Monday, October 20, 2014

Driverless Cars and Livable Cities

Most enthusiasts for driverless cars are not asking the right questions. They assume that our cities will not change and that driverless cars will make it easier for people to get around these cities. They focus on technological change and turn a blind eye to possible social change.

But when we start to ask how driverless cars can change our cities for the better, interesting ideas pop up.

For example, there would be obvious benefits to driverless cars that were programmed to observe the speed limit. There would have to be some sort of GIS telling the car what the speed limit is on each street it drives on.

We could not only reduce the danger of accidents by reducing speeding.  We could also lower speed limits drastically.

For example, we could lower the speed limit to 12 mph on bicycle priority streets, so bicycles can really share the road with cars rather than being forced to keep to the right. Today, most drivers exceed the speed limit. No one would obey a 12 mph limit, and in most states, it is illegal to set the speed limit lower than the actual speed of most drivers

If there were a significant number of driverless cars programmed to obeyed the speed limit, then the cars with drivers would also obey the speed limit - at least on roads with just one traffic lane in each direction, which are the best candidates for bicycle priority streets. The driverless cars would act as traffic calming devices that prevent other cars from going faster than the speed limit.

We could also create shared spaces, used by both pedestrians and cars, with speed limits as low as 5 mph.

Most radically, we could reduce speed limits across an entire city, so people would drive less, as I suggested in my book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices.

Even without lower speed limits, it is interesting to speculate about how driverless cars could affect busy urban streets, filled with cars and pedestrians. Today, some pedestrians sneak across these streets, walking through the jammed traffic.  Many would probably realize that the driverless cars are programmed to stop when there is a pedestrian in front of them, and some would be willing to cross the street even if it means walking in front of that are moving slowly and forcing them to stop.  It would be frustrating for the people in the cars, but the street would become a better place for pedestrians to be.

The conventional wisdom is that driverless cars would make driving quicker and more efficient.  But if we want to make our cities more livable, we would do well to use driverless cars in ways that make driving slower - and sometimes even less efficient.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Driving to the Poor House

Protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, claim that the city relies on traffic tickets for too much of its revenue and that tickets for lower-income people often turn into bench warrants and jail time.

For example, one man received a $100 ticket and had only $80 when he went to pay it, so the ticket turned into a warrant for his arrest.

The ticketing is obviously unfair and a hardship to many people, so I support the protests.  But I wonder why none of the news stories about Ferguson mention the deeper issue that underlies it.  Why do we design our cities so people have to drive?

That man who doesn't have $100 to pay his traffic ticket undoubtedly spends thousands of dollars on his car each year. The cost is a hardship even to middle-class Americans and much more of a hardship to the poor.  Yet most Americans live in locations where they cannot go anywhere without driving.

I myself am lucky enough to live in an older city where it is possible to get around without a car.  I have bicycled as my main form of transportation for all of my adult life.  When I was commuting by bicycle, I estimated that I spend less than $50 per year on transportation, which went to occasional bike parts and repairs - quite a contrast with the $7,000 per year that the average American spends on transportation.

If I had owned a car all that time, I would have only about half as much in my savings as I do.

Let's deal with the short-term hardship caused by unfair ticketing in Ferguson, but let's also deal with the much greater economic burden of automobile dependency by rebuilding our cities so it is not mandatory to own an automobile.

It reminds me of the old saying of Will Rogers: America is the first country in history where people drive to the poorhouse. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Happiness: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of how per capita GDP affects happiness reveal the same pattern that we saw in the last two posts about health care and education: economic growth (higher per capita GDP) increases happiness at lower levels of income but stops increasing happiness at a level much lower than what we now have in the United States.

Here is a graph of per capita GDP and people's responses to survey questions asking them how happy they are and how satisfied they are with their lives.

We can see that higher per capita GDP stops increasing happiness at about $15,000 per year, less than half the per capita GDP of the United States.

This result is not surprising. In poor countries, more income is needed to provide people with decent housing, food, education, health care, and other essentials; it makes sense that people will become happier as they can afford more of the necessities and basic comforts of life. But when people reach about one-half of the average American’s current income, they have enough to make them comfortable, and there is relatively little benefit to consuming even more. 
Once you have the basic elements of economic comfort, such as good housing, health care, and education, and you also have some luxuries, such as music, books, and travel, consuming even more does not bring great benefits—but it does bring real costs.
Growth continues to cause massive environmental costs even after it stops bringing significant benefits. There would obviously be less chance of ecological disruption in the coming century, if nations that were already economically comfortable tried to achieve the best possible quality of life rather than the fastest possible rate of economic growth.
Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, has written a book summarizing the current research on happiness, and he sums up the issue we face very neatly when he says:
“If it turns out to be true that rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier, as much of the recent research suggests, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep doubling and redoubling our Gross Domestic Product?” (Bok, The Politics of Happiness, p. 63)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Education: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of educational spending and outcomes reveal the same familiar pattern that we saw in the previous post about health care. Greater expenditures produce better outcomes at lower levels of spending, but the benefits disappear after spending reaches a level that is much lower than what we spend in the United States.

Here is a graph of educational spending and achievement. The measurement uses the PISA test, which is the best data for international comparisons of educational achievement.

We can see that spending more per pupil on education does not increase achievement after spending reaches Australia's level. The United States spends more than twice as much as Australia, but has lower achievement.

In the case of health care, there was a very obvious reason why the United States had worse outcomes than other high-spending nations: we have the highest rate of obesity of any developed nation.

In the case of education, the reason is not as obvious. A couple of reasons seem plausible.

One possible explanation is lack of family time. Our economy requires many parents to work two full-time jobs, leaving them with little time for their children.  More children than ever are cared for by state agencies or are latchkey children who return to empty homes after school.  According to the Census Bureau, one-third of school-age children are home alone during at least part of the week.

A second possible explanation is excessive use of media. According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the amount of time that eight-to-eighteen-year old children spend with media increased from 6 hours 21 minutes per day in 2004 to 7 hours and 38 minutes in 2009. In 45% of all homes, the television is on most of the time, even when no one is watching it, and 71% of children have their own televisions in their bedrooms. The overuse of media is a direct distraction from learning: Almost half of all children watch television while doing their homework.

Media addiction works against academic achievement. This study found that 47% of the children who are heavy media users (spending more than 16 hours per day with media) get fair or poor grades, compared with only 23% of children who are light media users (spending 3 hours a day or less with media). Minority students are affected most: black and Hispanic students spend about four and a half hours more per day with media than white students.

It is astounding that heavy users are defined as those who spend more than 16 hours a day with media. There are only 24 hours in the day, so if you spent 8 hours sleeping, 16 hours with media would take up all your waking hours. Yet heavy users manage to spend more time than this. 

When it comes to education, we have reached a point where economic growth no longer brings significant benefits: we can see from the graph that there is little or no benefit to spending more than half of what the United States spends. At the same time, our consumer society works against education, by leaving parents with too little time for their children and by turning children into passive consumers of entertainment who have trouble making the effort that is needed to learn.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Health Care: The Failure of Growth

International comparisons of health care spending and outcomes reveal a familiar pattern. Greater expenditures produce better outcomes at lower levels of spending, but the benefits disappear after spending reaches a level that is much lower than what we spend in the United States.

It is a commonplace to say that the United States spends about twice as much as the other industrial nations on health care but does not have better outcomes.  An international comparison shows that greater expenditures stop producing benefits at a much lower level.

Here is a graph of health care spending and life expectancy.

We can see that spending more on health care does not increase life expectancy after spending exceeds about $1,500 per capita. The United States spends more than four times this much, the most of any nation in the world, but has lower life expectancy than almost all the nations that spend more than $1,500.

And here is a graph of health care spending and infant mortality.

Here, too, we see that spending more on health care does not reduce infant mortality after spending exceeds about $1,500 per capita.  Though the United States spends more than four times this much, we have higher infant mortality than every nation except one that spends over $1,500.

These graphs do not show that all our health care spending over $1,500 per capita is useless.  Much of this spending produces some benefit, but the benefits are so small that they are outweighed by other factors.

The United States has the highest obesity rate in the world, and this is one factor causing our poorer health.

Americans are also more sedentary than most people in the world, because our cities are built around the automobile.  And high levels of inequality in the United States undoubtedly contribute to greater infant mortality and lower life expectancy among those with lower incomes, pulling down the average.

These graphs do show that we have reached a point where we spending more on health care produces very small benefits, which are outweighed by differences in lifestyle.  If we want large improvements in our health, we will get them by exercising more and eating better diets - not by spending more on health care.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Berkeley Flexible Work Time Initiative

I organized the Flexible Work Time Initiative, and we have gathered enough signatures to get it on the November Berkeley ballot.

This initiative is an advisory measure that calls on the city council and on the state and federal government to make it easier for employees to choose part-time work and other flexible working arrangements by passing laws similar to laws that have been successful for over a decade in the Netherlands, Germany, and the UK and that have recently been passed in Vermont and San Francisco.

Existing laws emphasize the benefit to parents who need to balance their work and family obligations.

We are also emphasizing the environmental benefit: if people choose to consume less and work less, then they will also pollute less. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that, if Americans worked the same hours as west Europeans, it would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 20% - and the reduction would become greater over time.

Many environmentalists say that we need to live more simply to deal with the ecological problems of the coming century, but people cannot live more simply as long as they do not even have the choice of working shorter hours, choosing to have more time instead of more stuff. This is the one politically feasible law that will make it easier for people to downshift economically. 

At first, the environmental effect will be small, but over the coming century, this sort of law can make a major contribution to controlling global warming and to improving the quality of life.

For more information, see

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why Nations Fail - Book Review

Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

The main thesis of this book makes sense.  “Extractive economies” run by an elite (such as aristocracies and slave economies) do not lead to sustained growth: people have little incentive to invest in new enterprises because the elite may take their property, and the elite often deliberately blocks growth because it could unsettle their privileges.  “Inclusive Economies,” with pluralistic governments, secure property rights and rule of law, lead to sustained economic growth.
There is a “which came first” problem, because there must be some degree of economic growth before pluralistic institutions develop. Thus, there were factories in England in the early seventeenth century, and the economic changes that had already occurred by this time made the middle class powerful enough that it could ultimately develop a pluralistic government with rule of law after the Glorious Revolution. Nevertheless, it does make sense that this “inclusive” government accelerated economic growth and made it sustainable, by providing the legal framework needed to encourage investment.
Yet this book claims that extractive or inclusive institutions are essentially the only thing that determines whether there can be sustained growth, and its wide-ranging history skips details about several countries that might challenge this thesis.
Switzerland threw off the aristocracy and developed an inclusive government long before England did, so why didn’t it develop the industrial revolution before England?  Obviously, because it is a land-locked, mountainous country, which lacked the transportation that could integrate it with the world economy.  Thus, it seems that geography is also important.
In the United States, this book uses the examples of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland to explain why we developed an inclusive economy.  It says that these states were founded by aristocrats who wanted to create an extractive economy but who did not have enough indigenous people to exploit (as Mexico did), so they were forced to develop the more inclusive institutions that make the United States more prosperous than Mexico.  Yet we all know that these southern states developed an extractive economy based on slavery and that they were economic backwaters that were late to industrialize, while our industrial revolution began in the north. A later chapter talks about the industrial revolution beginning in the north because of the extractive economy based on slavery in the south, but without revising the earlier claim that America’s inclusive institutions began in these southern colonies. It seems that the southern states were founded by aristocrats, who managed to create an extractive economy despite the lack of indigenous people to exploit, while the northern states were founded by commercial interests (like New York) or by people seeking to be self-sufficient for religious reasons (like Massachusetts), who were more willing to create an inclusive economy.  Thus, it seems culture is also important.
Imperial Germany is the most puzzling case. Before World War I, it had an authoritarian government, and yet it was the fast growing economy in Europe, challenging England for economic dominance.  At the time, leftist economists used imperial Germany as evidence that an authoritarian governments were the best engines of economic growth.  South Korea and Taiwan have a similar history: development was successful under authoritarian governments, and these countries did not have inclusive governments until after growth had gone a long way.
Switzerland and the United States suggest that the contrast between inclusive and extractive institutions is an important part of the explanation of why nations become prosperous or poor, but that we have to modify this explanation so that it also includes other factors, such as geography and culture.
Imperial Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan suggest that the contrast between inclusive and extractive institutions might not always be the key to development after all. These countries challenge some of this books predictions, such as its claim that China’s growth will not be sustained.
It is possible that there is some explanation for growth in imperial Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan that can save the thesis of this book, but the book simply skips over these countries without explaining them. 
It has a map of countries that had abolished serfdom by 1800 (map 8), and it claims that this predicts their later economic success; yet the map shows that Greece had abolished serfdom while Germany had not, and we all know which of these two countries is more successful today. It mentions that Napoleon brought inclusive economic institutions to the western part of Germany, but it doesn’t explain why the united Germany was led by Prussia, its easternmost and most authoritarian state.
The failure to explain Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan is this book’s greatest weakness as history.
The failure to question the value of economic growth is its greatest weakness as politics. 
Clearly, growth was beneficial at first, when it was needed to reduce poverty.  Clearly, countries that have had growth, like the United States, are better off than countries that have never had growth, such as sub-Sahara Africa.  But after a country has a comfortable standard of living, further growth provides diminishing benefits and produces real environmental costs that we will have to deal with in the coming centuries.
This book takes the essentially conservative position that we should continue policies that were useful in the past because they promoted rapid economic growth. But policies that were useful in the past will not necessarily be useful in the future. 
When people ask why nations fail a century from now, “extractive” governments and economies may be less important answer than global warming.