Mike the Mad Biologist

One of the things that I don’t write about much on the blog, but that I do follow with great interest is urban planning and transportation (yes, I need new hobbies). Among the glitterati of blogtopia (and, yes, skippy invented that phrase), there’s a lot of discussion of how to develop better transporation policy. I find these posts to be really annoying, with the exception of Atrios who writes about his attempts ‘to turn your suburb into midtown Manhattan’ (he, at least has a sense of humor about it).

I should be the last person to be annoyed by these posts. I live in a city, don’t own a car (and love every second–and dollar–of not owning a car), and think a pedestrian way of life is great. I wasn’t able to put my finger on why so many of the posts calling for better transit leave me cold until I read this post by Matthew Yglesias (bold original; italics mine):

…one shouldn’t miss the fundamental point that getting land use right is important to economic growth and prosperity. I think that point tends to fade out of view when you’re talking about New York City and Sadik-Khan because NYC is already such an outlier in terms of density and wealth creation.

But at the end of the day, the economic benefits of sound land-use and transportation policy come from the same source as the environmental benefits. It’s all about efficient use of natural resources. When it comes to something like natural gas or uranium people generally understand that it’s important economically to be using scarce resources in an efficient way. It’s environmentally beneficial, of course, to do so but it’s also just important to the basic functioning of the economy. Reducing waste has huge benefits.

Add to that this linked post by Ryan Avent:

I feel like it needs to be ok to argue for these things from the position of efficiency, particularly if we want to broaden the constituency for density and transit beyond stereotypical urban lefties.

It’s not that I disagree, but the economic efficiency argument, well…

NOES!!!!

Let me make that clear:

NOES!!!!

First, for a significant fraction of people, the current arrangement is efficient. When I lived in Long Island and was making very little, increasing the cost of driving (e.g., higher gas taxes, paying more for parking, tolls, etc.) was the equivalent of an oxygen tax–given the way Long Island has been developed, there was no alternative to driving. ‘Smart policies’ would have basically forced me to dip into savings just to make ends meet. Ultimately, efficiency arguments often leave out and forget to mention the all-important clause: for whom.

Which brings me to framing.

I realize for wonks efficiency is seen as a good thing–and, indeed, in principle, it is. But the prepositional clause matters. There have been a lot of economic arguments built around efficiency (HMOs, shipping jobs overseas just to name two) that have resulted in screwing over lots of Americans. Even if they weren’t screwed, they know someone (or many someones) who was screwed. Efficiency, for many, has become a four letter word.

Worse, efficiency is a word that ‘talks around’ the benefits of better transportation policy. If raising parking prices would actually make it easier to find a spot, then tell people that. It’s not entirely clear to me what the benefits that Yglesias is describing are. If, for instance, congestion pricing reduced commuting time, then you could convince people that it would be worth instituting–although, as I mentioned above, there was a period in my life where unavoidable transportation cost increases would have been financially unsustainable. No ‘efficiency’ argument can win against that.

I don’t like the subsidizing of the ‘burbs by the urbs either, but, if you’re talking to someone who is subsidized, you better come up with some good, specific–and ‘bite-sized’–examples of how these policies will help them specifically and immediately.

Paens to efficiency won’t cut it.

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    December 7, 2008

    As with many other arguments, the efficiency argument is often presented with unstated assumptions, such as “if we were redesigning the entire country with a clean sheet of paper,” or “somewhere in the asymptotic future.” A transit plan that doesn’t recognize the fact that (to name one) metro Phoenix residents have no viable alternative [1] to individual cars is insane.

    The challenge is to find a viable transition to a more efficient modus vivendi, and it’s a far from trivial problem.

    [1] And it will cost many billions to provide one

  2. #2 natural cynic
    December 7, 2008

    To a certain extent, it is the choices made about where you live that contribute to inefficiencies. Living in the suburbs is certainly a choice for most people and that fact means that inefficiencies in transport are acceptable. In many metropolitan areas people commute from one suburb to another while other commuters do the opposite commute. Granted that there are certain factors that necessitate such a situation like a couple who work in opposite directions from each other, but that is only a minority of the cases. Living near your work should be the beginning of an efficient transport system.

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    December 7, 2008

    Living near your work should be the beginning of an efficient transport system.

    That’s a great idea in an economy where job tenure is long and housing near employers is at all desirable.

    For many of us, that advice would have had us moving every few years (or, in the case of some trades, several times a year.) For others, it would have meant accepting the quality-of-life sacrifices consequent to living in the middle of a heavy-industry zone, or paying more than we make in rent for the only available housing anywhere near our city-center jobs.

    The house I live in is a short bicycle ride from the office I worked in when I bought it. That employer is long gone, as are the others I once worked for in this part of town. The next time I move, it will be to another State — but only when I’ve beaten my current job into one that doesn’t require my physical presence.

    Perhaps one might consider that the most efficient transit policy will maximize the opportunities for telecommuting.

  4. #4 Paul Murray
    December 7, 2008

    Call me a leftie, but I agree. More important than efficiency are things like equity and social justice. We can easily improve congestion on the roads: just make it illegal for all but the wealthy to drive, and the poor can go =censored=.

    Public transport: reliable, safe, comprehensive, cheap, fast and yes – efficient public transport is the only way to transport *everyone*.

    Having said that … it’s still unsustainable. The solution is not better transport: it’s organising our cities in a way that minimises the need for it. A free-standing house for every little citizen is simply not feasable. Never was, really. Tear down the ‘burbs, and pack everyone into high density housing, with shops and work close by. If *everyone* has to do it, then it won’t have the stigma attached to it that it has now.

  5. #5 D. C. Sessions
    December 7, 2008

    Tear down the ‘burbs, and pack everyone into high density housing, with shops and work close by. If *everyone* has to do it, then it won’t have the stigma attached to it that it has now.

    As always, details matter. I’m curious how you intend to enforce “*everyone* has to do it.”

    Please see above regarding clean-sheet-of-paper redesign of entire countries; I would suggest that proposals that start with “tear down the ‘burbs” are an excellent example of the original statement that:

    I don’t like the subsidizing of the ‘burbs by the urbs either, but, if you’re talking to someone who is subsidized, you better come up with some good, specific–and ‘bite-sized’–examples of how these policies will help them specifically and immediately.

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