The New Year seems an appropriate time to state, or restate, the main goals of this blog. Today the Antiplanner will focus on transportation. Future manifestos will focus on land-use regulation and public land management. Any suggestions for improving these principles and corollaries are welcome.
1. The Transportation Agency Principle: The sole goal of government transportation agencies should be to efficiently enhance mobility.
Mobility is so important socially and economically that it deserves the same protection under the Constitution as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. (In fact, freedom of movement is nominally protected under the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution.) Enhancements in mobility over the past century have been a major factor in increasing wealth, reducing poverty, increasing lifespans, and increasing leisure time. No other goal should be allowed to divert attention from the efficient enhancement of mobility.
Corollary 1a: Jobs are not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.
Contrary to popular belief, people don’t want jobs; they want income. Efficient increases in mobility will lead to higher incomes by creating new economic opportunities. But a focus on jobs leads to inappropriate outcomes: given a choice between two transportation projects that produce the same mobility, the one that requires the fewest number of jobs is probably the most efficient because it probably costs less overall.
Corollary 1b: Economic development is not an appropriate goal of transportation projects.
As with incomes, efficient mobility enhancements will lead to economic development by creating new economic opportunities. But a focus on economic development too easily descends into crony capitalism–the diversion of funds to projects that benefit a few–and social engineering–the selection of projects based on the kind and location of economic developments that cities and city planners want rather than those the market considers most efficient.
Corollary 1c: Transportation externalities are often inefficient, but they should be dealt with by controlling the externality, not the transportation.
Accidents and pollution should be treated by making transportation vehicles and infrastructure safer and cleaner, not by trying to discourage people from using those vehicles and infrastructure. Efforts to reduce air pollution by reducing driving, for example, are both costly and ineffective.
2. The Incentive Principle: Although fiscal conservatives often propose to solve transportation problems by privatizing facilities, who owns the facility matters less than the incentives faced by the managers.
A private transportation operation that has bad incentives (perhaps due to regulation or franchise restrictions) can be less efficient than a public transportation operation that has good incentives. Some examples of bad private operations are private transit lines that are guaranteed a subsidy. Examples of good public operations are county toll road authorities in Texas that derive their revenues solely from user tolls.
Corollary 2a: The best incentives are provided by user fees and the best measure of an “efficient” enhancement of mobility is whether users are willing to pay for that mobility.
Projects that require subsidies allow people to benefit without paying the costs, which leads to a higher than realistic demand for those projects and in turn leads to a demand for more subsidies. Transportation projects that cannot pay for themselves directly out of user fees should be considered inefficient.
Corollary 2b: Competition in transportation leads to innovation and lower costs.
One reason to privatize transportation facilities is to increase competition; but privatization that creates monopolies could be little better than government ownership. On the other hand, state, county, and city ownership of roads potentially creates competition that, if funded by users, could lead to improvements at all levels.
Corollary 2c: Diversions of transportation revenues to other modes are almost always inefficient.
A transport facility that is funded by taxpayers or users of another transport mode has little incentive to serve users. While it is theoretically possible that a toll road authority, for example, may want to subsidize transit to relieve congestion, most such cross-subsidies would create perverse incentives that should be avoided.
3. The Highway Principle: The goal of highway agencies should be to help people get where they want to go, not to where planners want them to go.
Sometime during the 1970s and 1980s, transportation planning shifted from building the infrastructure people wanted to use to building the infrastructure planners thought people should use. The Interstate Highway System, which was built largely following major traffic patterns, was enormously successful and has more than paid its own way out of the gas taxes generated by highway users. But most transportation projects that focused on directing traffic to where planners thought people should go have proven to be a huge and costly failure.
Corollary 3a: Congestion pricing is the most effective, if not the only effective, solution to highway congestion.
Highway congestion costs Americans between $100 and $200 billion a year, yet few cities or states are making anything other than token efforts to reduce this cost. Just as airlines, hotels, phone companies, and others who deal with variable demand have done, economists have long suggested that highway agencies use congestion pricing to reduce or eliminate traffic congestion.
Congestion pricing would be doubly effective for highways because highways are the only resources whose supply actually shrinks when demand increases. A freeway lane can normally move about 2,000 vehicles per hour in free-flowing traffic, but when congestion forces slow downs, flow capacities fall to as low as 1,000 vehicles per hour or less. By keeping capacities at 2,000 vehicles per hour, congestion pricing can effectively double highway capacities during rush hours.
Corollary 3b: States should expediently replace gasoline taxes with vehicle-mile fees.
Vehicle-mile charges allow people to pay for the roads they use, not the roads someone else uses. Moreover, they will greatly ease the use of congestion pricing on congested roads; allow cities and counties that now subsidize roads out of general funds to collect user fees; and avoid the problem of declining revenues due to more fuel-efficient cars.
All vehicle-mile fee projects that have been designed to date preserve user privacy, so that should not be a concern. Eliminating gas taxes when introducing vehicle-mile fees effectively eliminates claims that people are being charged twice to use the roads.
Corollary 3c: When congestion fees produce surplus revenues, those surpluses should be used to increase highway capacities.
Highway user fees should be set to pay for the roads that are used. But if fees to use congested roads are set high enough to prevent congestion, they are likely to produce surplus revenues. Those surpluses should be used to do things that relieve congestion such as traffic signal coordination, elimination of highway bottlenecks, and even adding new highway lanes. So long as the goal is mobility enhancement, rather than political pork barrel, there is nothing wrong with using surplus revenues from the users of one road to build new roads elsewhere, especially if those new roads will help relieve congestion on the first road.
4. The Transit Principle: The goal of transit agencies should be to provide mobility for people who can’t or prefer not to drive, not to persuade people to drive less.
Efforts to get people out of their cars through increased transit subsidies have proven to be a costly and misguided failure. Since 1970, the nation has spent something more than half a trillion dollars subsidizing transit, yet the number of transit trips taken by the average urban resident is lower today than it was in 1970.
Corollary 4a: Transit agencies should design transit systems that fit the regions they serve, not seek to redesign their regions to fit the transit system they want to provide.
Most transit systems are built around a traditional concept of a city having lots of jobs in a downtown surrounded by residential areas. The hub-and-spoke nature of most transit systems would work if cities were still like this. But today the average big-city downtown has only about 10 percent of the jobs in its region, and a hub-and-spoke system poorly serves the other 90 percent of commuters.
Instead of redesigning transit to fit modern cities, too many transit agencies want to redesign cities to fit their service by locating more residents and jobs along transit corridors. This is a costly and futile endeavor.
Corollary 4b: Private transit operators have proven to be far more efficient than public transit agencies.
Private contractors in Denver spend little more than half as much, per vehicle mile, operating buses as Denver’s Regional Transit District. Private bus operations in Atlanta, Miami, and other cities provide transit services as the same or lower fares, but without subsidies, as public transit agencies. Notwithstanding principle 2, the advantages of private operations are so great that people seeking to improve transit services should harness the innovative and cost-saving nature of private enterprise.
Corollary 4c: Efficient transit relies on infrastructure shared with other transport modes, not on dedicated infrastructure.
Private transportation operators such as Megabus reduce costs and increase mobility by shedding dedicated infrastructure (such as bus stations) and relying mainly on shared infrastructure. Too many transit agencies instead are focusing on dedicated infrastructure such as rail lines, dedicated bus lanes, and expensive multi-modal facilities. These costly projects may serve political ends but do little for mobility.