Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Cognitive biases about transportation

Posted by Daniel Hall on April 4, 2008

As usual, it is presumed that traffic and transportation problems will have seen a lot of progress when in fact they have not.

That is Tyler Cowen, observing that our predictions about the transportation future — in this case, 2008 seen from the vantage point of 1968 — are much more optimistic than the ultimately drab realities.

I am inclined to agree, with the qualification that our expectations about the future in general — across the board, not just for transportation — frequently seem too optimistic about revolutionary changes and insufficiently in tune with how much better things can get through evolutionary changes at the margin. Think of the difference between the forty years from 1880 to 1920 and 1920 to 1960 — the first period was a transportation revolution and the second an evolution. It was probably easier to “predict” 1960 from the vantage point of 1920 than 1920 from 1880. But probably more people were positively impacted by the transportation changes in the second period than in the first.

Do policy changes count? I suspect that most households get better transportation services for a smaller share of their budget than 40 years ago.

What would a revolutionary change look like for transportation in the next 40 years? What is your outrageously over-optimistic model?

My (expected) model is basically evolutionary: Personal automobiles remain the central mode of transportation. More (most?) of them are electrified. More roads will be priced, including development of real-time-variant congestion pricing in some urban hubs. More and better mass transit in urban hubs, but not that much more. (Infrastructure is slow, slow, slow.) More people walk and bike but that will have more to do with urbanization and where new housing is built (infill in cities instead of suburbanization) than transportation per se. Carbon will be priced and that will help along these changes but decarbonizing transit will be a slow process (unless electrification and CCS both work and soon). I would like to have centrally-directed ‘auto-pilot’ cars — what is the dividing line between cars that drive themselves and pod-based mass transit? — but I doubt most people want or will accept this in the near term and so it will be limited to various forms of driver ‘assistance’ (with perhaps auto-pilot options for the highway — Kansas, anyone?).

Update: Matt Yglesias comments.

The whole article is very entertaining and gets some things quite right. (“The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer.”) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a few completely off-topic comments and I’ve placed these below the fold.

Quotes from the article and then my comments:

Dwellings for the most part are assembled from prefabricated modules, which can be attached speedily in the configuration that best suits the homeowner. Once the foundation is laid, attaching the modules to make up a two- or three-bedroom house is a job that doesn’t take more than a day.

Have you been in a recently constructed home in the U.S. suburbs? This actually sounds a lot like the housing boom.

Money has all but disappeared.

This sounds like the housing bust. (Ok, that might be out of context…)

Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier.

Brother, you ain’t kidding

While city life in 2008 has changed greatly, the farm has altered even more. Farmers are business executives running operations as automated as factories. TV scanners monitor tractors and other equipment computer programmed to plow, harrow and harvest.

Mmm, the rise of big agro-business…

Areas in bays or close to shore have been turned into shrimp, lobster, clam and other shellfish ranches, like the cattle spreads of yesteryear.

And aqua-culture too. Pretty impressive.

No need to worry about failing memory or intelligence either. The intelligence pill is another 21st century commodity. Slow learners or people struck with forgetful-ness are given pills which increase the production of enzymes controlling production of the chemicals known to control learning and memory.

This is actually a really hot topic. Interesting debate…

Everyone is able to use his full mental potential.

Erm, does making snarky comments about a 40-year-old article qualify? Late on a Friday afternoon, I’m inclined to say yes.

The average work day is about four hours.

I am still trying to figure out if that is four hours too short or too long.

But the extra time isn’t totally free. The pace of technological advance is such that a certain amount of a jobholder’s spare time is used in keeping up with the new developments—on the average, about two hours of home study a day.


Most of this study is in the form of programmed TV courses, which can be rented or borrowed from tape libraries.

This isn’t really quite a tape library. It’s not really quite study either.

Alright, that’s it for this week, folks! I’m off to my undersea lair for the weekend:

A typical vacation in 2008 is to spend a week at an undersea resort, where your hotel room window looks out on a tropical underwater reef, a sunken ship or an ancient, excavated city.

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