Category Archives: cities

Resources aren’t infinite

Traffic jamAn exchange I had with commenter “George in Toronto” about the price of municipal water has been playing in my head. George argues:

[In Toronto,] the water course is Lake Ontario. Any water that Toronto does not use simply continues East until it reaches the Atlantic. And any water that is used, in most cases returns to the lake through the sewer system. In Toronto, water is truly free. You can walk down to the beach and take a bucketful at any time.

You can, I argue, but only if seven million other residents of greater Toronto didn’t get there first. If they did, there’d better be a system that limited them to one bucket each. Otherwise, you’re going home with an empty bucket.

Meanwhile, Eamonn Butler of Britain’s Adam Smith Institute argues at the institute’s blog today that, if I read him right, essentially all roads should be toll roads. Certainly that all crowded roads should be.

If charging does not deter traffic, the charge is not high enough. There is some price at which the traffic will flow. If the charge makes people avoid the morning peak, all the better…

The market is the best way of allocating most resources, roads included. Of course, you have to cut the other taxes on motoring, and provide realistic alternatives for those priced out by the charge. But without some such solution, congestion will inevitably get worse: and that costs businesses and the public dear.

Which puts him in practical agreement with Steven Cohen and Jacob Victor of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who are at Grist Mill today arguing for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion charge plans:

Some critics erroneously view congestion pricing as yet another expensive environmental protection program that would operate at the expense of economic productivity. But the success of the plan reflects the fact that many business and political leaders, like Bloomberg, finally realize that environmental sustainability and economic efficiency go hand in hand.

(I had trouble deciding what to quote from Cohen and Victor’s short essay; the whole thing is very much worth reading.)

What the water and road-capacity issue have in common is this: We have a lot of water and we have a lot of roads, but these things are not infinite. When we think of any resource — a watershed, space in a highway system — as infinite, we eventually run into problems, and adapting to solve those problems is a shock.

  • We thought the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought the seas’ capacity to absorb waste liquids was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought our lakes’ and rivers’ and aquifers’ capacity to provide fresh water was infinite. It isn’t.
  • We thought when roads got clogged, we could widen them and solve the problem. Doesn’t work like that.
  • We thought when we started to run low on spare electrical power, we could just build more power stations. Not quite.
  • With water, there’s a more immediate concern than the natural supply: the treatment plants reach their limit and the pipes reach their capacities long before the lake runs out.

The challenge is that with all these resources, we’ve built systems that assumed that there would always be more fuel, more water, more room for waste in the air. The limits on these things are very high, but limits there are. And as soon as there’s any degree of scarcity at all, the rules have to be different. Suddenly, we need to ask who has the most right to these things. We can try to set up systems to make sure everybody gets what they need, but we cannot let everybody have what they want.

Now we have to adjust — to a reality that has always been there, we just haven’t realized it — and that hurts.

(Photo credit: “.“, Flickr/fffriendly.)

Better than a ban

I struggle with whether cities should be banning particular products because they’re deemed environmentally unfriendly.

Plastic bags, for instance.

On the one hand, they represent just about everything bad about a disposable consumer culture. Made of petroleum, given out by the dozen, ordinarily used once — maybe twice if they don’t already have holes in them by the time you get them home — and then deposited in landfills for archeologists to find 10,000 years hence.

On the other hand, lots of things are bad and we don’t actually forbid them.

I like to believe that two pricing innovations would make a difference. First, wadded-up plastic bags take up lots of room in trash cans, so maybe if cities charged residents directly for garbage disposal, more of use would realize the plastic bags aren’t worth. Second, a price for carbon might push up the price of the bags just enough that they’re no longer worth using. If a plastic bag cost even a penny, it would be too much.

Plastic bags are entirely the product of economic externalities, I think — I hope. Styrofoam’s the same way, a product that works only if the real costs are passed on to others.

If you’re buying soup, the cafeteria where I work offers you the choice of a Styrofoam bowl or one made of china, which you can take back to your desk or wherever else you’re eating as long as you promise to bring it back. Normally, that’s what I do. But today I wasn’t paying attention, and the fellow at the counter put my lunch in Styrofoam. Not what I’d ask for, but no big deal this once. Except that apparently they’ve got a batch of bowls in the wrong size. They don’t hold as much as the cafeteria insists is one serving. So over my protests and with the best of intentions, the fellow dumped the chili from the Styrofoam into a china bowl, topped it up, and threw the Styrofoam away.

The worst of all possible worlds: a discarded Styrofoam bowl and a china bowl I had to bring back to be cleaned and sterilized.

As part of an inane conversational gambit, I mentioned this to the woman at the next desk. She, it turns out, is always struggling with servers in coffee shops when she brings in a reusable travel mug — they’re constantly using disposable cups to make drinks in, pouring them into her mug, throwing out the disposables, and handing her mug to her.

Somebody’s doing a bad job explaining the marketing strategy to the front-liners. It’s costing the customers aggravation and the companies money.

Today at Green Options, Gavin Hudson offers up some generally useful tips for greener dining, which includes a call for political lobbying:

Here’s the good news: increasingly, a number of large cities are passing legislation that bans the use of Styrofoam containers in restaurants. Many other cities are considering similar action. Legislation like this is important because Styrofoam is not recyclable in most places and does not quickly decompose so sits in landfills. The more Styrofoam we prevent, the fewer open spaces will need to be converted to landfills to hold this Trash (with a capital T). And not all of trash ends up at the dump: quite a lot finds its way into ocean ecosystems as well. Here‘s a visual. Chemicals in styrene products are also harmful to human health because they attack the central nervous system.

You can encourage your city to pass a similar ban on Styrofoam by contacting your city council. Also, talk to restaurants and stores that use plastic cutlery or bags about biodegradable plastics. If you already live in one of those forward-thinking cities with a ban on Styrofoam, you can help restaurants by letting them know how much you appreciate them following this eco-friendly policy. Supporting restaurants and companies that are doing things right flexes your power as a consumer to make a difference. You can also help the city by letting them know if you come across a restaurant using Styrofoam.

This is what happens when the underlying economic rules are wrong. City councils ban things, business operators violate the rules, nosy citizens snitch on them, inspectors come out, tickets are written …  Surely investing in fixing the underlying economics makes both more financial and more moral sense.

Paying the real full cost for city water

waterfallThe Residential and Civil Construction Association of Ontario advocates spot-market pricing for water:

Harry Kitchen, economics professor at Trent University and author of the report on financing, noted that consumers pay far less for water than what it actually costs. “That’s because, historically, the municipalities have not included asset replacement costs in calculating their water rates. The impact has been an inability to maintain and upgrade these systems.”

Some of the key recommendations in the two reports are metering, full-cost pricing, and greater private-sector participation. With metering, consumers pay for the amount of water they use. This promotes conservation. As well, metering allows the application of variable rates in order to reflect the season of the year or time of day of water use.

Here’s a Toronto Star story on the idea, too.

They’re working from this study (PDF) by Professor Kitchen who’s one of a very few genuine academic experts on municipal finances and talks sense every time I hear him. At length and with due academic rigour, he makes the straightforward point that municipal infrastructure such as water pipes are falling apart because cities don’t charge what their services actually cost.

In Ontario, at least, they’re tantalizing close to doing so. They’re required to use what’s called “full-cost pricing,” but that just means cities have to figure out what their systems cost to run, and make sure those costs are reflected in the water and sewer rates. That sounds right, but in practice, they charge the exact same price 24/7/365, regardless of the capacity strain the system is under, and frequently leaving themselves nothing extra to repair or expand the water system with.

Furthermore, because there’s no discount for using water at off-peak times, people turn on the taps whenever they feel like it, meaning the demand spikes are atrocious. To accommodate them, the water system needs to be overbuilt.

Kitchen and the construction association call for close metering of water use, among other things, with rates that vary with demand and time of year. This is what Ontario’s electricity system is gradually being heaved toward, over quite a bit of opposition from people who don’t want to pay more for power. (They’re usually the ones who really should.)

Variably priced water would also make it a lot easier for municipalities to raise rates to reflect the damage that city water use does by draining local waterways.

Don’t expect anything to happen till it’s crisis time, though. That’s what it took with electricity.

Bloomberg’s congestion charges revived

Duly noted: NYC’s traffic plan first had to crack Albany’s gridlock.

As I read it, this is very, very, very far from a done deal, just a political compromise to meet a deadline to file some paperwork to get some federal funding for the idea, if it actually happens. A key deadlock was between New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, and State Senator Joseph Bruno, a Republican, who, according to the Associated Press, just despise each other:

Although Bruno and Spitzer supported the mayor’s “congestion pricing” concept, negotiations with the skeptical Assembly Democrats never started while Bruno was calling Spitzer a spoiled brat and Spitzer said Bruno chose summer vacation over doing the people’s business. Calls for investigations of each other’s use of state helicopters, Bruno’s claim that Spitzer used state police to spy on him, even Spitzer’s bouncing of a Bruno staffer from a news conference, were part of feuding that became so heated it raised eyebrows beyond New York.

“Now, now boys,” tsked the headline in The Economist of London. “Even by Albany’s standards, their recent feuding has caused new highs, or rather new lows, of dysfunction.”

The Bloomberg plan was just a casualty in the crossfire, before it was bandaged up, given some painkillers and sent back out there to fight another day.

So it’s good the New York City congestion charge hasn’t been killed because this politicking, which had nothing to do with the issue, might have made the city miss an arbitrary deadline set by another government, but again, it’s wrong that that might have happened at all.

Free public transit?

Stay behind the yellow line!Andrew Sullivan, the thoughtful Anglo-American libertarian, thinks free public transit is a good idea.

Here’s a great idea: no fares for buses in major cities. It speeds things up, gets more people out of cars, opens up parking spaces, helps the enivronment… How to afford it? Tax cars some more, or enact the London-style traffic tolls.

His link goes to The Tyee, the B.C.-based online magazine, which has a full treatment.

I’m careful, when writing about the subject, not to assume that mass transit has to be public transit. In theory, I can’t think why the private sector couldn’t do the same job with intracity transit as it does with transit between cities, particularly using buses. It always strikes me that the problem with transit now is that it’s monolithic and lowest-common-denominator; maybe we’d have better luck getting people out of cars if they had more options and could, if they wanted, choose to pay extra for luxury service.

From a purely urban-planning perspective, though, it’s a no-brainer that free transit would be better, and that would obviously have to be paid for out of the public purse. Yet even running a free transit service would surely be cheaper than all the roads and other infrastructure a city wouldn’t have to build.

(Photo credit: “Stay behind the yellow line!“, Flickr/Marios Tziortzis.)

Equal bureaucracy for all

At first glance, a plan in San Mateo County, Calif., to speed up approvals for buildings meeting certain green standards seemed like a good idea. It’s a small way of rewarding conscientious builders with sustainable projects without shipping them public money. From the Palo Alto Daily News:

Under the proposal, a builder who chooses to employ environmentally friendly construction in San Mateo County’s unincorporated areas would have his application for a new building or major addition processed by the county’s planning department twice as fast.

It takes about six to seven weeks to complete an application for a residential or commercial building permit. A builder who goes green would have his permit processed in three weeks.

“What we’re looking to do here is to provide incentives so more individuals will build green,” said San Mateo County Supervisor Mark Church, who has asked the planning department to look at developing the program. “The public sector already has taken the lead in developing green buildings, so now is the time to provide incentives to encourage the private sector to do the same.”

But then again, why should the promise of a government bureaucracy heaving itself into action at more than it usual torpid pace be used as a reward for anything? If they can process permits in three weeks, shouldn’t they do so for everyone? What if the project isn’t particularly green, but it’s for a school or a church or a seniors’ centre or something?

An urban-planning process might favour greeniness in granting approvals, but that quality shouldn’t factor into the effectiveness of the process itself. And besides, it’s just begging for people to game the system by submitting environmentally friendly plans at permit-granting time and then — oops! — not living up to them in the actual construction.

(Via Planetizen.)

Congestion charges on life support in NYC

The shame of the stories about the defeat of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for a downtown congestion charge is that there appears to have been no discussion of whether he actually had a good idea. Instead, it’s all politics and pique — from Bloomberg and from the state legislators whose co-operation he needed.

“If the mayor came in with one vote, he left with none,” said Senator Kevin S. Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat.

“His posture was not ingratiating,” he said. “He says he doesn’t know politics, and he certainly bore that out by the way he behaved.”

So angered were Democrats that they decided to vote as a bloc to defeat the measure, and there were not nearly enough votes among the Republican senators for it to pass.

The mayor moved from meeting to meeting in the Capitol, his expression grim, and he declined to take questions from reporters. He did take a shot at his critics on WROW-AM radio in Albany on Monday morning, saying, “Anybody that says we didn’t have enough time to look at this is ridiculous.

And worst of all, Bloomberg needed the state’s co-operation so New York could get access to hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money, which is just about to be taken off the table.

Why on earth must New York City meet artificial deadlines just so it can exercise reasonable control over what happens within its own boundaries?