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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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.
When you are a transportation professor, it is your privilege to hear a lot of zany ideas. I have heard about a scheme to create a fleet of intercontinental freight zeppelins (actually, this may not be quite as zany as it sounds). Fifty years after The Jetsons, there are still dogged advocates of flying cars. The most common thing I hear is that we should attack congestion by building monorails down the medians of the freeways. I have no idea how the monorail has bewitched our citizenry (too many trips to Disneyland?), or what precisely is so offensive about the idea of trains that run on two rails, but it’s amazing how beloved the monorail is, so much so that an episode of the Simpsons parodied it. Monorail! Monorail!
Because I love hearing people’s ideas and have no desire to be rude, I engage in an exacting regimen of meditation, yoga, and deep breathing so I can exhibit the equanimity of a lama when hearing goofy ideas. But occasionally something comes up that none of my mantras or self-hypnosis can handle.
To my mind, Governor Bob McDonnell has fashioned one such idea. He is proposing eliminating the state’s gas tax.
Some thinkers make their reputations by focusing on social justice, economic progress, or global sustainability. I took the low road and went for horse manure. It was my article on filth, flies, and putrefying horse carcasses in the 19th century city that brought me to the attention of Dubner and Levitt and, for better or worse, to this site. FYI, the article is here.
If you do peruse it, you’ll see I ended with the hope that technology will bail us out of our transportation problems just like it bailed us out of those caused by the horse. At that time, a deus ex machina descended from the heavens to improbably solve the insoluble. The savior was known as the automobile, and as it went from obscurity to ubiquity in a few decades it banished the working horse—a primary mode of transportation for thousands of years—to oblivion.
There was only one problem with my call for a miraculous technological fix: I did not have the slightest idea what that technology would be.
A major rationale — perhaps the major rationale — touted by supporters of mass transit is that by reducing our output of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, transit can help save the environment. The proposition seems intuitive and even obvious: by no longer encasing each traveler in thousands of pounds of difficult-to-move metal, surely transit is more energy-efficient. Plenty of analyses prove this. But then again, Aristotle, who was revered as the infallible font of truth for more than 1,000 years, proved that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones and that women have fewer teeth than men. Might studies that demonstrate transit is greener be similarly wrong?
They might. The reason is that many studies of energy efficiency by mode often make questionable and — depending on the author’s point of view — self-serving assumptions. The main trick is to look at autos with but one passenger and compare them to transit vehicles in which every seat is full. (For example, see this.)
But in the real world, this is emphatically not the case.
If you ever travel to Israel (which, BTW, is a phenomenal place to visit regardless of your attitudes toward religion or Middle Eastern politics), you’ll certainly see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on what many believe is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. But you might come away a bit disappointed; the church has something of a disorganized and ramshackle feel.
The problem is not that the site isn’t considered sacred, but that it’s considered too sacred. Thanks to its obvious import, it is shared—and has been for thousands of years—by multiple religious denominations, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox sects. (Sorry, Protestants, since Luther’s 95 Theses were not posted until 1517 you are Johnny-come-latelys and don’t get a piece of the action.)
Do you want the good news, or the bad news… or the bad news… or the bad news…
Okay, in this post let’s start off on the bright side. At a time when the two parties cannot agree on the menu at the Congressional cafeteria, the Republicans and Democrats have found something they can agree on. After three years of debate and nine temporary stopgap extensions, Congress and the President have enacted new transportation authorization legislation. This bill divvies up the gas tax money, plus some miscellaneous revenue from other sources (more on this later), and funds and regulates the federal surface transportation program for the next 27 months.
In many respects, this is a pretty remarkable achievement. Things could have been worse: on the same day that the transportation agreement was announced, the Supreme Court handed down its ruling on healthcare. Compared to the stark partisanship surrounding that issue, when it came to transportation, John Boehner and Harry Reid held hands around the campfire and sang Kumbaya.
Hi all! Sorry I haven’t been writing much of late; I’ve been dealing with the minor matters of filing a dissertation and finding myself gainful employment. The first step is complete: I get to call myself a doctor now, though it is a source of considerable disappointment to my friends that after almost eight years of study I’m not the kind of doctor who can prescribe them medical marijuana. The second step is complete too: I’ll be joining the faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina as an assistant professor in the fall. I’m thrilled to be going to Clemson as I think very highly of the department, the setting, and winning college football.
Anyway, I’m going to try to get back in the habit of writing more regularly, this time about my dreams for transportation—which are turning out to be nightmares. Like one of those stories where a genie gives you three wishes and every one of them boomerangs. Or even better, a bad episode of Fantasy Island:
Since the late 1960s, the share of U.S. kids and teens who are overweight has more than tripled. Why? I personally find Ronald McDonald kind of sinister, but it’s possible that Happy Meals might not deserve all the blame. In fact, Noreen McDonald—no relation to Ronald—of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has analyzed a trend that might be contributing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. Kids today aren’t walking or biking to school like they used to.
In 1969, the National Household Travel Survey found that roughly 41% of school-age children/teens got to school by “active travel” (i.e. walking and biking, though mostly walking, which then and now is more than 10 times more prevalent than biking).
In 2001 the walk/bike share was down to roughly 13%, a pretty spectacular drop. For elementary school children the change was even more stark. Today, even students who live within one mile of school have a less than 50% chance of walking; about 86% of similarly situated students walked in 1969.
It got surprisingly little press coverage given the degree to which it will affect our lives (thanks, pesky world economic meltdown), but in case you missed it, the Obama administration recently worked out a compromise with the major automakers that will dramatically raise the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards.
The new regulations mandate that the mix of new cars sold in the year 2025 must achieve about 54.5 miles per gallon (though if you read the fine print you’ll see that credits for various other green innovations mean that actual fuel economy will be more like 40 MPG.) For reference, the auto fleet currently on the road gets about 27 MPG. It’s a well-done agreement that will help avoid well-done citizens as global warming accelerates.
Before proceeding, let me note that I am strongly in favor of this policy. The problem of excessive fossil fuel use in transportation is multidimensional: if the issue of global warming doesn’t move you, the thought of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad using our own hard-earned dollars to tweak our geopolitical noses should.
However, it is worth noting that raising CAFE standards is what political scientists and economists call a “second-best” solution; we could be doing considerably better if we thought all of this through more clearly.
L.A.’s “Carmageddon” is over. For those in the rest of the country, or Angelenos who spent the last two months trekking in Bhutan or in monastic seclusion, Carmageddon was the result of the complete closure of a major Los Angeles freeway over the weekend. The results?
Carmageddon was predicted by almost all journalists and government officials to be a brewing traffic nightmare of unprecedented dimensions. Only a day before the event I was reading predictions by our transportation authorities stating that traffic as much as 50 miles away would reach nightmare-like proportions. Only a very few, including myself, predicted we would see a situation of unusually light traffic reminiscent of the last time a similar situation happened: the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
In fact, Carmageddon saw stunningly low traffic levels, with many who did venture out reporting they had never driven at such speeds in LA in their lifetimes. Moreover, fears that the project (which involved demolishing half of a bridge over the highway) would drag on into Monday’s rush hour proved totally unfounded, as the work was completed and the freeway reopened on Sunday afternoon, many hours ahead of schedule.
A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)
But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.
Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek.
Thus far I’ve tried to avoid weighing in on the issue of red light cameras (RLCs) in an effort to keep my comments section free of any more angry posts than I normally get, and my email free of complaints from friends and relatives (you know who you are) who’ve been caught in the past. However, my hand has been forced by the Los Angeles City Council’s decision to consider a measure to eliminate our RLC program.
RLCs are not particularly popular. In fact, I have found that many people vehemently hate them. To give an example, the Chicago Tribune conducted a poll in 2009 showing that 53 percent of voters supported the cameras, while 41 percent opposed them. These percentages basically flipped when voters were asked if they wanted RLCs in their own neighborhood. This is a bit reminiscent of Monty Python’s proposal to “tax foreigners living abroad.”
The cause of a lot of the traffic congestion we battle everyday is pretty simple: too many people want to travel at the same time in the same direction to the same place, usually a job center. Since telework has been slow to replace the traditional workplace, it looks like this problem will be with us for a while.
For decades we have known about a way to deal with chronic congestion: levy tolls which vary depending on how crowded the road is. I’ve written about this here and here.
But pricing is not as well-suited for dealing with congestion related to unusual incidents, like breakdowns and wrecks. Even when these are relatively minor, incidents can start shock waves that cause serious amounts of delay as they ripple back through the traffic flow.
Though it has an upside for the biosphere that shouldn’t be ignored, $100/barrel oil definitely isn’t much fun for our pocketbooks or the world economy. And could worse times be ahead?
When we see spikes like this, there are inevitably voices predicting stratospheric prices for crude just beyond the horizon. The basic reasoning is that oil supplies are finite (clearly, in the very big picture they are), and that world oil demand is set to skyrocket thanks in large part to the motorization of India and China (it is—see my last post.) “Peak oil” advocates maintain that at some point we are simply bound to run out of the stuff.
I’ve never been a big fan of the peak oil story. First, price signals will encourage conservation as oil gets more dear, reducing demand pressure. We’ve already come a long way on that front; in 1970, the average car on the road got about 14 mpg, and the average van, light truck or SUV about 10. Today, the averages for new cars and trucks sold are considerably more than double those figures, and things continue to move in the right direction thanks to government regulation (rising CAFE mpg standards), new technology (including but not limited to hybrids), and the fact that consumers respond to oil price increases pretty much like economists predict they should, changing purchasing, travel and location decisions in order to conserve when oil prices rise.
Automobile ownership proceeds at a pace that depends on the absolute level of a nation’s economic development. Driven by growth in China and India, the number of people who own cars is expected to reach 2 billion by 2030.
Evidence indicates that as national wealth rises, so does auto ownership. So what is going to happen when those in poor nations start buying cars at rich world levels? Can the world afford to have every Chinese and Indian driving a car?
Research suggests that when states cut back on their state highway patrol forces, traffic fatalities can rise by double-digits.
Is our need to travel innate? Last time, I wrote about the intriguing theory of the universal Travel Time Budget (TTB), which states that humans have a built-in travel clock. Perhaps a product of some primeval need to balance exploration and conquest with hanging around the cave and vegging, the universal TTB is said to drive us all to spend about 1.1 hours per day on the go, regardless of nationality, culture, economic system, or era.
Sure, studying transportation is important if you need to find the best route to the hardware store. But you might be surprised to know that transportation study might have other uses, like enlightening you about the most profound philosophical mysteries of the universe. For example, transportation might just tell us some surprising things about the degree to which we truly have free will.
One iron law governed 20th century transportation: driving always increases. But surprisingly, the 2000s appeared to see a halt to that trend. A few theories.
Last time, I showed you evidence (courtesy of Robert Puentes and Adie Tomer of the Brookings Institution and Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper of Stanford University) that driving per person seems to have peaked in the 2000s and now may even be dropping. This bucks every travel trend we’ve seen since Henry Ford got to work. What might be slowing down the acceleration in driving?
Call me a skeptic about the “peak oil” story. Human ingenuity has always found ways to produce more of, find substitutes for, or discover ways to do without a scarce resource when price signals tell us to. But if peak oil is true, doesn’t one good peak deserve another? Why not meet peak oil head on with its dreaded natural enemy: peak travel?
A teleportation machine might be essential if you want to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the dilithium mining colony on Betazak Nine or conclude a trade agreement for Romulan ale. But back here on earth, do we really need or desire teleporters for our considerably more mundane existences? If we could get places instantaneously, and rid ourselves of travel entirely, would we?
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