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May 21, 2007

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Thomas

Cars are an interesting problem. On one hand, they undoubtedly spur commerce and facilitate economic mobility. On the other hand, car accidents are one of the leading causes of death, car pollution is one of the leading causes of global warming and (and used to contribute to ozone depletion, though not as much any more), the fuel for cars has complicated international relations and lead to unhealthy economic dependencies (and lead to the funding of terrorists, though that's sort of a cheap-shot), and the infrastructure built up to accommodate cars has lead to suburban sprawl, and wasted land and resources. And to top it all off, we have NASCAR!

I'm not sure what our country would be like today if the government hadn't built the highway infrastructure, but certainly the free market would have filled the gap with something better. Now, it's probably too late to fix the mistake. We are a car dependent society, and our infrastructure was built up to facilitate that dependence. I don't see how America could possibly change, except through necessity due to declining oil reserves.

Val Larsen

Without cars, no one sees the castle and cows. Where I live in the Shenandoah Valley, there are tiny towns every three or four miles. Many are just a name on the map now, though a few still have a store and lots of them a church. The reason they exist is because before cars, people couldn't travel very far. Here the old days persist since a number of my Menonite neighbors still use buggies and bicycles to go to church or the store. Even on improved roads--which presuppose mechanization--they don't move very fast. Granted, the costs of roads are socialized and subsidized, but what we have is nevertheless pretty much what the free market has produced. People like single family dwellings with a yard. Were a libertarian utopia created, the number of cars might even increase since road pricing would reduce traffic jams and make driving more attractive. New urbanists and their ilk have been dreaming for a generation of attracting familes back to the city, but barring state intervention-ex hypothesi ruled out in our libertarian thought experiment--the old days aren't coming back, even in some new guise. The great champions of unspoiled nature have always been aristocratic conservatives who were able to travel and see it but didn't have to experience what Marx called "the idiocy of rural life" since they could return to their cities after their ramble. Now (as an earlier post nicely demonstrated), far more of us are living lives of aristocrats and taking on the environmentalist attitudes of the aristocrats. We build our mansion in the country, then try to zone everyone else out. We use the federal government to bar development in unpopulated places like ANWR and many parts of the west. So to sum up, I don't think the proposed libertarian ideology can every produce the desired aristocratic conservative outcomes.

Nathan Smith

"Without cars, no one sees the castle and cows."

Well, there are other ways to get around. Not just horses (more picturesque but probably not less damaging to the environment if ridden in sufficiently large numbers) but trams and the like. And feet. They don't get you very far, but you wouldn't have to go so far to have a pleasant times if it weren't for cars. One of the big reasons to drive these days is to get away from cars!

"Granted, the costs of roads are socialized and subsidized, but what we have is nevertheless pretty much what the free market has produced."

Well, that's close to the truth in the countryside, I think. If all roads were toll roads it seems pretty clear that it wouldn't dramatically affect the economy of rural transportation. Cities are a very different story. Land values are extremely high and the implicit rental cost of America's urban roads is, I have no doubt, astronomical. The trouble is that the network of externalities is so tightly wound. I have no doubt there are plenty of private investors who would snap up city streets if they were for sale. But the first thing they would do is tax the vendors in return for letting customers get access to them. Maybe that's an acceptable outcome but things get very complex. And then what you're really dealing with is externalities-- the city street and its noise harms the quality of life of everyone in the neighborhood. How do you monetize that?

"People like single family dwellings with a yard."

Who's "people"? People like college campuses too. There are plenty of people who get out to the suburbs and miss the good old college days. And one reason people like the suburbs is because the *noise* of cars is reduced, even if the dependence on them is increased. A car-free culture is not an option.

"Were a libertarian utopia created, the number of cars might even increase since road pricing would reduce traffic jams and make driving more attractive."

There's an inconsistency here: if the number of cars increased, that would lead to more traffic jams, not less. Right? But the main thing here is that we just don't know. On thing I think would happen is that if private developers supplied, and charged for, roads, they would have different powers to regulate their use. I think a lot of private developers would find that it was worth keeping motor vehicle transport out of sight, like sewage, maybe underground, and leave the sunlit uplands to pedestrians-- not because of moral aversion to cars, but to maximize quality of life and therefore land values.

"New urbanists and their ilk have been dreaming for a generation of attracting familes back to the city..."

Well, the biggest reason that doesn't work is probably the schools, isn't it? Introduce a voucher system and the urban schools would become the best in the country, as they are in some other countries, because you would have more economies of scale and competition. Then families would live in the city for the sake of the kids.

"but barring state intervention-ex hypothesi ruled out in our libertarian thought experiment--the old days aren't coming back, even in some new guise."

Of course if it's a case of negative externalities then you could argue that state intervention, perhaps on a massive scale, would be justified. But sticking with the libertarian case: Suppose you privatize all urban roads. What happens? Initially it would be chaos, as road-owners would experiment with all sorts or pricing schemes, and urban property owners would have a crazy time, and would often end up paying through the nose for access to their own property, or selling out at token prices because they were at the mercy of the road owners. But what happens after that, when all the wrinkles have worked themselves out? I think that's a very hard call to make. I think it's very likely that the role of cars in cities would be dramatically reduced. Cities might end up looking like the Getty Center in Los Angeles or like many college campuses, full of quads and squares and gardens and with virtually no roads or cars.

"The great champions of unspoiled nature have always been aristocratic conservatives who were able to travel and see it but didn't have to experience what Marx called "the idiocy of rural life" since they could return to their cities after their ramble."

But this doesn't apply anymore, does it! No need for the rural-dweller to be an idiot in the age of the internet!

Nato

"...what we have is nevertheless pretty much what the free market has produced."

...after government regulation and unions hobbled rail, taxes paid for massive expansions in roadways, tax laws advantaged low-density living, and costs were left un-monetized. Then network effects amplified all that many times over. I think it's just amnesia that makes us think roads are in any way more libertarian than rail or other mass transit. The NYC subways were built by multiple private competitors, as were many mass transit systems around the country. Government intervention killed the old days in which private transit companies could make money, not just the rise of the automobile.

Automobiles had a great deal of cultural cachet from the start and I'm sure they would have risen from novelty to practicality so that they gave rail et al a run for their money, but I highly doubt it would have come to dominate so completely without the extensive help it got; it might never have dominated.

That said, I have a hard time conceiving of a government that didn't do what it could to make autos more prevalent because they were very much viewed as proof of a society's wealth and class. Every car was a Hummer or an Escalade or whathaveyou. Also, the workhorse cousins of the auto, tractors and trucks, were good to have for the agricultural heartland to which populists were even more deeply beholden than today.

Then there was the fact that, as a new industry, the automobile industry was a chance to start over without all the onerous baggage that other methods of transport had acquired. Even libertarians would jump at that.

But I still think it's a misdescription to say that what we have is much the same as unadulterated market forces would have generated.

Val Larsen

Nathaniel offers trains and foot as alternative ways to see the castle and cows. But trains can never offer the joys of following one's whims from site to site locally or on a larger excursion. The very expensive infrastructure of tracks precludes that mode of transport for any but a very limited set of destinations. And rail is, if any thing, more despoilative of the countryside than roads, given the need for very limited incline. There are no off road trains whereas certain cars can made do with the most rudimentary of roads. Foot can never take one far, so the vast majority of people saw little when that was their only option.

Road pricing can both increase the number of cars and reduce congestion through differential pricing depending on demand. It gives marginal drivers a stronger incentive to drive at off peak times and can, thus increase the carrying capacity of existing roads. It has apparently worked pretty well in London.

Many cities subsedize public transport heavily and consciously seek to get people out of their cars, to little avail. I have read many news stories on this topic over the years. The failure of these efforts suggests that public transport can't meet expectations of flexibilty and atonomy that are very important to American consumers. This flexibility and autonomy--that so nicely match core American traits--helps account for what Nato calls the cachet of the car when it first came on the scene.

I read an article by James Q. Wilson, distinguished social scientist, some years ago that suggested that the car created the road system rather than the other way around. That is the nub of the disagreement between my post and Nato's. My view is that when people could escape the city for the suburbs (which cars made possible), they did, in spite of the relatively undeveloped roads. Extensive use of the roads led to demand that roads be improved. And isn't that almost always the case in your observation? It is in mine. When traffic gets to be too much, political will is marshalled to take the trouble (and there is always political trouble in eminant domain cases) of settling upon the appropriate course, acquiring property, raising money, etc. Roads to nowhere are occassionaly built but not very often. The somewhere normally exists with rudimentary roads before the highway gets built.

Nathan Smith

"Roads to nowhere are occassionaly built but not very often. The somewhere normally exists with rudimentary roads before the highway gets built."

Okay, but I think the main argument here is whether roads continue to be the best use of land after areas are built up. A country road uses low-value land. Fine. But in the cities some very expensive, valuable land is tied up carrying cars around. And this certainly is in no sense a verdict of the market. It would be interesting to do a public choice analysis of this.

And that leaves the problem of negative externalities. How much would people pay to have streets be places of community and pleasure instead of asphalt wastelands? If they had the choice, that is.

Nato

"Many cities subsedize public transport heavily and consciously seek to get people out of their cars, to little avail. I have read many news stories on this topic over the years. The failure of these efforts suggests that public transport can't meet expectations of flexibilty and atonomy that are very important to American consumers"

This is a good point, but once again the narrative begins after most major mass transit had already been dismantled. A century ago, major cities tram systems that were subsequently crowded out or dismantled by autos - even today Muni is having a difficult time meeting schedules because of automobile congestion its existence is intended to ameliorate!

Basically, all development in the last 50 years has been geared toward car transit and it's going to be difficult or impossible for mass transit to compete for a long time. Neither will there come a point when mass transit *can* compete on its own dime, since if it doesn't already exist, developers and others will direct no investment toward taking advantage of it. One might hope that a private company would have such deep pockets that they would be willing to invest in something that won't make money for 20 years, but that's unlikely because of the huge regulatory risks. Sadly, only the government can truly undertake mass transit projects, and if it does, it has to be very patient about bringing the project to solvency. BART is 40 years old almost and is just getting to the break-even point. Of course, the city has still made a lot of money off of it from other sources, but BART's internal balance sheets would be billions of dollars in the red if it were a private company.

Nato

I should note that BART could make money at this point if it so chose by raising rates slightly and stopping build-outs.

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