Tag Archives: London

Decreasing congestion with driverless cars

Traffic is aggravating. Especially for San Francisco residents. According to Texas A&M Transportation Institute, traffic congestion in the San Francisco-Oakland CA area costs the average auto commuter 78 hours per year in extra travel time, $1,675 for their travel time delays, and an extra 33 gallons of gas compared to free-flow traffic conditions. That means the average commuter spends more than three full days stuck in traffic each year. Unfortunately for these commuters, a potential solution to their problems just left town.

Last month, after California officials told Uber to stop its pilot self-driving car program because it lacked the necessary state permits for autonomous driving, Uber decided to relocate the program from San Francisco to Phoenix, Arizona. In an attempt to alleviate safety concerns, these self-driving cars are not yet driverless, but they do have the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road. Other companies like Google, Tesla, and Ford have expressed plans to develop similar technologies, and some experts predict that completely driverless cars will be on the road by 2021.

Until then, however, cities like San Francisco will continue to suffer from the most severe congestion in the country. Commuters in these cities experience serious delays, higher gasoline usage, and lost time behind the wheel. If you live in any of these areas, you are probably very familiar with the mind-numbing effect of sitting through sluggish traffic.

It shouldn’t be surprising then that these costs could culminate into a larger problem for economic growth. New Mercatus research finds that traffic congestion can significantly harm economic growth and concludes with optimistic predictions for how autonomous vehicle usage could help.

Brookings Senior Fellow Clifford Winston and Yale JD candidate Quentin Karpilow find significant negative effects of traffic congestion on the growth rates of California counties’ gross domestic product (GDP), employment, wages, and commodity freight flows. They find that a 10% reduction in congestion in a California urban area increases both job and GDP growth by roughly 0.25% and wage growth to increase by approximately 0.18%.

This is the first comprehensive model built to understand how traffic harms the economy, and it builds on past research that has found that highway congestion leads to slower job growth. Similarly, congestion in West Coast ports, which occurs while dockworkers and marine terminal employers negotiate contracts, has caused perishable commodities to go bad, resulting in a 0.2 percentage point reduction in GDP during the first quarter of 2015.

There are two main ways to solve the congestion problem; either by reducing the number of cars on the road or by increasing road capacity. Economists have found that the “build more roads” method in application has actually been quite wasteful and usually only induces additional highway traffic that quickly fills the new road capacity.

A common proposal for the alternative method of reducing the number of cars on the road is to implement congestion pricing, or highway tolls that change based on the number of drivers using the road. Increasing the cost of travel during peak travel times incentivizes drivers to think more strategically about when they plan their trips; usually shifting less essential trips to a different time or by carpooling. Another Mercatus study finds that different forms of congestion pricing have been effective at reducing traffic congestion internationally in London and Stockholm as well as for cities in Southern California.

The main drawback of this proposal, however, is the political difficulty of implementation, especially with interstate highways that involve more than one jurisdiction to approve it. Even though surveys show that drivers generally change their mind towards supporting congestion pricing after they experience the lower congestion that results from tolling, getting them on board in the first place can be difficult.

Those skeptical of congestion pricing, or merely looking for a less challenging policy to implement, should look forward to the new growing technology of driverless cars. The authors of the recent Mercatus study, Winston and Karpilow, find that the adoption of autonomous vehicles could have large macroeconomic stimulative effects.

For California specifically, even if just half of vehicles became driverless, this would create nearly 350,000 additional jobs, increase the state’s GDP by $35 billion, and raise workers’ earnings nearly $15 billion. Extrapolating this to the whole country, this could add at least 3 million jobs, raise the nation’s annual growth rate 1.8 percentage points, and raise annual labor earnings more than $100 billion.

What would this mean for the most congested cities? Using Winston and Karpilow’s estimates, I calculated how reduced congestion from increased autonomous car usage could affect Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) that include New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and the DC area. The first chart shows the number of jobs that would have been added in 2011 if 50% of motor vehicles had been driverless. The second chart shows how this would affect real GDP per capita, revealing that the San Francisco MSA would have the most to gain, but with the others following close behind.

jobsadd_autonomousvehicles realgdp_autonomousvehicles

As with any new technology, there is uncertainty with how exactly autonomous cars will be fully developed and integrated into cities. But with pilot programs already being implemented by Uber in Pittsburgh and nuTonomy in Singapore, it is becoming clear that the technology’s efficacy is growing.

With approximately $1,332 GDP per capita and 45,318 potential jobs on the table for the San Francisco Metropolitan Statistical Area, it is a shame that San Francisco just missed a chance to realize some of these gains and to be at the forefront of driving progress in autonomous vehicle implementation.

Congestion taxes can make society worse off

A new paper by Jeffrey Brinkman in the Journal of Urban Economics (working version here) analyzes two phenomena that are pervasive in urban economics—congestion costs and agglomeration economies. What’s interesting about this paper is that it formalizes the tradeoff that exists between the two. As stated in the abstract:

“Congestion costs in urban areas are significant and clearly represent a negative externality. Nonetheless, economists also recognize the production advantages of urban density in the form of positive agglomeration externalities.”

Agglomeration economies is a term used to describe the benefits that occur when firms and workers are in proximity to one another. This behavior results in firm clusters and cities. In regard to the existence of agglomeration economies, economist Ed Glaeser writes:

“The concentration of people and industries has long been seen by economists as evidence for the existence of agglomeration economies. After all, why would so many people suffer the inconvenience of crowding into the island of Manhattan if there weren’t also advantages from being close to so much economic activity?”

Since congestion is a result of the high population density that is also associated with agglomeration economies, there is tradeoff between the two. Decreasing congestion costs ultimately means spreading out people and firms so that both are more equally distributed across space. Using other modes of transportation such as buses, bikes and subways may alleviate some congestion without changing the location of firms, but the examples of London and New York City, which have robust public transportation systems and a large amount of congestion, show that such a strategy has its limits.

The typical congestion analysis correctly states that workers not only face a private cost from commuting into the city, but that they impose a cost on others in the form of more traffic that slows everyone down. Since they do not consider this cost when deciding whether or not to commute the result is too much traffic.

In economic jargon, the cost to society due to an additional commuter—the marginal social cost (MSC)—is greater than the private cost to the individual—the marginal private cost (MPC). The result is that too many people commute, traffic is too high and society experiences a deadweight loss (DWL). We can depict this analysis using the basic marginal benefit/cost framework.

congestion diagram 1

In this diagram the MSC is higher than the MPC line, and so the traffic that results from equating the driver’s marginal benefit (MB) to her MPC, CH, is too high. The result is the red deadweight loss triangle which reduces society’s welfare. The correct amount is C*, which is the amount that results when the MB intersects the MSC.

The economist’s solution to this problem is to levy a tax equal to the difference between the MSC and the MPC. This difference is sometimes referred to as the marginal damage cost (MDC) and it’s equal to the external cost imposed on society from an additional commuter. The tax aligns the MPC with the MSC and induces the correct amount of traffic, C*. London is one of the few cities that has a congestion charge intended to alleviate inner-city congestion.

But this analysis gets more complicated if an activity has external benefits along with external costs. In that case the diagram would look like this:

congestion diagram 2

Now there is a marginal social benefit associated with traffic—agglomeration economies—that causes the marginal benefit of traffic to diverge from the benefits to society. In this case the efficient amount of traffic is C**, which is where the MSC line intersects the MSB line. Imposing a congestion tax equal to the MDC still eliminates the red DWL, but it creates the smaller blue DWL since it reduces too much traffic. This occurs because the congestion tax does not take into account the positive effects of agglomeration economies.

One solution would be to impose a congestion tax equal to the MDC and then pay a subsidy equal to the distance between the MSB and the MB lines. This would align the private benefits and costs with the social benefits and costs and lead to C**. Alternatively, since in this example the cost gap is greater than the benefit gap, the government could levy a smaller tax. This is shown below.

congestion diagram 3

In this case the tax is decreased to the gap between the dotted red line and the MPC curve, and this tax leads to the correct amount of traffic since it raises the private cost just enough to get the traffic level down from CH to C**, which is the efficient amount (associated with the point where the MSB intersects the MSC).

If city officials ignore the positive effect of agglomeration economies on productivity when calculating their congestion taxes they may set the tax too high. Overall welfare may improve even if the tax is too high (it depends on the size of the DWL when no tax is implemented) but society will not be as well off as it would be if the positive agglomeration effects were taken into account. Alternatively, if the gap between the MSB and the MB is greater than the cost gap, any positive tax would reduce welfare since the correct policy would be a subsidy.

This paper reminds me that the world is complicated. While taxing activities that generate negative externalities and subsidizing activities that generate positive externalities is economically sound, calculating the appropriate tax or subsidy is often difficult in practice. And, as the preceding analysis demonstrated, sometimes both need to be calculated in order to implement the appropriate policy.

Assorted Links

The return of London’s scary housing bubble.

Colorado Springs residents say no to tax increase. City urges residents bring their own lawnmowers to maintain the park.

Two New Jersey public schools open tuition-based pre-schools.

First new hotel in 38 years to open in downtown Newark.

Buzz Aldrin agrees with ending NASA’s moon program.

D.C. Man-on-the-street-report of pre-blizzard preparations.

NYC’s Metropolitan Transit Authority: The Customer Is Always Last

Toy MTA TrainNew York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority is broke. Back in May, Governor Paterson approved $2.1 billion in tax hikes to plug the authority’s $383 million hole, including, as the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas notes, an ill-advised payroll tax in the middle of a deep recession. Predictably, revenues fell short. On top of this, the Governor agreed to $91 million in pay increases for top MTA officials. The MTA’s hole is now $400 million.

As if to hammer home that the MTA exists to serve its employees rather than its customers, a judge ruled this week that the state must pay the Transit Workers Union an 11 percent pay increase over the next few years.

The result: MTA will cut off service on the W and Z lines, reduce service on the G and M lines, and shrink 49 bus routes. Riders are guaranteed longer wait times, and cars will be packed. An MTA board member calls it “a failure of government.”

For some policy ideas, the MTA might review its history. Initially, NYC’s buses and and train services were private. Between 1932 and 1953, the city and the state acquired New York City’s transit systems. And since that time it has experienced frequent financial crises. In spite of years of subsidies, transit prices continue to rise. As Wendell Cox writes, New York transit remains immune to competitive pressure and instead relies on the deep pockets of taxpayers. By contrast, the Tokyo and Hong Kong transit systems get most of their revenues from rider fares.

While privatizing is a near-impossibility, Cox notes that competitive contracting might go a long way to lowering MTA’s runaway spending. The Transport for London bus system took this route and reduced costs per mile by 40 percent.

Chasing French Chefs out of France

The French bureaucracy is notorious for being one of the most onerous and challenging to navigate of developed countries. Those in favor of the current system explain that it helps to maintain tradition and the French way of life, known for its emphasis on fine wine and food — the country where the Slow Food movement was instituted.

However, in the ultimate of unintended consequences, Susan Stamberg on Morning Edition reports that the complex legal environment may be pushing many of France’s best chefs and restaurateurs to take their services to countries that are more hospitable toward businesses. Author Michael Steinberger explains:

Bread, wine and cheese makers have all faced problems, and high taxes and bureaucracy make running a restaurant so difficult that many of Paris’s top young chefs have defected to London or New York.

Instead of the traditional haute cuisine for which French chefs are known, many of the country’s entrepreneurs are instead moving toward bistronomy in restaurants that serve quality food in a more casual and affordable setting. Rather than protecting the French way of life, bureaucrats may be helping their traditions spread to other parts of the world and creating opportunities for new, less “French” businesses at home.

Summer Games: The New Economic Stimulus?

The Chicago Tribune reports that Mayor Daley and the City Council have given unanimous support to fund any expense overruns should Chicago win its bid to host the 2016 Olympic games. This decision gives the city a fighting chance to be selected to host the games, keeping it in the running with Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Tokyo, all of which have secured similar financial guarantees.

Afterward, aldermen and Mayor Richard Daley gave themselves a standing ovation. The vote reauthorizes Daley to sign the Olympics host city contract in advance of the Oct. 2 vote in Copenhagen by the International Olympics Committee on which of four finalist cities gets the Summer Games in seven years.

This decision by the city’s leadership may not represent the desires of Chicago citizens who, a Tribune poll shows, have dwindling support for the city to host the games, largely because of concerns about taxpayer liability.

After the vote, many of the aldermen gave quotes to the press:

Ald. Ray Suarez (31st) said he initially “had some reservations.” But Suarez said he now feels the Olympics would bring jobs, housing and a new global reputation to Chicago.

“It will make Chicago a world-class city,” he said.

Of course, Chicago residents and leaders may have many reasons for wanting to host the 2016 Games, but it is uncertain that the event would be an economic boon to the city.  A study conducted to analyze the potential economic effects of the 2012 London Olympics found that historically while some host cities have benefited economically, others have suffered losses as tax dollars used to fund the games are not always recouped during the course of the event.

Adam Blake of the University of Nottingham Business School found that the event was likely to benefit London in 2012 and that increased growth is likely to last until 2016, but that in the years before and after this bracket the results are less certain.

Short-lived, costly events such as the Olympics often result in the construction of facilities that will have limited use after the games are over.  For example, the Bird’s Nest that became symbolic of the 2008 Beijing Olympics is today underutilized, making revenue today only from tourists who wish to see where the athletes competed.

A USA Today reporter speculates:

In other countries, the Bird’s Nest might be revealed as a white elephant — an expensive possession with little commercial value. But in China, the government and state-controlled media are unlikely to advertise the fact and citizens will never know the real cost.

Ex ante, we do not know if the 2016 games would benefit or harm Chicago in the long run, but looking to past cases gives reason to question whether or not host cities benefit in the long run.  Perhaps a more reliable policy to promote economic growth and tourism in the city would be to lower its notoriously high taxes. The Economist recently found that Chicago has the greatest tax burden for tourists of any American city.  The cities’ leadership would be wise to consider how this tax climate would impact potential visitors’ decisions to attend the games before speculating that increased tourism would certainly benefit residents.

Overplanning in Dubai

In an  LA Times article, architecture critic Christopher Hawkin writes about his trip to study Dubai:

Like many first-time visitors, I expected to find in Dubai a messy, vital hybrid of architectural and urban strategies, reflecting the city’s history as a regional crossroads and trading center. I could hardly have been more wrong. Dubai is not some Middle Eastern Venice, a polyglot city where the combination of construction workers from Pakistan, bankers from London and Hong Kong and tourists from around the world creates a mash-up of contemporary urbanism.

[. . .]

One major reason that the city has been divided up this way is that the emirate’s ruling family, led by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, controls all the major real estate companies operating here. In Dubai, the urban planners and the developers are essentially one and the same. Market ambition and civic ambition are similarly intertwined: Sheik Mohammed has often been called Dubai’s chief executive. Instead of building a monumental city hall or war memorial, Dubai builds shopping centers and office towers at a monumental scale.

In the heart of most cities, the biggest piece of land that a single developer is typically able to control is one square block. (In a dense, layered city, of course, the average parcel is far smaller.) In Dubai, whole districts of the city, many covering dozens of square blocks and hundreds of acres, have been given over to single developments. Seeing architectural diversity within any project as a threat to the bottom line, their creators usually hire a single firm to design them around a recognizable theme: the golf community, the office park, the vaguely souk-like waterfront combination of retail outlets and condominiums.

Currently, the relationship between builders and policy makers in Dubai has led to a strange pattern of development and has resulted a compartmentalized city rather than a conglomeration of neighborhoods. If the city does not recover its position as a tourist destination, it will be difficult for it to diversify its economy because current land use is not suitable for typical residential or business uses.

The unnatural development that a lack of competition has created in Dubai shares similarities with ideas promoted by garden city planners of the early 20th century. Garden city planners believed an organized, planned utopia would be preferable to the apparent chaos of cities that grow organically. Although the idea of a highly stylized and planned city may theoretically seem  this sort of development does not lead to livable cities.

If Dubai seeks to be merely a tourist attraction rather than a vibrant city, this glitzy but impractical development model may succeed provided that global economic prosperity returns quickly.  However, such an undiversified economy means that the city would remain in a position to be particularly hard hit by downturns in the business cycle, as Las Vegas is in the United States.

In order to develop cities that function as more than amusement parks, competition between developers at the street level is necessary to facilitate the diverse needs of residents, rather than exclusively the desires of wealthy tourists.  As a British businessman in Dubai explained in The Sunday Times:

Dubai has brilliantly exploited the boom years to build itself on to the map and into people’s minds. But Plan A is over now. The model only works in the good times. We need Plan B and we need it fast.

More on Dubai’s economy from the Economist, and on the city’s future prospects from Tyler Cowen (who has written on Dubai over 100 times).