The future of transportation
Posted by Daniel Hall on February 12, 2008
Econoblogger Megan McArdle has a new podcast up in which she interviews her father, Frank McArdle, a member of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, which issued their report last month. Mass transit enthusiast and CT-favorite Ryan Avent participates. Here are a few highlights, notes, and impressions:
(Update: Make sure to read the comments, where two-thirds of the podcast has dropped by and contributed additional thoughts.)
1. Frank makes the great point early on that transportation funding is disappearing in the U.S. because we’ve been unwilling to raise the gas tax — which is the major source of transportation funding — meaning that funding has declined significantly in real terms.
2. It takes a ridiculously long amount of time to get new construction approved. Listen to Frank’s example of trying to add two lanes to I-95 up and down it’s entire length. It’s a project that would essentially never be done.
3. In discussing the report’s recommendations Frank makes it sound as if they recommend blowing up the current system for approving transportation projects, and essentially starting over. This made me want them to go back and discuss Ryan’s initial question: How likely are these recommendations to be implemented? It’s a little hard to imagine the system changing as much as Frank makes it sound like it should. What is the recommendation for making improvements at the margin? I would have liked to hear more discussion of this.
4. They spend a lot of time talking about what works and what doesn’t in mass transit in cities, using New York and DC as case studies in particular. The coverage of the history of the New York City subway is particularly interesting, because it illustrates that building transit is never particularly popular and it’s very hard to predict how valuable it will be in the future. Millions of modern New Yorkers would be very unhappy if the many thousands (or perhaps millions) of former New Yorkers who opposed the subway had gotten their way.
5. This leads to the reflection that in a general-equilibrium (i.e., real) world, mass transit is likely more valuable than it appears ex ante, and roads less. People are generally bad at predicting the second- (and third-, and fourth-) order effects that emerge in response to a change; we view things mostly through a static lens. But we have a century of history that suggests we will like the outcome of more free roads less than we think.
6. Against this you can argue (as they do in the podcast) that New York had a chance to optimize it’s development of both transit and zoning around the same time. As Frank points out, transit is a means, not an end. This makes the malleability of existing development and zoning an important question: how long does it take to reshuffle the existing “development” stock, particularly for areas that developed after the automobile? Based on this evidence, how valuable is an investment in transit, and what is your pay-off period? If it is less than 50 years it may look like a bad deal. DC might be a test case for this, although Megan argues that DC’s street-car heritage made it amenable to the post-automobile installation of a subway system. But surely you could look at what is happening with density along the rail lines out in the suburbs and away from the core to try to get at an answer about the transit-induced shifts in development?
7. I have got to admit I am more pessimistic about the future of transportation in the U.S. after listening to this. I do not think big changes in policy are likely. My hope is now in driverless vehicles that rely on GPS navigation and centrally-controlled routing to optimize load on the road grid and simultaneously increase speeds and flow density while reducing accidents and congestion. Make these cars battery-powered and you can hopefully reduce all your externalities at the same time: congestion, accidents, pollution, and energy security.
8. Ryan has a great voice for radio! He sounds like somebody on NPR, but I can’t think of who at the moment. Maybe he can convince his other blogging gig to give him some kind of opportunity to be on the mic in future.