It’s not just fossil fuels

Let’s play a kids’ riddle game. My short-term benefits on first use are positive, and can be obtained at very low up-front cost. In your social circle, I indicate coolness and status. Once you use me, you find that the (again, short-term) benefits of using are increasingly greater than not using, even if you start to wish you had never started in the first place. After an extended period, the deferred costs begin to come due, but they are due whether or not you keep seizing the short-term “bargain”. What am I?

I intended this to sound like an addictive drug, of course, perhaps cigarettes. But everything in the riddle applies to cars, and the analogy has some lessons for dealing with global warming and energy. Consider: to start driving, you need a car. But you can buy a car for almost nothing down, parking space at your curb is free, and it allows you to make some trips for which it’s really much more convenient than any other way to move around, like going to the mall to shop. You can fill the tank with your credit card, which feels free. The recent history of cigarettes has a lot to teach us about cars.

No-one decides to smoke for the rest of his life, just to smoke the next cigarette and then stop; similarly, no-one decides to drive everywhere forever, just to drive down to the 7-11 for a quart of milk this time (it’s raining, or it might rain, or my bicycle tires aren’t inflated, or it’s uphill coming home, or I’m really tired tonight, etc. etc.). After all, the insurance is paid for, the gas is in the tank, parking is free at the store, there won’t be noticably any more global warming or even local pollution if you drive your car this once, etc. Because you usually drive, you’re increasingly overweight and out of shape, so the walk is a real effort. And because all the streets are lined with garages to house everyone’s cars, the walk will be really boring. So the marginal immediate cost of a car trip, to you, once you have the car (which psychologically “needs driving” as much as a TV “needs watching”) is very low.

Social institutions and infrastructure used to make it very easy to get and use cigarettes, for people of any age. As Tom Schelling once remarked, they used to empty the ashtrays at a conference into a wastebasket. In the movie Ghost, one scene features something that used be an unremarkable presence: a cigarette vending machine on a subway platform! Cigarettes were easier to find at any hour of the day than food. I used to go down to the corner store at the age of eight to buy cigarettes (for my father, but what did they know?).

Social institutions and infrastructure make it very easy to get and use cars, though kids generally need to conscript parents to chauffeur them. Outside a very few dense cities, like New York, the competition for driving is bicycling through car traffic; public transportation that’s crummy, expensive immediately, far away, and doesn’t run at night; and walking down streets that are boring, and scary because no-one else is walking. The walk is long, because all those cars, both in use and parked, take up lots of space and push everything far from everything else, and because zoning laws exclude commerce from almost anywhere people live.

Schelling also noted, twenty years ago, that “now they empty the ashtrays into an ashtray” and of course by now the ashtrays aren’t there in the first place. I remember well a time when, if a guest lit a cigarette in someone’s home, it was incumbent on the host to apologize if he wanted the guest to stop and to have an adequate excuse, such as an allergy; a properly furnished house had cigarettes set out on the sideboard and coffee table. This is an astounding transformation in the use of a powerfully addictive drug; how did it happen?

The history of de-smoking western society is complicated and quite interesting, but among the essential elements were:

(1) Aggressive publicity for the scientific facts about the delayed costs.

(2) Extensive public education about the externalities of second-hand smoke.

(3) Regulations and constraints, putatively in the interest of non-smoking victims like airline flight attendants and restaurant waiters.

(4) Constant, steady price (tax) increases making the externalities internal and immediately visible.

(5) An education and social pressure campaign directed at Hollywood and TV to get the cigarettes out of its products.

(6) Publicly and charitably funded programs to help people quit.

(7) Legal action against the supplying industry to collect external costs in judgments.

By now, smoking is shameful and rude. Barack Obama has never, to my knowledge, been photographed or filmed with a cigarette. Marriott and Best Western make a nice living in the competitive hotel business with no smoking allowed anywhere.

Every one of these steps, especially (3), (4) and (5), proceeded in the face of confident assertions by people who should know that (i) smoking prohibitions could never be enforced, (ii) no-smoking restaurants would mean the complete collapse of the economy of one city after another, (iii) bleating about individual rights, (iv) pseudoscientific denialism.

It strikes me that this list is a pretty good template for the assault on our addiction to cars. I say cars, because the social costs of cars do not go away even if they are fueled with the greenest, no-carbonest, most renewable fuel you can imagine (though an electric car fueled by the current generating mix is a lot better than one that uses gasoline). The problem is that a car of any size using any fuel takes up about the same space on the road and almost the same parking space. That’s two parking spaces, of course, on the average; one at home and one at work or shopping so you can park when you get there. As a result, everything is so far apart and we live so diffusely that only cars can practically get us around. Then there are all the accidents, and the carbon and economic costs of just making all that physical stuff like the concrete of the freeway, and the cars themselves.

But the most important cost of cars is that they completely prevent casual social interaction with strangers: people wearing two-ton iron suits cannot engage with each other in any way. A slight bump, that would lead to two “excuse me’s” on foot, instead winds at best up on the side of the road exchanging papers and maybe worse; don’t even think of scratching a friendly dog behind the ears or exchanging a few words about the weather. This cost is underappreciated: the automobile convention has made us afraid of each other and lonely. We are hard-wired to trust our tribe and mistrust strangers and outsiders. After years of never passing anyone different from ourselves on foot within conversational distance, we see anyone other than the people who live on our very segregated suburban street, work in our homogeneous office, and shop at our demographically targeted mall, as dangerous strangers. That is, going about in cars prevents us systematically from something that is common in real cities: coming close enough to people not like us that they might hurt us and not being hurt. You don’t need to be mugged by someone of a different race or social class to fear them; Hammerstein had it exactly wrong. Without the reassurance and learning that a pedestrian environment, and only a pedestrian environment, affords, the hard-wiring takes over. Petroleum-fueled cars are toxic to the climate; but any cars are as toxic to the social climate as cigarettes are to the people around smokers, because they are the agents of ethnic, social, and economic cleansing.

We need to make it rude to drive, especially rude to drive a big car. Also, come to think of it, rude to live in a big house with rooms we occupy hours a month or never, full of stuff we don’t have time to play with. Can we? Let’s see: (i) Americans will never give up their cars, it’s impossible; (ii) do you know how important the car industry, and road and home construction, are to the economy? Not living in car suburbs will impoverish the entire nation; (iii) it’s my right as an American to drive wherever I want and park near the door when I get there; (iv) sprawl and suburbs are actually good (remember the doctors in the Chesterfield ads?); the science on global warming is uncertain and alarmism.

It is the voice of realistic, hardheaded, experienced counsel, but it was all wrong about cigarettes and it’s wrong about cars.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.