Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Kind of Problem Transportation Is

It is ironic, in discussions of transportation, that liberals have seized upon fuel as the primary issue: from public transportation to energy policy to Detroit bailouts, they calculate everything in terms of how to limit the use of gas, and how to limit emissions.

But fuel and emissions are fungible: they can be moved from place to place, so that I can get from place to place using dozens of different fuel sources from thousands of different sources; and someone else can use the same fuel that I might use. Ditto with emissions: we do indeed need to worry about how many pollutants we put into our atmosphere (for the health of the air we breathe, if not more stratospheric concerns), but we don't need to worry who pollutes. We just need to limit the overall amount. Emissions are fungible.

And fungible resources are precisely what the market is designed to deal with. If we're worried about a limited amount of petroleum, the answer is very simple: supply and demand. As petroleum runs out, it will become more expensive, and people will limit their use of it, either by limiting their fuel consumption overall, or by shifting to other fuels. The cost mechanism is designed for precisely this problem; there is nothing it does better than allocate limited resources, and nothing handles this problem better than simple supply and demand.

There are, of course, a couple side issues here. There's the very silly idea of peak oil, which, in case you're worried, I will simply dismiss thus: there are various sources of oil (the ocean bottom, shale, etc.) each increasingly expensive, so it's not as if we'll "run out" all of a sudden; there are other kinds of fuel (nuclear, solar, wind, water, biofuels, etc.), which are more expensive, but which can incrementally replace petroleum (for example, natural-gas heat, nuclear electricity, electric cars, without wholesale replacing petroleum all at once); and in any case, this is what the price mechanism is all about. The Arabs (and Canadians, and Mexicans, and all the others who control oil) want as much money as they can get out of those wells, and will incrementally raise prices as oil supplies diminish. Peak oil is not the problem.

Nor is economic inequality the problem. If you're concerned about people being priced out of the gas market, give them money, either through largesse or through job creation. Economic inequality is a problem, but it isn't solved by rationing fuel.

Finally, emissions are more complicated than fuel, since they are not something people purchase. But because they are nonetheless fungible, the solution is not to dictate individual decisions (through mandated forms of transportation, or whatever), but to put a surcharge on emissions. This is not rocket science: do an emissions check, and tax the vehicle accordingly (perhaps with a multiplier for mileage). Emissions are a problem, but they are not solved by rationing fuel. Liberals have it all wrong when they focus on fuel as the problem in transportation.

But it is similarly ironic that conservatives focus only on freedom. They say people should be able to go where they please, so we should build roads wherever people want to go. What this answer misses, however, is a bedrock of conservative thought: property rights.

Transportation is a property issue, because it fundamentally involves passing through someone else's yard -- if you don't need to traverse a third-party territory to get where you're going, you are not involved in transportation. To go from St. Paul to Chicago means going through Wisconsin. To go from my house to the mall means getting past what is in between; if I didn't have to pass through anything, it wouldn't be transportation.

Conservatives notice this problem when it's used as a criticism of public transportation. The city is building a light-rail line here in St. Paul. Supposedly it's going to be great for business along the Midway. But it will take five years to build, during which time traffic on University Ave. will be blocked. What happens to the businesses there in the meantime -- the Target and the Walmart, the used bookstore and the little Vietnamese bakery? For five long years it will be easier for customers to go somewhere else.

The government recognizes this, and is planning to subsidize these businesses for the duration of the project, as part of the cost of building. Of course, the question remains open whether the light rail itself will help or hurt traffic. We all hope it will just add more customer flow. But if it blocks car traffic and doesn't attract train traffic, these five years are the beginning of many years of much worse. Conservatives notice this.

They notice, too, when the President of Minnesota Public Radio comes on the air and says, "we support the light rail, but as planned it will pass too close to our studies, making our business impossible." I support the light rail -- in someone else's front yard. Because trains are very noisy, and transportation effects the neighbors.

Conservatives see this. But do they see the parallel with roads? St. Paul's University Ave.-Midway has long been blighted. From storefront to storefront, it is about 170 feet across the street; at a normal walking pace, that's almost a minute. At best -- when there's no traffic -- that means pedestrians (that is, people) have a pretty long walk, across empty concrete, to get between adjacent businesses. At worst -- when there is traffic -- it means that there are only businesses on one side of the street: half as many places for people to go, after they've parked their automobile, and thus half as many reasons for people to visit University Ave. businesses. (Light rail is not going to help this.) That used bookstore is a lot less attractive when you can't get a cup of coffee next door.

But even worse, because things are so spread apart, people must drive to get places, and that means parking lots. To get from the sidewalk in front of Target to the door is 375 feet: a minute and a half. (I'm using Google maps.) To get to the store on the other side of the street is two and a half minutes. The effect on business is perfectly obvious: no one walks from business to business on University Ave. That may be aesthetically displeasing, and aesthetics do matter, but even more important, it impacts the choices people make: the likelihood that they will visit other businesses on the street, the likelihood that they will visit that area at all, the safety of people walking in the neighborhood, who are vulnerable not only to cars, but to criminals, who prefer to do what they do where there are fewer bystanders. Target's 375- x 465-foot parking lot is not just a matter of personal liberty, but also of neighborhood effects. It changes the world around it. It effects business at the Vietnamese bakery, and it changes who wants to live in the apartment building around the block.

Four blocks away is I-94, the lifeline of the Twin Cities. To get from a storefront or home on one side of the freeway to one on the other side is about 500 feet: two minutes on foot. If you're lucky, there's a bridge every quarter mile (five minutes). Does this effect the neighborhoods on either side? Of course.

A home in a neighborhood without freeways is surrounded by other homes and businesses -- places to go; people to watch, and to watch out for you; room to wander, and to be outside, and to be in your neighborhood. A home abutting a freeway has effectively nothing in 50% of its environs. And then there's the noise. There's a reason that the neighborhoods abutting freeways are almost always slums. It isn't a nice place to live, or even to do business.

All of this is simply to say: transportation is a property-rights issue. If I want to get from a house in the suburbs to a business downtown, the question is not only where I want to go, how I want to get there, and who will pay. (Though those are important issues, and must also be considered.) But in every act of transportation there is also the property being traversed: transportation always goes past something.

There are good reasons for people to demand a freeway through my neighborhood. It is important for people and things to be able to get from a to b, and they have to go somewhere. But the noise and the interference with pedestrian travel -- that is, travel by human beings, since we can't drive our cars into stores, or into houses, and we can't talk to people in other cars: we always end up on foot -- these things also affect the neighborhood.

In the classic libertarian formulations of Milton Friedman, the primary reason for government intervention is what he calls "neighborhood effects": when people outside a transaction benefit or pay from the result. If I burn tires in my backyard, my neighbors pay. If I build a public park across the street, my neighbors benefit. There is a fundamental injustice -- indeed, a violation of individual freedom, and of contract -- if the neighbors aren't involved in these decisions.

But transportation always has a neighborhood effect, because transportation always, necessarily, goes past someone else's property. (Even airplanes: they make noise, especially on takeoff; they release pollution; they go through the airspace we all look at.) That's not to say the neighborhood effect is always bad, or significant: I really don't mind seeing airplanes in the sky, at least when they are high up. It is to say that we can never have an honest discussion about transportation without considering the people we're driving past.

It is reasonable for conservatives to demand liberty in transportation. The economy, and human relations, depend on the ability of people to get from a to b based on their own intelligence, not based on the "plan" of a bureaucrat (or special interest). Conservatives are therefore right to be wary of public-transportation schemes that involve a bureaucrat's intelligence being substituted for the intelligence of the people he claims to serve. They are right to insist on the market.

But conservatives must recognize that there is no free lunch on transportation. They must consider the neighborhoods effected by cars: the noise, the physical separation, the parking. These are not matters of individual choice, but of neighborhoods, and this is the kind of problem that transcends the market. They are matters that essentially depend on governmental involvement.

I am not proposing a simple solution. I am, rather, denying the overly simple solution of pretending cars and roads are simply issues of individual choice. Transportation is always a neighborhood issue.