Friday, March 20

Which way from here?

In the last post I followed Peter Norton in outlining how the social perception of public roads changed throughout the 20th century. In this post, I'd like to follow up by observing how this shift from multi-modal public space to mostly single-use automobile routes throughout American cities has led to a shift in how roads are most effectively governed and paid for.

The key economic concept here is "public good,” that is any good that is non-rivaled (no one person’s use detracts significantly from another person’s use) and non-excludable (no groups are excluded from using the good). Without getting into the details, it’s pretty clear to me that the early model of multiple-use streets meets the definition of public good, while the latter car-dominated model does not.

Generally it makes more sense to regulate use of a non-public good through a market-based approach, otherwise you end up in a tragedy of the commons scenario – endless traffic congestion, externalities from the emissions and noise, etc. Brookings fellow Anthony Downs explains the rationale for freeway pricing pretty succinctly in Still Stuck in Traffic:
Access to freeway space during peak hours is a desirable good definitely in limited supply. When it is free, the number of drivers who want it greatly exceeds the available space on the roads involved during peak hours. If that space is handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, lines will form until space is fully occupied. That equals traffic congestion … The alternative of charging a “market clearing” price seems a lot more sensible. By setting the price appropriately, this approach can reduce the number of people willing to pay that price down to the level at which they can all move rapidly on the road.
I mention all of this to bring up a dilemma I’m puzzling over:

Road pricing makes sense to me, given that our roads are now essentially functioning as private space yet are still, at least partially, paid for with public funds. But won’t a full-fledged pricing system amount to the consummation of the automobile’s victory over this contested space? Is this throwing in the towel?

It seems that there are a few ways to slice this. Some roads, especially limited access highways, can be treated as private roadways, that is government-owned yet priced like a market, and other more local streets can be treated like public space. Or it can be sliced by mode, rather than spatially. Cars on all roads could be priced, since they are the ones causing rivalry and exclusion after all, while other modes could be treated as public amenities.

These hybrid strategies seem great in theory, but they may be hard for us to grapple with culturally. The more drivers believe they are paying for the roads, the more they will feel justified in not having anyone in their way. The alternative for local roads is the Dutch "Woonerf" strategy: all modes are mixed together in a truly public fashion, and motorists are not given any special rights. They have to cautiously navigate their way through the crowds like everyone else.

Are these conceptions of space mutually exclusive? Can they be mingled together or subject to local variation? Would that be too confusing?

I know some people reading have thought more about this than I have. Assuming I haven't shaken you off with my long-winded speculations, please help me out here!


Zed said...

Not to gee the equity horse into the forefront, again. But, you must ask who pays for the government-subsidized private road and who bears the cost of having the externalities in their backyard.

That is, it is disingeneous to allow the government to build roads in a neighborhood that may not choose to have one, nor can afford to utilize the benefits. I suppose the political decision to build the road in the first place has provided a balancing of concerns. But, if privatization arguments of efficiency and saving of limited funds is used in deciding who bears the costs, then it is inequitous.

Daniel Nairn said...

Hey Zed. Thanks for weighing in. I'm glad you did bring up the issue of equity, because that is a huge part of this. IMO, if road costs were shifted away from the public and toward the users of the transportation system (aka road pricing) that MIGHT ultimately serve the interest of equity, as long as the funds that are freed up are used in a socially beneficial way.

But streets are also the backbone of our public space. I worry that auctioning off their use, whether through toll roads or congestion pricing, to the highest bidder could be really problematic in the long run.

LH said...

Daniel, another insightful post. No golden bullet in my gun, but I'll fire in anyway. At least in PA, the fact that the PA Turnpike is currently the only tolled road around leads to some distortion in terms of usage; and the fact that we are thinking about leasing it for 75 years just as we are on the precipice of having the technology to spread user fees over more roads means we may be severely hindering our ability to have a comprehensive approach to the very question you pose (since the Commonwealth won't have control over this major thoroughfare).

CarFree Stupidity said...

I have just two thoughts. First, most road pricing in America takes place on freeways, a type of road that no alternative mode of transportation, other than bus, really wants to be on. So I think your point about throwing in the towel is wrong, freeways are already designed specifically as a vehicle only road.

Secondly, road pricing like what London has implemented, encourages alrternative options on surface streets by making driving more expensive, thus making alternatives more competitive and cheaper in a market sense. Congestion pricing can also be an important source of revenue for local governments to use for future alternative transportation projects.

Eric Orozco said...

IMO, VMT taxing is the only truly equitable option. Immediately, it will create more diverse local environments, which will naturally localize resources and economies and diversify transportation options.

BTW, it is true that freeways are (and should be) limited to vehicular modes, but that doesn't mean you can't do something else with networks and alternate travel options. For private providers, this mean competition, which will impair your network. Plus, there's much we can do with that unused ROW that a private operator will not desire to manage. It should be clearly understood to those of you who don't know what goes into creating a rail transit line: No city in this country will realize a robust transit network without making dedicatory use of freeway ROW. It's not an issue of eminent domain, it is an issue of money (of course, nothing is stopping us from taking land by fiat, but that's what they call round these parts g'luck with that one).

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks for your reactions. I do agree that a VMT tax is something that is ultimately just and efficient, and doing so on freeways for now is fine, but it would be nice if technological advances allow for something more comprehensive.

Maybe what I'm stuck on is how the VMT tax would be interpreted. It could be taken a couple of ways. 1. an approximation of payment for a private service, in which case drivers may view the payment as giving them special rights over other forms of transportation 2. A tax intended for behavior-modification for behaviors that bear excessive social costs. Something like a tax on cigarettes or gambling. No smoker assumes that the high level of taxes is payment for a special service.

But really what I'm most concerned about is local roads, and you've all convinced me that fair pricing will benefit here.