Market Solutions to environmental challenges

During my lifetime, most aspects of the American environment have improved. Water and air are significantly cleaner in most parts of the U.S., forests have grown stronger and wildlife has returned. The big exception to this hallelujah chorus is urban sprawl and those things associated with it. Let me count some of the subtle (and not so subtle) sprawl hurts our society and then propose a solution.

Sprawl covers land. It is hard to drive outside most major cities. They go on forever, only gradually thinning out. Busier roads have the effect of cutting up the environment. Some animals, such as slow moving amphibians are actually endangered by roads, since it cuts their populations into sections too small to effectively reproduce (and squishes those that try to move to a new neighborhood.

Sprawl is self-sustaining. As people move further out, they demand more and wider roads that allow people to move further out.

Sprawl harms families and individuals and is a thief of time. Those hours you spend in traffic could be hours you spend with your family or doing something more fun than sitting in traffic.

Sprawl harms communities, by making it harder for people to get together. It also allows a greater degree of self-segregation. Pedestrians occasionally see their neighbors close up and maybe even talk to people they meet randomly. In the car, you go where you choose and interact only with those you choose. Sounds good, but isn't for a free community. We need some randomized mixing.

Sprawl makes people fat and unattractive. This is - I admit - only my own formulation. But think about it. I eat a lot and tend to eat at McDonald's a couple times a week. Even at the half-century mark, I don't have a particular weight problem. I think it is because I rarely drive. Europeans are thinner than Americans for the same reason. Much of their food is NOT low calorie, but they walk.

There are other costs to sprawl, but let's get to the what do we do part.

I personally don't mind high gas prices, but others have pointed out to me that this affects all the U.S., including those parts less affected by sprawl.

So the solution is market pricing for roads and especially parking. People drive, instead of walk or take public transportation because it is cheaper and easier. No surprise. It gets to be a viscous circle when because they drive, the other alternative decline, making it more attractive to drive. We need to break the circle.

The problem is a tragedy of the commons. Roads and parking are commons. Nobody has any incentive to limit his/her use of them. We distribute them in the stupidest way – by making people wait in line (otherwise called traffic). The simple solution is to make them no longer free AND charge a price that varies with demand. Even very busy roads are empty much of the time Driving on the freeway at 5:00 am might be free. Driving at 5pm would be expensive. You could estimate your costs and driving time more effectively. Time is money. Sometimes we might trade some time for money, sometimes not. In any case, it would be a choice.

What about the poor? First off, there are a lot of things that the poor can't buy. A rich runner can afford better shoes and the rich driver sits in more comfort in traffic. But who pays for roads now? Communities and taxpayers, including those who don't drive. Under this system, drivers would pay for roads and everyone would get to work or home faster. We would probably be talking less than $5 an hour saved. Is your time worth that much?

Sprawl and traffic are like the weather. Everybody talks about them but nobody does anything about it. Let's do something.

Posted by Jack at May 9, 2005 12:46 PM