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Driving over the edge

Just when I'm thinking about finally buying a car (in all my 28 years, I've never owned one (though I have had one on extended loan once or twice)), the New Yorker runs an article by John Seabrook predicting Automo-Dooms Day:

Since 1970, the population of the United States has grown by forty per cent, while the number of registered vehicles has increased by nearly a hundred per centóin other words, cars have proliferated more than twice as fast as people have. During this same period, road capacity increased by six per cent. If these trends continue through 2020, every day will resemble a getaway day, with its mixture of commuters, truckers, and recreational drivers, who take to the road without regard for traditional peak travel times, producing congestion all day long: trucks that can't make deliveries on time, people who can't get to or from work, air quality that continues to deteriorate as commerce suffers and our over-all geopolitical position weakens because we are forced to become ever more dependent on foreign oil. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a traffic jam.

There is a possible solution, Seabrook writes — to protect a limited resource, you price it according to its scarcity. A city like New York could control traffic reasonably effectively by putting tolls on its bridges, for instance, and charging higher tolls during peak hours (not to mention a few more innovative strategies he discusses). It would cost more to drive into the city, but you could still do it if you wanted to.

In my case, actually, the main determining factor in whether I think I should buy a car is whether I think I will end up in New York City any time soon. If so, a car seems like a ridiculous expense in an already ridiculously expensive city — much wiser, I'd think, to use public transit within the metropolis, and rent a car when I want to get out. This isn't any sort of principled belief, however; it's based purely on the economics as I understand them. It's just not worth the money, I think.

Looking at it this way, tolls make perfect sense to me, but there are many people who see it differently, of course — the kinds of people who grow apocalyptic not over gridlock (well, not in the abstract, at least), but over tolls and parking fees. For instance, the year I lived in North Oakland, nearly all the parking meters in Berkeley (that I saw, at least) had had their heads lopped off. Someone apparently felt the taxpayer expense (there had to have been at least 150 decapitated meters, though I have no idea what they cost) was a small price to pay to free their precious chariots from the oppression and tyranny of eventually having to give up their parking spot to someone else's. (I am assuming, of course, that the vandals in question didn't choose their targets for purely aesthetic reasons.)

And (some) people hate tolls even more than parking meters; they'll gladly spend an extra $10,000 on a luxury model with a bigger engine (and an extra $500 a year for (premium) gas to feed it), but suggest they factor in the cost of using their road space into their transportation budget and they'll ask for directions to your lawn so they can finally try out that 4WD.

Which makes no sense to me. People sometimes act like certain kinds of greed are self-justifying (but only when they're talking about their own kinds of greed, somehow), but greed is what it is — if you're part of a traffic jam, as Seabrook observes, you're holding up the cars behind you; and if you park your car on a city street all day, no one else can park there. They're no crimes, but neither are they things you're entitled to just because you own a car — they have a real cost.

But at least drivers, being such interesting characters, are fun to read about.

August 28, 2002 1:42 PM


America's car-economy's lifespan is quickly ticking away. It's an unsustainable model, and ultimately undesirable.

My hope is that, by 2020, there will be no private cars. As resources diminish in North America (eg, we ca no longer make our own steel) and their various prices rise exponentially Americans will start to see clear towards reducing their material consumption.

This is the result of free-trade; An "evening-out" of the world's resources' prices. For example, toasters in India will become cheaper, but American bought toasters will become more expensive... making the prices (slowly in most cases, but quickly in a few products' instances) equally commensurate throughout the free-trade area.

This is a good thing.

Presently, Americans are getting "subsidized resources" by the mere fact that we have more than most... but that's changing, and few appreciate its wider and longterm consequences.


Posted by rob adams on August 29, 2002 12:12 PM

um, i have a hyundai accent. and, for the money, it's a pretty good car.

Posted by kelly on September 1, 2002 12:11 AM

Yes, but that little car would cost a lot, lot more in India. When/if resources are pretty much equally valued in most markets (that whole free-trade model), that won't be such an inexpensive widget.

And, um... That's my point.


Posted by rob adams on September 3, 2002 12:43 PM

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