Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The Correct Incentives... the desired behavior.

I read Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner over the holidays. I received it as a small Christmas gift from my wife and began reading it on Christmas Day. There is something about books that strive to explain human behavior that compels me to read them. Perhaps I uncover a bit of what motivates me in the text. I read The Tipping Point and Culture of Fear over the past few years, and found some common themes in all three of these books.

On a related note; I read the Sunday Globe and immediately gravitated to the article on Smart Growth, Priced out The state's 'smart-growth' plans are supposed to loosen the housing squeeze and give would-be home buyers a fighting chance. Problem is, no one seems to be listening. Smart Growth has intrigued me for quite some time. Why? Because land use regulation (zoning laws) helps drive (pardon the pun)our auto-dependent culture, not to mention the fact that the American Dream of owning a home is tugging at me. The zoning rules created under the tenets of "smart growth", 40R and 40B make an attempt at addressing land development patterns that discourage the construction of walkable communities with mixed-income housing. Here comes "Freakonomics"; our current zoning laws with occasional minimum lot sizes of 1-2 acres encourage construction of large homes. The builder earns a profit, as all good businesses should, while the town collects enough money in property taxes to pay for the education of the children living in those homes. People (or communities) are acting in their own self interest. So it's all about education, right? Check this out...New Schools Better Neighborhoods.

Then this shows up, How We See It: Competitive state still has housing, taxes to contend with. Wow! Do you think the need for reasonable housing drives young, well-educated people from the Commonwealth?

What does this have to do with cycling? Zoning laws that promote sprawl increases our automobile dependency. Therefore, there are more cars on the roads traveling more miles creating more pollution. Can the riding be any better? I suppose cyclists need to act in their own self interest.

I'm not even going to touch oil depletion and national security.


Hydra said...
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Hydra said...

The idea that sprawl causes congestion is a myth propagated by organizations that have no interest in solving trafic problems and whose sole goal is to preserve open space.

Actually Spawl and congestion are inversly related. Researchers who have actually measured this conclude that there is only a slight relationship between kinds of residential neighborhoods and travel. It matters almost not if the neighborhood is dense or sparse, cross streets or cul de sacs, mixed use or not.

A ten % increase in density results in aroud a half % decrease in travel, so denser neighborhoods are always more congested.

Although travel distances tend to be slightly longer in suburban areas, travel times are the same or less. Because cars there spend less time idling, they pollute less and the pollution is less concentrated.

Rural citizens spend less on travel than Urban citizens (maybe their cars are stolen less frequently, and they don't drive BMW's).

Congestion results primarily from an oversupply of jobs in one area. The current demand for more transit benefits primarily those employers. If they had to pay for the benefits they receive, they would likely relocate to a less congested area.

After thirty years of experimetation with Metro, we can see it has done nothing to reduce congestion. The same is true of New York which despite its transit system has the slowest average commute time in the nation.

Brookings Institution conducted a study in which researchers constructed a model designe to seek the optimum capacity, least cost, least polluting total transportation system.

Taking all known facts and data into account the model produced a result that would raise transit fares and reduce transit coverage and actually increase auto usage by around 3%. Rail use would decrease from 1.1% to 0.6, and bus use would decrease from around 5% to 0.9%. The net transportation cost savings, was over $10 billion nationwide (1990 dollars and data).

These organizations promote very high densities claiming that properly designe walkable communites would increase accessibility. Actually regardless of what the pedestrian/transit accessibility is, it is always increased by the additional option of using a car, except for very very dense situations, like Singapore.

Contrary to popular opinion Transit is less efficient than private autos because their overall load factor is so small. Even if they go in full they come out empty, so their starting position is 50% capacity and it is actually far less than that, under 20%. Autos with an average of 1.5 passengers operate at 35% capacity and twice the average speed.

Auto frequency is higher than transit and they don't require paid operators. All of this is not to say that we can't make much better use of autos,and better autos, but that they are far and away the best transport available. Just think of what transit would cost if it provided door to door service, individually heated compartments, and your own choice of music, and drink holders at twice its current speed.

Brookings institute calculate that the net social benefit of rail transit was near zero, and they questioned the rational for any further spending on rail.

Open space is important, the city depends on it, but the wealth creation in the city is not properly shared with those who support the green infrastructure. Consequently they are motivated to develop their property more than to preserve it. Open space needs to be profitable enough to compete with development, but most environmentalists think they can enjoy the scenery for free. Just like movies, scenery is not free, because somebody owns it.

There is no reason to think that the environmentally responsible way to preserve open space is to ignore transportation and promote density. Cities themselves are huge energy sinks.

What we need is more research on what mix of this that and the other provides the optimum benefit, and less homilies and platitudes about what the best (read special interest)policy is.

there is no single answer and the mix will change over time.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comment.

I am not a planner, nor do I play one on TV, but I have to believe that a lifecycle analysis of our transportation infrastructure would surprise us. Of course, if we all lived where we worked, and jobs were nicely clustered locally, wouldn't be easier? Imagine if we all took advantage of videoconferencing and worked from home three days/week, would the energy saved in transportion and building operations be less than what would be used to build, ship, and maintain the teleconferencing equipment and network?

It is a far more complex issue than I can solve...but I can think about it.