Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A Prague Spring for Auto Socialism?

These are not the best of times for American motorist. Diminishing supplies of oil are increasing the costs of gasoline and pavement, increasing demand for livable downtowns makes highway construction and parking more and more expensive, and concerns about global warming threaten to drive up the true costs of driving even further.

Of course, the typical American motorist is blithely unaware of most of these problems. Sure, gas is more expensive, but government subsidies still keep the price of oil ridiculously low. Similarly, local, state, and federal governments spend trillions on highways that are essentially free for motorists to use, and every city in America has policies and land use codes that provide price-controlled (i.e., "free") parking. Supposedly we can't afford national free health care, but few people seem to notice how much our governments spend on nationalised roads and free parking.

As these twentieth-century traditions of automotive socialism become more and more expensive to the governments and taxpayers that pay for them, economists are becoming increasingly vocal in their support for free-market solutions to congestion, parking, and global warming.

Lest you think that this is some sort of left-wing luddite conspiracy, please note that the Bush administration is endorsing congestion pricing as "the centerpiece of [its] traffic plan," and that this and another story on liberalized parking-meter pricing were both published not in Mother Jones but in the Wall Street Journal.

Motorists actually have a good deal to gain from free-market traffic and parking policies. In our current, socialized scheme, drivers spend hours in gridlock or searching for an empty parking space: a car will rush for an empty freeway lane or curbside parking spot faster than a babushka at a Soviet supermarket. If drivers paid a fair price to use the streets, the money spent subsidizing private vehicles could pay for efficient mass transit instead, more urban land could be used for housing and businesses instead of for vehicle storage, and those who really need to drive would contend with less traffic to get to their destinations more quickly.

London has led the way with the world's first major congestion pricing initiative, and New York City is considering the idea seriously. Meanwhile, parking price reforms are gaining all over the place, from Silicon Valley to Houston, where the one and only land-use regulation (for now) is one that requires free parking.

For now, small reforms, like letting employees opt out of free parking in exchange for cash, are more feasable than citywide congestion-pricing revolutions. Future posts in the new "Socialized Motoring" file will investigate how such ideas might apply to Portland and Maine.

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