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Transportation and Scaling

Our current car-based transportation system cannot scale in the long run. With limited land, we have limited roads, and thus must find ways to transport more people in less space; this means reducing the incentives to drive cars.

Written by johnleemk on 9:11:39 am Apr 22, 2007.

One thing that always concerns me about policy is scaling. Specifically, whether that policy can scale over time and population constraints. Will it still be working five decades from now? Will it still be working at the population levels of five decades from now?

The typical person does not concern himself with the long-term effects of policy. Although there are repercussions in the long run for any individual, humans are not generally known for their ability to rationally evaluate long-run effects and weigh their consequences.

One such area is transportation. Many countries around the world have a very automobile-focused transportation sector. The main reason for this, of course, is that nobody — probably not even policymakers — foresaw the long-term effects of scaling up the usage of automobiles.

After all, when all you have on the roads are a few thousand puttering Ford Model Ts, and an apparently infinite supply of fuel to keep these inefficient vehicles moving, it does not seem very logical to plan for the eventual phasing out of these vehicles.

Of course, we now know better. We know how finite our supplies of petroleum are, and we know how wasteful automobiles can be. When you think about it, there is an incredible amount of resources and space often allocated simply for the transportation of one individual (assuming she doesn't carpool).

Furthermore, it is very difficult for a road system to scale up. The more cars you pack into a certain area, the more jammed its roads will be, and the more difficult it will be to get around.

You can of course expand and widen the roads, but this is only a temporary solution. As the population grows, we will have to confront the same problem again, and we can only continue this expansion for so long. What will be having, twelve-lane highways?

Given the chance to do it all over again, I suspect many policymakers would not be too interested in encouraging the personal automobile as a mode of transport.

But right now, nobody has the guts to tackle the problems of having cars head-on. It's simply too politically dangerous. Even though there are very clear and obvious benefits in the long run, people will be complaining and mad as hell in tthe short run.

What solutions are there to the problems of transportation? We can't ban the car. We could legislate a congestion tax on certain areas, to encourage alternative modes of transport, or even tax cars according to the mileage traveled every year (assuming it would be possible to track their mileage without invading personal privacy).

These are practical solutions because they create an incentive to find other modes of transport without prohibiting people altogether from using cars (because there really are situations where automobiles are best). But they are not solutions you will find being implemented in many places around the world, because nobody ever won office on a campaign to raise taxes.

Most governments have opted for providing public transport, such as buses and trains. (Not all countries have made this a viable alternative, however; a late train and a late bus are powerful incentives for people to keep their cars.)

But without an incentive structure to switch to public transport, only those who can think for the long term and those who can't afford cars will bother using the alternatives to the automobile.

It may be politically dangerous to legislate incentives to reduce our usage of the car. It's certainly not very fun for the individual — I personally would not be too happy about it.

But in the long run, we really have no choice. Our automobile-focused transportation systems can't scale up. As the population grows bigger and bigger, something will have to give, because I really doubt you can fit more than a few billion cars on the roads all over the world. (Malthusianism actually makes sense here because land — and thus roads — really is a limited resource.)

Policymakers should start thinking and planning for how to go about reducing the incentives to use cars. It's the only way to keep the roads and cities from becoming quagmires of congestion.