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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Agree With the First Part, But Not Really the Second

Matt Yglesias writes in a post called "Long Commutes Make You Fat, Give You High Blood Pressure":
I really firmly believe that the existence of persistent regular traffic jams is just about the most underrated problem in American public policy, especially because it's a problem we could almost certainly solve relatively easily with a mix of congestion pricing, demand-responsive pricing of street parking, and more bus service.
You had me at "persistent regular traffic jams" but congestion pricing?  More bus service?  Please.....

I just don't get Yglesias's fascination with congestion pricing.  I think he read a paper on it once, but never really gave it much thought to how it would work or improve the current situation.  To me, it's a real clever way to move the rocks from one side of the yard to the other, but clearing the yard of rocks?  Yeah, not gonna happen.

First, "congestion pricing" already exists in the form of wasted gasoline, and I would submit that people are already very sensitive to gas prices.  Add another layer of cost onto the whole thing and sure, maybe they'll be extra very duper sensitive....but I doubt it.  It'll probably just piss them off.  If the light bulb has not already gone off....it's not going to.

Also it's useful to understand that congestion pricing doesn't improve traffic flow, or make it easier for everyone to get around.  Nope, it works by deliberately pricing people out of the activity in question.  It reduces traffic congestion by reducing traffic.   It's a trick.  A gimmick, and what's worse, it's a gimmick that makes our transportation system less useful, not more.

More bus service?  In almost any case, traveling in a car will be faster and more convenient.  You can make bus service more attractive by making car travel more inconvenient but again, it's just a gimmick of lowered utility.

What I'd like to see is actual innovation, innovation that makes the transportation system more useful.  You see it every now and then in various areas, almost always in limited circumstances, but for the most part, navigability seems to be sacrificed for management and safety reasons, which is stupid.

Indeed, I think this is why the highway clumps up during rush hour:  it's the only unimpeded roadway in sight, and while there may be slowing and the occasional coming to a complete stop, these things are guaranteed to occur on the side streets.


The sad thing is that we're so used to this as the status quo that we don't think that's a problem.   We're such uncreative thinkers and habitual drivers that we can't conceive of better road design and when we do, we don't like it because it's strange.  "Roundabouts?  They're so confusing."  "Yeah, but you can make a left turn without sitting at a light."  "Yeah, but it's weird!"

We've been lulled into accepting intentional delay and random interruption as how it is and how it always will be.  But it doesn't have to be that way.  We just need better ideas, and while Yglesias's congestion pricing fixation is an idea, it's a bad one.

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