Thursday, December 15, 2005

Driving and Productivity (and a book)

A while ago, I asked my students to analyze the economics of bicycle use. Most had no trouble figuring out the cycler's private benefits: fuel savings, parking savings, health benefits. A majority also recognized that other members of society benifitted from spillover effects from the cycler's decision--reduced congestion, easier parking, cleaner air. Finally, the students were to consider whether there might be any negative spillover effects of an individual cycler's decision. The answers I had anticipated focussed on straining of the bicycle infrastructure. Once facilities become crowded, a cycler choosing to ride may negatively impact other cyclers, who are competing for the same racks, bike lanes, trails, and bike space on the bus. I expected students to be intimately familiar with these problems, since campus bike facilities themselves are overtaxed in nice weather.

I wasn't surprised that many students confused private costs with social costs. This is a common mistake, and expected, too, since few of us consider the full social costs (or benefits) of our private actions. What did surprise me were the number of answers along these lines: "If too many people choose to ride bikes, people will be less productive."

I realized I had to accept the answer. After all, I had only asked for potential negative effects. If increased bicycle use truly did decrease productivity, it certainly could be seen as detrimental to society.

All of this came back to me as I read Tom Lewis' Divided Highways. The book is an entertaining, historic account of the development of the interstate highway system. It has much to recommend it. Having lived my entire life after the completion of the Interstates, I had never seriously considered what cities, landscapes, and communities were like without them.

I was particularly taken with a description of Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans before it became I-10:

Claiborne Avenue had once been a thriving black district of the city, filled with families and small shops. Typically a black entrepreneur operated a business on the ground floor of a building fronting the avenue and lived with his family in an apartment above. Claiborne Avenue had once boasted the longest single stand of oak trees anywhere in America. There impressive branches reached forty feet into the sky, a leafy shelter from the sun and heavy air. The shops and homes lining the avenue abounded with commerce and life.

I-10, according to Lewis, transformed the district into a dead zone with little commerce, low property values, and high crime rates. The tree-lined boulevard was replaced by an elevated expressway where cars zipped through at 50 miles per hour. I can't vouch for the accuracy of Lewis' descriptions. But, I cannot imagine how I-10 could possibly have made Claiborne Avenue
more productive. Perhaps it increased productivity at an exit 10 miles away but did that make up both for the loss of Claiborne Avenue and the cost of the interstate?

Does increased traffic and average speed really increase productivity? There remains, of course, the larger question of whether--if driving more and faster does increase productivity--it is worth it. But, I'm interested in the question we seem never to have answered. From the beginning of road expansion in the US, we have heard that roads will expand the economy. Even today, many (my students included!) argue that reduced driving will decrease our productivity and decrease our standard of living.

I'm unconvinced. Is a car really like a pocket calculator, a telephone, or electricity? For me, time spent in the car seems like one of the least productive things we do as a society. I certainly don't feel less productive without a car. I teach more students and am paid more this year than last. I haven't stopped doing anything productive. Does giving up some driving really mean a reduced standard of living? Or, have the costs of reducing driving been trumped up just as the benefits of increasing driving were?


Blogger John said...

Thanks for the tip on the Lewis book. My local library has a copy and I've placed it on hold. I've read a little about the history of the interstate system, but I'm looking foward to learning more.

I'm enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Paul Cooley said...

The middle third of Katie Alvord's Divorce Your Car concerns itself with calculating the costs of car ownership. If you haven't read the book, you should. It contains the most exhaustive critique of the automobile I've seen.

The oil economy has increased productivity at the expense of diverse local economies. When peak oil production has passed, then that increase is going to contract, and people are going to wish there were more local farmers and fewer Walmart parking lots.

9:51 AM  
Blogger One Gear One Mind said...

I will have to read the Lewis book. Right now I am in the middle of reading divorce your car, I think that it is worth the discussion about productivity, I am not car free, but drive as little as possible, we are headed towards car free, but it is a process. I find that i am a much more sane happy content person when I ride more. I like most people have a dr jekel and mr hyde thing going on when I get behind the wheel of a car. thats why i let my partner do most of the driving. I like the way you write. thanks and keep it up. nat

8:01 PM  
Anonymous Michael Rasmussen said...

What were their arguments for the reduction in productivity? My social production, managing network applications for a bank, has no direct dependency on the transportation mode I use for commuting.

The automobile enables (enforces?) a greater distance separation between home, work and shopping. As a result we've sprawled across the land. Where's the productivity in that? Had we not had automobiles humans would develop different arrangements of living, production and trade spaces.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm also curious about the drop in productivity. I'm guessing that this is based on the idea that since driving is faster I waste less time if I drive. Ivan Illich counters that economically by counting the time taken to get the money to drive into the journey time, and concludes that the bicycle is as fast as it gets for personal transport.

The other point is that people seem to be willing to spend X hours commuting per week (the number varies between people), so faster transport results in longer distances but the same time.

There's a productivity effect from biking two other ways - predictable journey times on the bike mean I waste time waiting for people to drive/bus to meetings since I'm on time and they will arrive sooner or more likely later; and since I get fit while riding I can take off the gym time from my commute time and discover that I get to work in no time at all (the more popular alternative is, of course, to be a fat slob, but I don't choose that option).

Being fit also means probably living longer, which is a cost that many people forget. If more people biked, we'd have even more retired people living even longer. But then, they'd be dying of heart attacks rather than obesity, so the medical costs might drop. An interesting question.

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Patricia said...

Four days per week I take public transportation to work. It takes me about an hour. During that time I read the paper and work on the work for a class I am taking.

One day per week I drive to work. It takes me 40 minutes and during that time I am driving. Usually on a highway at 30 miles per hour or less.

Which do I prefer? The 60 minutes or the 40 minutes? I will take an extra 20 minutes of reading and relaxing over 40 minutes of sitting in my car listening to the yammering morning djs.

When I had a different job I rode 25 minutes each way to work. It was fabulous. I felt great and my exercise for the day was done by the time I got home from work. It actually kept my productivity the same and increased my lesiure time.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous ian said...

thanks for the book tips and the lively discussion. on the subject of productivity, i think it should be added that cycling to work often results in a far more "awake" worker at the beginning of the day. before i began commuting by bike, i would arrive to work still tired, slow, and in dire need of some caffeine. i could easily waste the first of hour of the day just getting ready to work. now that i use my bike (and much more of my body) to get me to work, i arrive energized and ready to go. that would seem like increased productivity to me.

1:38 PM  

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