politicians often vehemently oppose the programs, citing privacy concerns about the monitoring of drivers’ whereabouts and the introduction of what amounts to a new type of tax.”

That’s right, the “T” word. It doesn’t have a prayer of getting enacted in the U.S. And it’s still problematic in Europe, too. The Dutch government had planned to start its program next year, but a party with a “no tax” pledge got elected. Sound familiar? Still, the European Union is trying to get its member countries to try something like this, and a small pilot project will be launched in Belgium in September.

In Europe, anti-car activism is quite advanced, and many inner cities ban internal-combustion auto traffic entirely. Those that do permit driving go out of their way to make it painful with exorbitant parking fees. London has a congestion tax that has sharply reduced commuting from the suburbs. Carbusters online regularly goes after the primacy of the automobile, and the World Car-Free Network inveighs against driving from a berth in the Czech Republic.

In the U.S., anti-car work is mostly the province of bike activists, but as the true cost of driving increases, that could change. Down the road, maybe people will even be willing to use the “T” word. This video from the Netherlands gives the flavor of today’s liberated car-free cities:

Also on MNN: 7 car-free cities

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

The true cost of driving
European governments are getting ready to charge their drivers for the true cost of hitting the highway — factoring in everything from greenhouse gas emission