Friday, November 2, 2007

Talk About Free Riders!

"[London]'s congestion pricing for drivers is heralded around the world for reducing traffic and pollution. It's also causing an unintended effect: a sharp jump in thieves stealing or counterfeiting license plates. Thieves are pinching plates by the dozens every day to fool the city's traffic cameras, which enforce the £8 ($16) daily charge to drive in central London as well as other traffic infractions."

- Niraj Sheth, Wall Street Journal, Friday 11/02/07, B1

An unfortunate, but acceptable byproduct of good policy? Or evidence that congestion pricing is merely a tax that clever drivers will find away around? These are important questions to consider as policy successes make their way around the world.


Devin Stewart said...

Matthew, did you see Tom Friedman's op-ed, urging India not to follow America in the area of transportation policy? Let's hope India can leapfrog the U.S. or at least adopt sensible policies, such as public transit and realistic fuel prices.

Matthew Hennessey said...

As always, Friedman is a great champion of innovation. But I'm afraid I can't follow his logic to its conclusion this time. He is looking to steer India away from the car culture. He asks Sunita Narain, Director of New Delhi’s Center for Science and Environment, for a viable strategy:

Charge high prices for parking, charge a proper road tax for driving, deploy free air-conditioned buses that reach every corner of the city, expand the existing beautiful Delhi subway system, “and then let the market work..."

Say what? Let the market work? While well-intentioned, this sure doesn't seem like a market driven strategy to me. Friedman says he want India to develop, he just doesn't want Indians to drive. That seems a bit unfair.

As I was inching down Lex on the M101 this morning, I was thinking to myself, "Gee. The bus sure is NOT the way to go if you need to get somewhere fast." So, I'm really glad that in New York there is a great alternative in the subway system. I use it all the time. But even with a modern, cheap mass transit system, the New York streets are still clogged with traffic. This traffic is hazardous to pedestrians, ineffecient, and fouls the air. If you build roads, however, the cars will come -- this is the legacy of Robert Moses. Friedman acknowledges as much when he tells the story of the Hyderabad overpass.

It seems a better solution, then, not to bar people from buying cheap cars, but to bar them from driving in city centers, crowded residential district, sensitive environments, &c.

And then let the market work...

No, No, No, Don’t Follow Us
by Thomas Friedman

Evan O'Neil said...

Matthew, I don't think Ms. Narain was talking about market mechanisms. I think she was expressing her vision of infrastructure and policies that would shape the market. Isn't it government's function to set the rules, and then let the market work?

You make a good point about more and bigger roads only leading to increased traffic. Some urban planners call this phenomenon latent demand. It has led traffic engineers to say: "Trying to cure traffic congestion by adding more capacity is like trying to cure obesity by loosening your belt."

What's interesting is that the phenomenon can also work in reverse (no pun intended). Taking away roads doesn't shift all the traffic elsewhere but actually causes many people to stop driving altogether.

The true free riders in our system are people who drive. The Minnesota bridge collapse highlights the need for good public infrastructure, which we all have an interest in paying for through taxes. But aren't drivers using more than their fair share of what is essentially a free public good?

And you should know better than trying to get anywhere on the M101. Walk over to Fifth and grab any of the Limited lines. Better yet, buy that bicycle you've been talking about so much ;)