Thursday, 10 May 2012

The Great Car Economy.

I often get accused of being anti-car. I am not. For most journeys of longer than a few miles, and for moving goods about the country, the motor vehicle is simply the best tool for the job. I just accept the car is often not best tool for the job, and universal car use has a number of negative effects. This leaves an enormous number of journeys for which the car shouldn't be the first choice. My problem is that people are forced into cars, as other options have been, effectively, denied through short-sightedness and poor urban design.

Would you use this? More Rubbish Infrastructure here.

Margret Thatcher hailed in 1989, the "Great Car Economy", embarking on a grand scheme of road-building, which like so much the Tories do, brings out the crusties in vicious and bitter protest. A decade of Swampies living up trees led to the abandonment of "the biggest road-building scheme since the Romans".

More recently the claim is often made that petrol taxes "hurt the economy". Of course they do, but the question should be whether fuel duties hurt more, or less than other taxes. I argue they don't hurt any more than income taxes. The Conservative-led government faces protests by drivers who don't want to pay & feel there should be more roads, that road-building will be the key to stimulating the economy. This is one of the few areas of expenditure, along with the provision of free-parking, that the tax-payer's alliance can be relied upon to support. It ignores the costs of motoring.

Let's go through the hidden costs of "the Great Car Economy".

Cars make towns noisy and stressful. You can estimate the cost of this by looking at houses on main roads, which often cost 30-40% less than those in quiet cul-de-sacs less than a hundred yards away. There's an economic externality of car use, costed for you, right there.

Every 40 cars, roughly, represents £1,000,000 in capital expenditure. For much of the country, that's £2,500 per year, per car. For 95%of the time, this capital is sitting, unused in parking lots. Is this not a colossal waste of resources on a scale equivalent to the Great wall of China? Those parking lots are unsightly, and represent an enormous waste of potentially valuable land, which reduces the value of the area around it. This too is a waste of resources.

Cars facilitate harmful behaviour. People under-estimate how much a long commute makes them miserable, and over-estimate how much a big house makes them happy. People therefore live a sub-optimal distance from work, a long way from family and friends. People are less happy than they would otherwise be.

Cars have changed the built environment, brought about urban sprawl, which atomises society. Cars have driven other options - bicycles and walking out of the picture, by making them so unpleasant. It is simply not enjoyable to share space with tons of speeding metal. As a result, there are few 'local shops'. The car encourages big-box shopping, ripping the heart out of town centres.

Once you have spent 60% of an annual salary on a car, you tend to use it for every journey even ones where (once you've parked) would be quicker to walk. This leads to obesity and ill health. Driving, especially in heavy traffic, is stressful. Adrenaline and Cortisol, when not accompanied by exercise, is hard on the heart and encourages fat deposits. Even if you go to the gym, the damage done by stress hormones while driving is difficult to burn off.

The problem, ultimately is that overuse and over reliance on one transport technology has created a sub-optimal equilibrium. People cannot see beyond THEIR car and the need for it. Blinded by a set of cognitive biases and perverse incentives, the car is used for every journey. And of course, as we've organised society completely around it since the mid-70's, people feel they've no choice. They're probably right. At present, there is no alternative to having £30,000 worth of depreciating metal on your drive. Public transport is simply nasty, as I laid out in detail in this post, a while ago, and we now live too far from everything to consider any other solution.

Ultimately the conclusion is that more roads and more cars isn't the answer. Cars simply fill any extra space, and if you build "enough" space, you get Milton Keynes. We must do things more cleverly.
So, the experiment in the great motoring society has gone as far as it can go. Any further increases in the number or use of cars are likely to generate negative returns to human happiness. It is Government's role therefore to provide infrastructure to other alternatives: a network of cycle tracks and city infrastructure - not to exclude the car, but to provide an alternative, to both tribes' benefit. Motorists should remember the most tireless campaigners for smooth roads are cyclists for whom a pot-hole is not only a punctured tyre, but potentially a broken collar bone. The infrastructure can and should be built with all road-users in mind.
The solution to these problems, is to organise a system where there are fewer cars, used more intensively.

Technological change will help. Nevada has just issued a license for Google's automatous car. This will, in time, enable fleets of driver-free vehicles to act as taxis. It doesn't take much imagination to see this working very much more cheaply and efficiently than a situation where everyone has their own depreciating asset, though this is several years away. Fewer cars, not being driven by people, means a safer and less threatening road environment for other users. Although the total cost of hiring a self-driving car for each journey may in time become lower than owning a private car, the fact you're making a marginal decision for each journey, rather than the costs being concentrated in one enormous sunk cost of purchase, will tend to make people consider alternatives in a way they currently don't. Even if the volume of vehicular journeys increases, driverless cars will be more efficient users of fuel and road-space. They will also be safer.
People are simply not designed to drive. Our lizard-brains simply can't cope. The road environment and the cars on it have been made forgiving to the inadequacies of people driving cars, but it is something no-one can do successfully. Don't believe me? Ask the insurance industry. Racing drivers, those who ACTUALLY can control a car better than anyone else are not considered a good risk. People tend to compensate for extra safety features in their car or any extra skill, by taking more risks. The risks are most keenly felt by people without a ton and a half of steel wrapped around them.
In time, insurance costs will dictate that cars will not be allowed to be owner-driven on the public roads. At present, the only tool with which you can, by recklessness kill someone and escape gaol, is the car. This will change and machines will make better drivers than us.

I am not anti-car. I accept the benefits, and the necessity for widespread car ownership at present. It's just that it's used for over 90% of journeys. People don't walk to the pub anymore, neither do kids cycle to school. And the reason is that the car has changed towns - there are no local services in suburbs any more; ourselves - most of us are fat, and feel the need to change into special clothes to walk a mile; and the environment - the roads are simply too hostile to allow your kids to cycle to school.

If you can address the inappropriate journeys - in particular the school run, much of the congestion motorists currently suffer, would vanish. Kids SHOULD enjoy the independence of making their own way to school, as they do on the continent. This requires investment in infrastructure to separate the cyclist from the motorist. Many (not all, obviously) people would like to cycle to work, but feel it's too unsafe. Investment in infrastructure would take a few of these cars off the roads at peak times too. And if we can encourage delivery driving overnight though a fuel tax rebate, we can have smoothly running roads for everyone, all day.

Every cyclist commuting to work, is one fewer in other motorist's way. But the the entire national cycling infrastructure budget is less than that to widen 4 miles of the M25. Even footpaths are often sub-standard and blocked by (what else?) parked cars. Ultimately, those who want to walk and cycle shouldn't be put off by crappy infrastructure because the car enjoys 99.99% of the spending and an absurdly privileged place in society. If we can change this, then those who still want to drive will have a more enjoyable time too.



18 comments:

Anonymous said...

There's an economic externality of car use, costed for you, right there.

Hmm, maybe it's transport, not cars. Houses facing train lines and runways wouldn't go for so much either.


For 95% of the time, this capital is sitting, unused in parking lots.

No, it's buying me the freedom to go when I want. My phone sits unused 95% of the time too, should I ask Orange to mark it down accordingly? Of course not.


Our lizard-brains simply can't cope.

Poverty of aspiration, and all that. They used to think most people wouldn't be able to use a computer. Dude...


Every cyclist commuting to work, is one fewer in other motorist's way.

But, he is of course now travelling at least 30mph more slowly, is impossible to overtake on the grounds that he is liable to do anything at any time, and goes to the head of the queue at every set of lights thus perpetuating the cycle...


Patrick

Jackart said...

Noisy infrastructure Airports, Trains and Roads - but I doubt a cycle path would have a negative effect on a house price nearby. Canals don't either, for example...

Imagine if you could have the freedom to go everywhere WITHOUT spending £2500 a year on depreciating metal, through leasing driverless cars. That's a poverty of imagination, right there.

People cannot drive. Trust me on this. People simply aren't wired for it. They're too easily distracted, too aggressive and accident prone.

1.2 Million people die worldwide on the roads. You find this acceptable?

Cyclists don't hold motorists up. They simply don't. Motorists hold motorists up. That's lizzard brain thinking, right there.

Anonymous said...

...but I doubt a cycle path would have a negative effect on a house price nearby...

I agree. But why not go the whole hog and use organic sandals to manage the logistics of the 21st century? Bicycles are not the solution.


...through leasing driverless cars...

If it could be at my door within minutes, and it didn't suffer from the tradgedy of the commons and end up with upholstery like a bus, then maybe. And if the added empty backhaul journeys didn't take up whatever road space could be freed by tighter driving patterns, then it just might make sense. But it certainly won't for the next twenty or thirty years, and until then bicycles are not the solution.


...1.2 Million people die...

And how many are saved because the rest can get to work and build the modern world? Could that ancient but brilliant surgeon make it to the hospital every day under his own steam? Could you travel to meet that company and make your pitch wheezing like you've just finished playing the bagpipes?


...They simply don't. Motorists hold motorists up...

What can I do to convince you this is false? Shall I video my commute some morning?

Cheers,

Patrick

Simon said...

"My problem is that people are forced into cars, as other options have been, effectively, denied through short-sightedness and poor urban design"

Really? Or do people prefer to drive, and therefore infrastructure is designed around that preference?

Luke said...

Simon, you ask if people prefer to drive, rather than being forced to. Well yes, they prefer to drive virtually all the time if the alternative is risking their lives or those of their children. Perfectly rational.

Would they prefer to spend money and get fat on virtually all trips if the alternative was (virtually) free transport without having lumps of metal hurtling by them driven by fallible people of varying skill levels and sanity? I guess they would still prefer to drive for some trips, but not for as many.

matt said...

'They used to think most people wouldn't be able to use a computer'. Most people still cant, Windows does all the work, Gates made Billions making it as childishly simple as possible, take that away and the world would stop.

Simon Jester said...

This is a rubbish, socialist post, Jackart.

A full response would turn into a fisking, which I can't be bothered with - so I'll just point out a couple of the more glaring faults:

- You claim that nearly all the expenditure on cars is a waste. Surely this is up to the car owners to decide?

- "Cars simply fill any extra space" - I remember Ben Elton making much the same point several years ago (he used the analogy of multiple rubbish bins). Errr, no - you can't drive more than one car at a time; there's a natural limit to car use.

- "driver-free vehicles ... act as taxis" - if this were really the solution, why not just use taxis?

- "People don't walk to the pub anymore" - this is quite scary; are you saying that most people drive their own cars to the pub, have a skinful and then drive home again afterwards?

- "the entire national cycling infrastructure budget is less than that to widen 4 miles of the M25" - that's because widening 4 miles of the M25 is much more beneficial to GDP than the entire national cycling infrastructure.

The underlying problem with your proposal to replace car ownership with car rental (apart from the usual problems of renting vs. owning - do you rent your home?) is that although 95% of the time a car is not in use, the other 5% of the usage occurs simultaneously amongst most users (ie. morning and evening rush hours). If you could come up with some way round the mentality that "all workers have to be at their desks by 9AM", this might be different - but my money is on flying cars being practical before that happens.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I haven't owned a car for six years - I live in north-west London, and have been working within tube-commutable distances. If I got a job outside London, I'd buy a car tomorrow.

Simon Jester said...

"couple" should be "few".

Anonymous said...

It all started with women going to work rather than staying at home to raise the children. The shops and schools were just around the corner and mum walked. Dad walked or cycled to the factory employing 10,000 less than a mile away.

Create suburbs without buses, close down the big factories, close down the small schools and cottage hospitals. Provide cheap cars and ape the American way of life and what do you expect.

The Genie is out of the bottle and won't be going back. The cycle most certainly isn't the answer, not until the oil runs out or the Greens/Marxists price it out existence.

ian... said...

The bicycle isn't THE solution, but it is a significant part of it.

To think that the car can carry on at the expense of everything else is more than a bit short-sighted folks.

- "the entire national cycling infrastructure budget is less than that to widen 4 miles of the M25" - that's because widening 4 miles of the M25 is much more beneficial to GDP than the entire national cycling infrastructure.

Very wrong assumption. Getting more people cycling short journeys will be hugely beneficial. Kidding ourselves into thinking that driving a mile or two is a good idea is insane.

Hmm, maybe it's transport, not cars. Houses facing train lines and runways wouldn't go for so much either.

Our house has an electrified rail line 100 metres away & in full view. 300 metres away is a motorway behind an earth banking. Which gets on our nerves more?

Simon Jester said...

@ian:

"Very wrong assumption. Getting more people cycling short journeys will be hugely beneficial. Kidding ourselves into thinking that driving a mile or two is a good idea is insane."

People don't get on the M25 to drive journeys of a mile or two - your comment does not appear to be relevant.

"Our house has an electrified rail line 100 metres away & in full view. 300 metres away is a motorway behind an earth banking. Which gets on our nerves more?"

Well, I once lived 200 metres from an electrified rail line, and I currently live about 50 metres from a motorway. Guess which gets/got on my nerves more?

Luke said...

Simon jester , I am sorry that you have come down in the world.

ian... said...

"Very wrong assumption. Getting more people cycling short journeys will be hugely beneficial. Kidding ourselves into thinking that driving a mile or two is a good idea is insane."

People don't get on the M25 to drive journeys of a mile or two - your comment does not appear to be relevant.


It is. The post compared the annual cycling budget with the cost of widening the M25. You suggested that widening the M25 was more valuable. I disagreed and mentioned why.

Simon Jester said...

@Ian,

Your reasoning was specifically related to short journeys. As I pointed out, the M25 is not used for short journeys.

Jackart said...

Simon Jester. Your comments are a willful misreading.

I am right, cars simply fill any extra road space. There is a mountain of research backing up this assertion, use google scholar to find a sample.

You say Re: walking to the pub: "this is quite scary; are you saying that most people drive their own cars to the pub, have a skinful and then drive home again afterwards" No. I say they don't bother going to the pub at all. My comment was made in the context of the car atomising society. Instead of communtiy, people retreat into their homes and drink supermarket lager, and don't know their neighbours.

Most of the rest of your objections are based around the idea I'm anti-car. I'm not. I accept the car is the right tool for a majority of journeys.

But the dutch experience is that if you give people the option to use bikes, they do, and feel better for it. It just requires a small investmet over a long time.

I am saying GIVE PEOPLE THE OPTION to use a bike IF THEY WISH by providing safe infrastructure. No-one is talking about banning cars. Just giving the choice to make short journeys by bicycle as many say they want to do, but are currently put off by fast moving, aggressive traffic.

Simon Jester said...

@Jackart: No, they are not a wilful misreading.

"I am right, cars simply fill any extra road space."

Only up to the point that road space ceases to be effectively rationed by congestion. As I pointed out before, you can't drive more than one car at a time.

"use google scholar"

Use it yourself. You are the one making the assertion; the onus of proof is on you.

"I say they don't bother going to the pub at all."

It wasn't immediately obvious from the original article that this was what you were trying to say. The smoking ban has certainly made this worse; I think the majority of people tend to live within walking distance of pubs, if they wanted to use them.

"Most of the rest of your objections are based around the idea I'm anti-car."

No, they're not - I suggest you try re-reading what I actually wrote. (Hint: much of the rest of what I wrote related to car ownership vs. rental.)

Jackart said...

Please comment at in the next post.

Ken said...

To the gashead anonymous poster: The tragedy of the commons doesn't mean what you appear to think it means.
It's not central to your argument though. It should be evident to anyone who read the original post that a proper cycling infrastructure would keep bikes and motorists out of one another's way. How can you rationally object?

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