Archives for



Democracy: Should We Bother?

What could be less controversial than the principle that the public should be consulted about transportation policy? In future posts, I’m going to write about why puppy dogs are despicable and why we should all root for the Miami Heat, but for today I’m going to question this seemingly unquestionable proposition.

There is good reason that one of modern transportation planning’s most fundamental precepts is that the public should be consulted on policies large and small, from constructing a new subway line to changing a humble bus schedule. This is the product of very real abuses, particularly during the creation of the Interstate Highway System. At that time, government had virtual carte blanche to displace residents and bulldoze neighborhoods. For example, for Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway in the late 1940s, the condemnation resolution for the right-of-way was approved by the court the day after it was filed by the state. The following day, every piece of property along the route was posted with a fifteen day notice to vacate. And less than three weeks after the filing of the condemnation resolution, the Division of Highways began clearing the property. Read More »



The Free Harbor Fight: Transportation Meets Chinatown

Unlike its natural rivals—San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle—Los Angeles is a rotten place for a port. But that hasn’t stopped the city known for inventing and reinventing itself from becoming the busiest container traffic hub in the US. The story of how L.A. transformed itself into one of the world’s great shipping centers is rife with corruption, power politics, double-dealing, bribery, and betrayal. It’s a story that could only have dripped from the pen of one of the city’s Hollywood hacks–if it weren’t true.

Despite its worldwide association with sand and surf, Los Angeles began life as an inland community. Its original port was at San Pedro, roughly 25 miles to the south. But San Pedro had been cursed by nature. There was no shelter from waves and wind; it was far too shallow to accommodate shipping; and its bottom was mudflats, making construction of heavy piers or breakwaters difficult. Bringing cargo ashore meant transferring it to longboats from ships anchored several miles out at sea, rowing it ashore, and then hauling it by hand across a rocky beach and up a steep slope. The only alternative to this difficult operation was to beach the ship, an even more challenging undertaking. Writing in his 1834 account of his time as a sailor on a ship plying the California coast, Two Years Before the Mast: And Twenty-Four Years After, Charles Henry Dana called San Pedro a “hated… thoroughly detested spot.” Read More »



A 12-Step Program for Fuel Subsidy-aholics

Back when blog posts were composed with reed styluses on clay tablets, I put up a couple of posts (here and here) on fuel subsidies in the developing world. These are generally 1) fiscally ruinous; 2) terrible for the environment and traffic congestion;  3) highly regressive with regard to wealth distribution; and 4) market-distorting by artificially promoting fuel-guzzling industries. So I made the case that this is a pretty foolish public policy, in fact one of the worst I can think of. It’s up there with tobacco subsidies, the Concorde, pretty much everything the North Korean government has ever done, and our government’s failure in spending a paltry $615,000 taxpayer dollars for UC Santa Cruz students to digitize priceless Grateful Dead photographs, t-shirts and concert tickets.

Given the problems with fuel subsidies, I promised a third post on what to do to eliminate them. But since I have a day job, and being a professor is much more difficult than it looked when I was undergrad, I’ve procrastinated on putting this last post up. However, engineering student Kishore from India wrote asking where part three is, and customer satisfaction is a goal here at Freakonomics. Besides, no doubt governments around the world have been waiting impatiently for my post before they start dismantling their fuel subsidies, so here it is.

Given the damning case against fuel subsidies, and a rising swell of opinion that they are counterproductive on many levels, why don’t these policies go away? The IMF (see this) and I offer several reasons: Read More »



Defending the Indefensible: Your Thoughts on the Benefits of Fuel Subsidies

Last post, I wrote about how many nations in the developing world, such as Egypt, subsidize gasoline and diesel fuel to keep the price at the pump artificially low. There are many ways in which this policy is ineffective, counterproductive, and just plain dumb: it wrecks the public finances of cash-strapped countries in order to create traffic congestion and air pollution, raises the world price of oil, and transfers money from the poor to the wealthy.

In fact, writing about this folly got me pretty irritated, and I’m ashamed to admit I decided to take out my frustration on you readers. So I challenged you to come up with arguments in favor of fuel subsidies, manipulatively using the siren’s song of a prize of Freakonomics swag to get you to twist your brains into pretzels.

Thanks to those of you who gamely tried; many of you confessed it wasn’t easy. For example, poor reader Rob complained that “I’m getting a brain cramp trying to think of a defense for Egypt’s policy.” Rob, I apologize and recommend sitting in a dark room while listening to a CD of soothing ocean sounds for awhile. Read More »



Fuel Subsidies: The World’s Dumbest Transportation Policy?

There are plenty of transportation policy ideas which get my spider-sense tingling. But in most cases, I think it’s at least possible to form a coherent case in favor which doesn’t strain the basic tenets of logical argumentation. However, I am pretty much at a loss when it comes to government subsidies for transportation fuel, a strong candidate for the title of the world’s dumbest transportation policy.

In the developed world, governments often don’t tax fuel enough to make up for the externalities produced by driving. (Yes, United States, stop shuffling your feet and looking at the ground, I mean you.) But I’ve whined about that enough in the past.

In this post, let’s look at an even more egregious situation that is disturbingly prevalent in the developing world, especially in oil-producing countries (see this). Many governments not only do not tax fuel enough, but actually expend revenue to subsidize fuel and keep gas prices artificially low. In effect, they are paying people to drive. Read More »



Is Driving Drunk Rational?

I doubt this statement will shock you or light up the blogosphere, but drunk driving is bad. Our own Levitt has looked at the costs, and found that those who have had even one drink are seven times more likely to cause a fatal crash, while for those over the legal BAC limit the risk is multiplied by 13. This equates to a cost to society of more than 40 cents per drunk mile driven (2013 dollars), implying that a fine of $10,500 would be appropriate if drunk drivers were to bear the full cost of their actions.

The good news is that we have made tremendous progress. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, road fatalities due to drunk driving have dropped from 21,113 in 1982 to 9,878 in 2011. The decrease is even more remarkable given that total miles driven almost doubled during that period. So the drunk driving fatality rate per billion miles traveled has dropped from 13.4 to 3.4 in the last 30 years.

Some of this is due to general improvements in driving safety, such airbags and increased seatbelt use. But this is only a part of the equation. A suite of policies specific to alcohol has also been implemented, with considerable success. These have been recently analyzed by Susan A. Ferguson and Koyin Chang, Chin-Chih Wu, and Yung-Hsiang Ying, among others. Successful policies have included toughening laws and their enforcement, such as reducing permissible blood alcohol content (BAC) levels, especially for underage drinkers. Sobriety checkpoints are a very effective enforcement mechanism, particularly if properly publicized. Other policies that have been found to be effective are higher alcohol taxes (very), and to a lesser extent laws banning open alcohol containers in cars and higher legal drinking ages. Read More »



Terminal Illness: Readers’ Best and Worst Airports

Thanks to those who participated in our call to sound off about your favorite and least favorite airports. The results: 

At the top of the list of best airports, by a long way, was Amsterdam’s Schiphol. I have not flown into Schiphol myself, but I’m not at all surprised by this ranking, as the Dutch are genius urban planners. Schiphol has a branch of the Rijksmuseum art museum, displaying actual old masters, and a shopping mall which is open to the public as well as travelers.

  • “Great options to suit everyone – awesome baby & kids facilities, casinos for dad and plenty of decent shopping as well as food options. It really made for an easy 6hr layover with baby.”—Cam

No, there are no “coffee shops,” in Schiphol, so don’t be attributing the glowing reviews to anything but the quality of the airport. (Perhaps the same cannot be said for Managua, Nicaragua, which reader ephman ranks as his favorite because “you can buy Oxycontin in the waiting area without a prescription to entertain yourself for the long flight to wherever you’re going.”) Read More »



Terminal Illness: What Are the Best and Worst Airports?

 The end of semester crunch is in full swing here at Clemson, leaving me little time to write a new post at the moment. So I figured I’d let you do my work for me. Readers, weigh in: what is your favorite and least favorite airport, and why? I’ll collate and post the results soon.