Thursday, February 7, 2008

Surfers win! Surfers win!

The California Coastal Commission has voted against the proposed toll road through San Onofre State Park. This is good news. In particular, this is a good example of property rights at the center of the conflict. The State of California and the Coastal Commission could have certainly allowed the road to go through, but the surfers, environmentalists, slow growthers and other concerned citizens raised enough hackles to stop the project. What the opposition groups did, in effect, is assert property rights over the state park and the environment. In this case they were not looking for financial gain from holding the rights. Rather they were looking for other gain (cleaner water, better surf breaks, trout, streams, more parkland to enjoy). These groups were completely uncompensated in the original proposal. Had the Transportation Corridor Agencies been more Coasian in their approach, they would have acted to compensate those who will suffer harm from the road. Such is the danger of not following the Coase theorem.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Cars are smarter than the driver

There are two new technologies that are making their way into mainstream automobiles and will soon probably be in all new cars. Nissan has a package as part of its navigation system that tracks fuel efficiency and how you drive compared with others in the same type of car. This seems like it can be a very cheap and effective way to dramatically improve fuel efficiency. Nissan claims around 25% gains in economy. Of course, the success of this device relies on the idea that people want to increase their fuel efficiency. I'm not so sure this is universal, but hopefully enough people will want to. It seems that some people will treat the scores as something to maximize, like when a bar installs a B.A.C. blow tube and everybody in the bar tries to see how high they can get their reading.

The second thing is Volvo's new driver warning system. When a driver seems to be driving poorly and erratically, a warning light comes on suggesting that the driver needs a break. The symbol used is a cup of coffee, but if the car thinks the driver is terrible, coffee probably won't do the trick. I suppose a martini glass is too accusative for a symbol, but a cell phone and a line that says "hang up and drive" would probably get to the point most directly. I doubt people will buy a car that tells them that they are crappy drivers. Maybe Volvo could work on automated turn signals instead.

Barack Obama, Health Care and the Auto Industry

One of the most logical and forward thinking policy ideas I can remember came from Barack Obama a few years ago. In a nutshell, he said the U.S. government should assume the health care responsibilities of the retired auto workers in exchange for greatly increased fuel efficiency (or hybrids). This makes sense in so many ways, but I can't find any evidence that he still talks about it.

The auto industry has long maintained that their pension and health care costs for retired workers limits their ability to compete with other more nimble car makers. Considering how long the auto industry has been making this claim I think there is a sizable contribution to the problem from plain old poor management, but the obligations are real. While this agreement with one industry may seem at odds with a desire for universal coverage, what Obama's proposal does is it gets something back for taking over the obligations. The current health care proposals will cost billions, and the benefits are that everyone will get coverage. New proposals will also take a great deal of time to pass and implement.

Why shouldn't industry specific deals be made that generate benefits outside of health care? Cleaner, more fuel efficient cars and trucks seems like a pretty good outcome considering the public is likely to take over the auto industry's obligations anyway.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Are the candidates saying enough about cities and transportation?

There is a primary election tomorrow here in California. This seems like a good time to think about what the candidates do say (and should say) about cities and transportation. Well over half of all Americans live in urban areas, and traffic congestion is a major issue in nearly all metropolitan areas. Since transportation consumes two-thirds of all the oil used in the U.S., transportation policy has obvious environmental impact. Since there has not really been much of a federal urban policy agenda since the Johnson administration, transportation policy is where the candidates can establish their ideas about what kinds of cities the U.S. should have.

Unfortunately, the candidates don't say much about transportation. In the new LA Times transportation column, Steve Hymon points out that the Democratic contenders support additional transit while the Republicans haven't said a thing except Huckabee, who wants to expand the I-95 in New Jersey. Obama (here is David Levinson's endorsement which nicely explains the transportation angle, though I'm not sold on space policy) supports many "smart growth" and livable community initiatives, which are good things but not necessarily good policies for the federal government to undertake considering the heterogeneity of community preferences. (Streetsblog notes that Obama doesn't mention transit on his website, however.) Clinton supports an expansion of rail funding and increasing development density. These ideas are all positive in the sense that it's good that candidates are thinking about cities and transportation, but I'm not confident that federal initiatives can be as flexible as urban policy needs to be in dealing with local concerns. I also don't think that rail investment is the best use of scarce transit dollars. Federal (and state, regional and local) transit policies should focus on the most effective ways to move people about, not how to move fancy trains about.

Where the federal government is most effective and should focus it's energy is on environmental issues and infrastructure finance. As the CAFE standards are increased, two reactions will occur. First, there will be a small increase in driving (the rebound effect) because the cost of driving went down. Ken Small and Kurt Van Dender estimate that the rebound effect is not great enough to eliminate the benefits from increased fuel economy, but a little but more driving by existing drivers plus driving by new drivers will further strain our infrastructure. The second effect is that the fuel tax collected per mile will decrease. This is problematic since the federal government relies of the gas tax to finance all kinds of transportation investment. This investment will have to decline (as % of GDP or per capita) unless new ways to pay for transportation are implemented. As it is, more state and local governments are using sales taxes to pay for roads and transit as declining federal money is inadequate for their needs. The best solution is to allow for tolls on freeways, and the money can be used as the local governments see fit. Tolls offer policy flexibility and force efficiencies on the existing infrastructure, reducing the need for new roads.

On the environment there are two factors that call for policy intervention. They are climate change and public health. Climate change can be addressed through cap and trade or Pigouvian taxes to discourage consumption. Public health is a much more immediate issue, I think, and one where government intervention can be quick and dramatically improve urban areas. There is overwhelming evidence that freeways are line source polluters. Vehicle emissions cause grave health problems for people (especially children) who live, work and play near freeways. Federal policy should focus on cleaning the air (or sealing the homes and schools near roads). By cleaning the air through improved emissions, the vehicles will become more fuel efficient as well. This accomplishes climate change policy while avoiding all the people who don't think climate change is a problem. Yet I don't hear any candidate talking about public health issues as part of their environmental strategy.

Ultimately, any transportation policies need to be malleable enough to be workable for the diverse nature of problems facing cities and movement. Federal policy should avoid being prescriptive. Rather, the successes of TEA-21 and ISTEA should be continued through even more flexibility and a focus on individual movement and accessibility. In addition, goods movement should be prepared to pay more for the benefits received from the publicly financed road networks. It is surprising that goods movement doesn't get as much attention from the federal government as it should. Hopefully the campaigns eventually talk more about these issues and how the federal government can help cities and transportation.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Curb parking is the problem, not the solution, with Westside LA traffic

There are many proposals floating around about how to improve traffic on the Westside of LA. One proposal discussed in today's Times is that curb parking should be prohibited during peak hours. Businesses are up in arms about this idea, as can be expected. However, the businesses are wrong. The elimination of curb parking during rush hours is not going to harm their businesses, and may even improve them in the long run.

The problem with the business owners' position is that they argue that their sales depend on easy access for their customers from street parking right out front. One business owner quoted in the article says the street spaces right in front of his shop are worth hundreds of dollars a day. If this is true (and it isn't) then is cost effective for him to build a few off street parking spaces near his business. Being that an average storefront in the area probably has about a space and a half in front of it, there is no doubt that not many customers can park immediately in front of the store. Since the parking meters are very inexpensive, there is not much turnover, reducing further the importance of any particular space. Each block face has about eight spaces. In each car that parks in a space has two shoppers in it (which is very unlikely) and the spaces turn over twice and hour (for a total of 32 shoppers per block face per hour), that is nowhere near enough customers to support any business except high end retail, yet alone high volume retail like bakeries and restaurants.

Parking lanes affect traffic flow in two ways, both of which are problematic for high volume arterial streets (such as Olympic and Pico). First, there is a lane that is eliminated from traffic flow. While this is obvious, the problem lies in the inconsistent execution, where some blocks have limited parking and some have no parking. When the lane opens up for traffic (such as at intersections) drivers fill the lanes and then are forced to merge back into the remaining lanes when they approach parked cars. Aggressive merging certainly adds to overall delay (congestion) and driver frustration. The second way that parking causes problems is through the act of parking. Each parking event stops traffic in a flowing traffic lane. These events add up to considerable congestion and excess merging (as drivers move to a left hand lane).

All in all, parking should be eliminated because it will greatly help traffic flow and likely make the Westside more attractive as a destination. It's probably the best thing that can be done. The businesses are overestimating the value of street parking to their success-especially during rush hour. As for the residential neighborhood and permit parking, the neighborhood should issue permits and be allowed to keep the money. That way the neighbors get something in return for allowing businesses to park cars on their streets (this outcome would be a Coasian bargain). Parking should not be an uncompensated good.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Great Toll Road Swindle?

There is a new road proposed to run through San Onofre State Park in Orange County. As can be expected, there is great opposition to the proposal. The opposition is somewhat weakened by the fact that the road does not go through a residential community. Rather, the negative effects of the road would be felt within the state park and along the surf breaks, namely Lower Trestles, one of SoCal's mosts famous breaks.

I generally feel like we should better manage the infrastructure we have before we build any new infrastructure, but a lot of the opposition to the new road emphasizes that it will be a toll road. I think this approach is counter-productive in the long run. If tolls were implemented on the existing highways traffic flow and speeds would greatly increase, thus reducing the need for new construction. Unfortunately, implemented tolls on existing roads is much harder politically than getting them on new roads. The opposition should be focused on the problems from the road, which are significant, and not on the fact that there will be tolls.

photo courtesy of