Tag Archives: price signals

Conversation with My Planning Department Supervisor About Green Metropolis by David Owen

September 1, 2009

Supervisor (my City of Boulder planning department supervisor in 1996): I have not seen Owens’ book, so can only comment on the bits you presented. Hard to say who the primary audience is intended to be, but the description seems like old wine in new bottles. I can’t imagine many being swayed either way from the accounts I’ve read. In any event, for a book on this topic to be effective, it would have to be broadly embraced by the general public, because that is where the basis for change originates.

Dom: I’ve not read Owen’s book, either. I read his essay (which I posted on FB in the comment thread following my original post about the interview with him – the interview does a poor job of presenting his viewpoint). After thinking about it later, I think in addition to planners and elected officials, the audience I would think he would appropriately be targeting would be students. I’m not sure about books or opinions being a basis for change. Over the years (and in particular, reading a number of authors on the topic), I’ve come to realize that change in behavior or beliefs is largely driven by material conditions (not to suggest that I’m sympathetic to Marxism or socialism). Behaviors and beliefs arise due to prices, costs, benefits, roads, parking, distances, speeds, economicconditions, etc. An idea can be brilliant, but unless these material conditions promote the idea, the idea will be largely ignored. (for example, water conservation is more common in the western US not because residents there learned wonderful ideas from books or speeches about conserving water, but because water is relatively scarce in the west)

Supervisor: Planners have limited success producing change because they fail to connect with the public, and fail to understand how real change occurs. They talk to the public in arcane, academic terms that don’t address what the average public needs and wants. Planners consistently leave the impression there is something wrong with the way many, perhaps most people live, e.g. there must be something wrong with those people. That is effectively an insult, i.e. the Vermont way of life is “wasteful” compared to NYC, therefore Vermonters are wasteful, and must be bad or inferior people if they don’t mend their ways.

Dom: I agree with much of this, and have spent much time and effort striving to speak (and write codes/plans) in “Plain English.” I sincerely dislike the obfuscation of bureaucratese and legalese. I’ve always sought (and mostly failed) to select words that would better resonate with people (coincidentally, I’m now a “complete streets” instructor in cities throughout the nation, and believe the term strongly resonates with most). You also make a good point about the bad habit many planners have of making people feel like they are doing something wrong, or that they are bad people. This is an important reason why I frequently make it a point to mention and promote, in speeches and writings, the concept of the rural-to-urban transect that new urbanists are fond of, because I believe it is an effective, equitable way to respond to the full set of lifestyle choices. Of course, there are less socially desirable behaviors, and I believe that while such behaviors should be reasonably allowed, they shouldn’t be allowed at the expense of others.

By the way, I think there is a place for expressing

transect

disapproval for “Vermonters.” If “Vermonters” are indicting that the

 

y are holier than thou (as seems fairly common), I have a tendency to want to point out that they may not be as holy as they feel. Or that the rest of us should follow them to salvation.

 Supervisor: Planners rarely make the effort to really listen to the public (as opposed pretending to listen), and speak the

public language. Instead, planners use terms that must be carefully defined and have multiple definitions, like “density” and how they know better what is good for the public than does the public; things like ‘X is more dense than Y if you calculate it one way, but less dense if you calculate it another way, and we calculate it the way that gives the results we want.’ Planners don’t demonstrate they understand why the public is more concerned about short term needs like a job, an affordable day care center or a place for the kids to play soccer without fear of being abducted. They give the public the impression those should be trivial concerns, not relevant to the big picture of vibrant streets, late night activity, and locally produced food.

Dom: Largely agree. Of course, many citizens have beliefs or desires that originate from market-distorting subsidies (such as underpriced roads, parking or gasoline). So I believe that the planner must find a proper balance between actually hearing and responding to “real world” citizen needs/beliefs, and advocating tactics that they, as professionals, know to be effective in achieving community objectives. On this topic, I often like to surprise people these days by pointing out that town center living is shown in studies to be safer, more convenient, cheaper, and easier to travel in than suburbs. If these studies are accurate, and I believe they are, should I be dishonest and agree with people who state the opposite? In such a discussion, by the way, I don’t ever feel as if I would be able to persuade people that town centers are better in these ways. I believe, again, that most people will be convinced, over time, of these things as gas prices rise, roads and parking are priced, a growing number of people (particularly the wealthy) start living in town centers, the cost and profitably of town center properties rise, etc.

I’m not sure I’ve made the mistake you cite of planners trivializing needs like a job, day care or child safety. I think my (mostly) failed efforts have been to point out that town centers and traditional design results in more jobs, better/cheaper day car, and more child safety.

Now that I think about this issue, it occurs to me that I have found at least one way to be persuasive on topics such as these: Using photos in PowerPoint presentations. When I use certain images, my point can become vivid, rather undeniable, and accessible to the most un-schooled of audiences.

Supervisor: Since planners seldom connect with average citizens, they rely on appointed and elected officials to do it. They try to convince planning commissioners and city council members to sell the ideas to the public. Some public officials are believers and take on the task, or vote in opposition to public sentiment. Most don’t, and why should they? The planners aren’t their important constituents.

Dom: I’ve always liked this comment from Reubin Askew: A leader is someone who cares enough to tell the people not merely what they want to hear, but what they need to know.

I think that elected officials are (or should be) elected to be leaders. To do meaningful things, leaders know that they will make enemies – at least in the short run. Margaret Thatcher once said that consensus is the absence of leadership. One of my heroes – Enrique Penalosa (former mayor of Bogota) – was despised early on in his term. He enacted policies that aggressively inconvenienced cars in his efforts to make people, rather than cars, happy. Many wanted to throw him out of office. But eventually, his policies (which nearly all his citizens strongly opposed initially) resulted in visibly obvious quality of life and civic pride improvements. He went on to become much-loved and honored by most in Bogota.

 * A city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both. – Enrique Penalosa

* Over the last 30 years, we’ve been able to magnify environmental consciousness all over the world. As a result, we know a lot about the ideal environment for a happy whale or a happy mountain gorilla. We’re far less clear about what constitutes an ideal environment for a happy human being. One common measure for how clean a mountain stream is, is to look for trout. If you find the trout, the habitat is healthy. It’s the same way with children in a city. Children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a successful city for children, we will have a successful city for all people. – Enrique Penalosa

* God made us walking animals—pedestrians. As a fish needs to swim, a bird to fly, a deer to run, we need to walk, not in order to survive, but to be happy. – Enrique Penalosa

*A premise of the new city is that we want a society to be as egalitarian as possible. For this purpose, quality-of-life distribution is more important than income distribution. [And quality of life includes] a living environment as free of motor vehicles as possible. – Enrique Penalosa

* Anything you do to make a city more friendly to cars makes it less friendly to people. – Enrique Penalosa

If I (or an American elected official) were to state anything like the above quotes, what would the reaction be?

So to answer your question above, elected officials need to acknowledge, sometimes, that public sentiment might be counterproductive (particularly in a world where misguided public subsidies and laws encourage dysfunctional behavior and ideas). Sometimes the public will undercuts public desires. Sometimes you need to make enemies. Sometimes consensus leads to ruin.

Supervisor: So, planners grumble about the uninformed public, the too-influential interest groups, and the gutless, visionless officials. Planners instead spend their time talking to each other, i.e. folks that already think the same way, or are predisposed in their direction. They avoid meaningful ongoing conversation with those who strongly disagree with them, and talk to the public in neutral settings where fixed positions can be stated and maintained. This approach guarantees slow progress toward their goals as it fosters stasis in thinking.

Dom: Agree. I’ve learned, again, that because material conditions are largely the origin of ideas and behaviors, ideas are mostly useless (unless the timing is right). By realizing this, I’ve mostly avoided banging my head against the wall. I’ve mostly avoided being frustrated by my inability to convince people of my views. I mostly like to point out, when asked, the tactics that I believe are most effective in achieving an objective. “How can we get more transit riders, Dom?” I respond by pointing out we need priced and scarce parking, relatively high gas prices/gas taxes, priced roads, compact and mixed-use development, etc. I don’t expect anyone to agree. At least not in the world we currently live in.

More so than in the past, when I “grumble,” it is about car subsidies, not uninformed people.

Supervisor: Planners come to believe they have the “right” answers. They forget there can’t be right answers or even best answers without commonly held objectives. Even then there are no right answers, there are only answers that produce different results, and often unintended or unpredictable results. So when some decision makers do follow their advice the results may not be as advertised. Oops, but believe us next time.

Dom: Yes. Which is why I often counsel against half-measures. I believe that sometimes, if a half-assed approach is taken (due, usually, to compromise), the implementation can give the concept a black eye. I’ve also sought to be better at taking a more equitable approach that can appeal to a more comprehensive set of lifestyles and choices (as long as such choices are not costly to others). Again, this is why I find the new urbanist transect concept so appealing. And the idea of “complete streets.”

And I really enjoy pointing out unintended consequences. For example, I’m currently having a discussion with a County Commissioner friend that high-mileage cars can have unintended consequences. By lowering the cost of gas, such cars can actually induce more driving…

Supervisor: Planners think those who strongly disagree are uneducated or have impure motives, because the evidence in support of the planner position is so clear and strong. They forget the lack of common objectives produces an inconsistent frame of reference to view the data.

Dom: I’ve been reading recently about the issue of “confirmation bias,” where your frame of reference leads you to tend to accept information that bolsters your perceptions and reject information that does not.

One antidote to my suffering the mistake you cite here is my reading The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas Kuhn). From that book, I learned that when we devote a great deal of time and effort working with a certain paradigm, we can become immune to data that undermine the paradigm – even if the data is overwhelming. Most of us are incapable of admitting to ourselves the tragic thought that we’ve wasted so much of our lives on a failed idea. Many of us go to our graves w/o being able to change our viewpoint. It is only when the old guard dies off that the new paradigm can emerge and be accepted.

Formerly, I made the mistake of thinking that overwhelming data, evidence and logic would pretty much always carry the day and be convincing to most everyone. I now know better.

Supervisor: Planners forget, or never learn, how societal change occurs. Since cities are support structures for human society, not the reverse, planners miss the essential connection. Instead, planners see the design of cities as merely a technical issue – change these design/density characteristics, and see the happy results. The reality is that cities are the people, and the buildings and infrastructure are physical accoutrements that support the people. Fundamental change in the physical accoutrements follows fundamental change of the society. Since planners spend most of their time talking to each other and their supporters, rather than listening to the society to find unique ways to meet their needs, they ensure lack of effectiveness.

Dom: Hmmm. I’m not sure I fully understand your point here, but it reminds me of Churchill’s comment that We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. I’m also reminded of the adage that if all we have is hammers, all our problems look like nails. With the planning profession, planners can (in theory) have an influence over infrastructure, but have little control over how people think.

I think that planners can be most effective if they can leverage the tactics that effectively influence behavior and ideas. For example, successfully influencing the size and pricing of roads, the amount and pricing of parking, the amount of gas taxes charged, the amount of impact fees charged, where buildings are placed on a piece of property, etc. Each of those tactics are effective in changing behavior and ideas.

Frankly, I’ve lost much of my previous enthusiasm for public sector planning because I find that public planners have almost no ability to influence such things. Instead, public planners are mostly in the role of implementing land development regulations that, in a great many ways, undercut sustainable, Smart Growth designs.

 

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Effective Education Tactics for Sustainable Transportation

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2017

A Boulder transportation planner asked me if I knew of any effective education tactics Boulder could use.

Of course I do. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and suggestions.

I’m a cultural materialist, I told him, which means that I generally only see material conditions as effective levers in changing behavior or values. If we want to effectively educate people to change their behavior or values, the tools need to be exclusively or predominantly focused on price signals, changes in our transportation infrastructure, and changes in our land use patterns.

Conventional education campaigns such as media ads or signage tend to be utterly overwhelmed, subverted, and ignored in the face of the tidal wave of societal, infrastructure, and price signals. We can, for example, run ads or put up signs that urge people to bicycle or walk or use transit more, but that “education” is completely drowned out by counter messages in our world: Roads are too wide and too high speed, 2325691674_604babedc6destinations are too far apart, and huge subsidies are granted to you if you drive a car everywhere.

Throughout every day, we are pounded with these pro-car, pro-speeding, pro-distracted-driving “education” messages. Even if Boulder spent billions to run thousands of “ride a bike for your health and for the environment” ads every hour of every day, the counter messages (material conditions) are so vast and so powerful that nearly all people realize it is completely rational to drive everywhere (and to do so at high speeds while on a cell phone).

Using the media to “educate” people to behave in a more desirable way is so temptingly easy for local governments. It is so easy, politically, because there is little or no opposition. No one is inconvenienced or forced to pay more to continue to do what they are doing.

It is also very cheap, financially. It creates the (false) impression that government is “doing something” about a problem.

The ease of education campaigns explains why governments have been engaging in such campaigns over and over again for centuries. But one must wonder: given the appalling track record in achieving meaningful results with such campaigns, are such campaigns not a form of insanity? (a common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results)

Indeed, I consider conventional education ads such as public service announcements and other media campaigns to be so utterly ineffective that when we opt to use them, we are essentially saying we are not going to do anything about the problem – except pay lip service.

In sum, I suggest the following education campaigns: priced parking, tolled roads, attentive instead of forgiving street design, higher gas taxes, unbundled parking, road diets, compact and mixed use land use patterns, location-efficient mortgages, traffic calming, converting one-way streets back to two-way, pay-at-the-pump car insurance, a land value tax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax), adopting the “Idaho Law” for intersections, elimination of car level-of-service standards, elimination of street hierarchies, much higher street connectivity, elimination of required parking land development regulations, stop synchronizing traffic lights for motorist speeds, reduce the size of service vehicles, reduced pedestrian crossing distances, reduced building setbacks, and required parking cash-out for all future employers.

Yes, each of these education tactics are nearly impossible, politically, in Boulder (which shows the surprising backwardness of Boulder in transportation policy). But being effective is important if we want to do meaningful things, and there are quite a few meaningful things Boulder needs to do very soon, given all the enormous problems we face. This will require leadership. It will require courage.

Is Boulder up to the task?

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Education Works When the Conditions are Right

By Dom Nozzi

I’ve always believed that because quality urban design is essential to quality of life, local elected officials tend to be strongly in need of a lot of education in urban design. As a city planner in Florida, I strove to provide officials with as much urban design education as I could when I wrote plans and staff reports for them to read, as well as when I gave presentations at meetings. I arranged to regularly have my city run a series of nine urban design videos on public access TV for citizens. In addition, I worked to have several urban design stars – such as Victor Dover, Andres Duany, and Walter Kulash – be hired on projects that required outside consultants. Each of them is spectacular as an educator on the design practices I advocate. Each has taught me essential urban design lessons. In sum, I think the need for urban design education is always important on an on-going basis for commissioners and citizens. But as my writings and speeches point out, the most effective education is based on our environment and our economy. We can “educate” till we are blue in the face, but we will accomplish little unless economic price signals (such as the increasingly intolerable cost of gas, the cost of road widening, the cost of sprawl homes, the cost of parking, etc.) are providing proper price signal education. As for the environment, in my experience, a community usually does not engage in quality urban design until inconveniences and other difficulties of day-to-day life induces the political will that DEMANDS needed change. For example, consider a community experiencing high levels of road and parking lot congestion. Study after study has confirmed that conventional “solutions” (road widening and the provision of more free parking) are counterproductive and utterly unable to solve congestion problems. What to do? It seems obvious that given the studies, road widening and more free parking should NOT be used as a solution. Yet nearly all communities stubbornly disregard these studies and end up wasting millions and billions of public dollars to “solve” congestion with road widening and more free parking. Fortunately, some communities (mostly bigger cities) eventually come to realize (after much pain, suffering, wasted time, and wasted public dollars) that the conventional tactics are failing to eliminate their congestion. And at that point, even the most pro-car, anti-transit citizens are often forced to conclude that their only hope for addressing congestion is pricing roads and parking, providing better transit, and creating alternatives (such as closer-in housing) so that people can avoid the congestion.ROADRAGE1 Given this, it was not education from books or speeches or videos that was the key to convincing the community that better urban design (or better transit) is needed. No, it was clearly the aggravation felt from the congestion that drove the needed change toward effective tactics. Education alone is not a painless shortcut to doing the right thing, unfortunately. Yes, books and speeches and videos are important education tools, but such information needs to be in the right place at the right time to have an impact. Words and data can be a call-to-arms catalyst if conditions are right. Take Leonardo da Vinci. In the 15th Century, he described the design of a helicopter. Over one hundred years ago, a number of far-sighted folks spoke eloquently about women’s rights. Yet such ideas generally fell on deaf ears because the conditions were not right. My hope is that the urban design and transportation ideas I support can be in the right place when conditions are right so that the revolution can occur more quickly and less painfully. _________________________________________________ Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life. Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com 50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here: http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290 My Adventures blog http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/ Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/ My Town & Transportation Planning website http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/ My Plan B blog https://domz60.wordpress.com/ My Facebook profile http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi My YouTube video library http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi My Picasa Photo library https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534 My Author spotlight http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

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Leave Your Car at Home Day

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

Many cities admirably seek to promote a reduction in car use. Often, this entails a voluntary program such as “Bike to Work” Day or “Leave Your Car at Home” Day or “Car Free [name of city]” Day.

While such programs are a needed community acknowledgement of the desire to reduce car travel, I would be even more impressed if they used effective strategies rather than voluntary techniques. After all, studies have shown for decades that voluntary programs (with the possible exception of such simple actions such as curbside recycling) are almost entirely inadequate in achieving desired changes in undesirable behaviors.

Indeed, use of voluntary programs is a good sign that the community is not serious about correcting a problem. That there is insufficient leadership in the community to enact effective correctives.

What can a community do to meaningfully reduce car use?

Certainly we have learned that rigid “command economy” or other forms of authoritarian government edicts can be spectacular failures, and severely restrict human freedom and choice, as we were horrified to see in the former Soviet Union.

There is, after all, some merit in using market or price signals to retain freedom of choice, and to efficiently, sustainably allocate resources.

After reading the book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, I have learned that there is, indeed, a way to effectively shape community behavior without losing freedom of choice. Thaler and Sunstein call this method the oxymoronic “libertarian paternalism.”

The concept suggests that the fairest, most equitable way to “nudge” community behavior in a more socially desirable direction is to allow most all behaviors (even the undesirable ones), rather than prohibit them by law. But while undesirable behaviors are allowed, they are also made less convenient, more costly, or both.

An example the authors cite is a grade school cafeteria. Rather than ending the sale of high-calorie, fatty foods in the cafeteria, healthy foods are placed in the most visible, convenient locations in the cafeteria line, while less healthy foods are placed in less visible, less convenient locations.

To appy libertarian paternalism to the societal desire to reduce car use, then, many communities opt to use market economics (price signals) to more effectively achieve this goal. Some of my favorite tactics include:

  • Market-priced parking for both on-street and off-street parking. Donald Shoup, the nationally-acclaimed guru of parking, points out that about 98 or 99 percent of all parking by American motorists is free, which means parking is the biggest subsidy in the US. Free parking is not free, because someone must pay to buy the land, and construct and maintain the parking spaces. We are therefore sending a “price signal” that you should drive a car as much as possible, since you will have a free parking space waiting for you (and paid by others). Charging for parking (with, for example, a parking meter) does not prohibit car parking, but does nudge some people (via an equitable “user fee”) to consider other, more societally desirable behaviors, such as carpooling, parking at non-peak periods, or opting to walk, bicycle or use transit.
  •  Parking cash-out for employee parking, if paid parking at the jobsite is not possible. Nearly all employees in the US park for free. Parking cash-out tells the commuter they can keep their free parking (they retain this choice), or they can get more money in their paycheck instead. Why do we subsidize people who drive alone to work but don’t provide a subsidy for those who bike, walk or use transit to get to work? Again, a price signal nudges some to opt to carpool, walk, bicycle or use transit to get to work (over 40 percent in national studies). But they retain the freedom of choice to drive alone to work, if they are willing to forgo the financial benefit of doing otherwise.
  •  Increase the local gas tax so that gas is not so heavily subsidized. Gas prices are artificially low because they do not take into account the externalized costs associated with providing gas: military expenditures to protect overseas oil, air/noise/water pollution associated with emissions from car tailpipes and engines, injuries and deaths due to car travel, reduced property values near roads, etc. Most communities have the ability to increase the tax charged for using gasoline locally. Increasing that tax does not prohibit car travel, but it nudges some (with a price signal) to consider traveling in a more sustainable way.
  •  Convert free roads to toll roads. Free roads are another big subsidy to motorists because only a small fraction of road costs are paid by the gas tax. Most of the cost of roads is paid for by such sources as property taxes, sales taxes or income taxes. Again, driving on tolled roads does not prohibit the use of such roads, but it does send a price signal that nudges some to consider other ways of traveling (or other times of day or week).
  •  Put “overweight” roads (roads with an excess number of lanes) on a diet by removing those lanes. The most popular, common way to achieve such “road diet” conversions in the US is when a community humanizes a road by slimming it down from four lanes to three. Such a conversion often results in a quick, dramatic increase in retail health along such dieted streets, an improvement in residential property values (due to increased livability), and a dramatic reduction in crashes and speeding. All of these important benefits occur, typically, without a loss in the number of cars the street carries (and at very little local government cost). Once again, driving on such roads is not prohibited, but some will opt not to drive on the road because they are unwilling or unable to use an alternative route to avoid a loss of a few seconds of time on the dieted road (many others, of course, are more than happy to use another route or have a few seconds added to their drive).
  •  Provide car insurance at the gas pump. Currently, motorists pay the same car insurance regardless of how much they drive. Paying for insurance at the gas pump creates more equity, as those who drive more pay more for insurance (studies show that the more you drive, the more crashes you experience). Another example of libertarian paternalism, where driving is not illegal, but is more costly for those who opt to drive more often.
  •  Unbundle the price of parking from the price of housing, office or retail space. Currently, one is forced to pay more for housing, office space or retail space because the cost of parking is bundled into that cost. Instead, use a price signal by providing people with the option of not having to pay extra for parking. This would be particularly fair for those who have a location or life situation where they do not need to use a car much, if at all (for example, in a downtown with good transit, or proximity that allows more walking or biking).

There are other tactics, but this is a good start. All of the above strategies retain freedom of choice by not prohibiting undesirable behavior (in this case, excessive car travel), but do nudge some to consider other, more socially desirable ways to travel.

What can be more American than using the market to retain freedom of choice, yet at the same time promoting the pursuit of happiness?

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

Visit: www.walkablestreets.wordpress.com

Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

http://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

https://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

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Does Energy Efficiency INCREASE Energy Consumption?

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

David Owen, in the December 20, 2010 issue of The New Yorker, wrote a superb, highly counterintuitive article regarding the “efficiency” paradox. His thesis: Making cars and appliances more energy efficient results in an overall increase in gas and energy consumption.

According to Charles Komanoff, who reviewed the Owen article (http://www.grist.org/article/2010-12-15-if-efficiency-hasnt-cut-energy-use-then-what), we need to couple efficiency with higher gas and energy taxes if we expect to see meaningful, enduring conservation.

A colleague of mine (let’s call him “Greg”) challenged much of Owen’s thesis.  He noted that at the extremely progressive, green university he works for, the University has cut total energy use on campus by 23 percent in five years by using efficiency and incentives that were not price-based (ie, by not increasing, say, taxes or fees for energy).

Another friend of mine countered Greg by noting that “[a] 100-watt incandescent bulb turned off uses less energy than an energy-efficient 20 watt bulb left on all day. Clothes hanging on a line use less energy that an energy-efficient drier. A mid-90s American sedan sitting in the garage while you walk, bike or use transit for short trips uses less gas than an energy-efficient hybrid. A 5-minute shower using a conventional water heater uses less energy than a 20-minute shower hooked to an energy-efficient water heater.”

Greg responded with the observation that “this is not rocket science: conservation first, then efficiency, then renewables. If you follow that batting order—which is why we were able to drop 23 percent total energy use on campus while growing 14 percent new facilities—you can’t use more energy.”

I then pointed out to Greg that throughout the nation, as any first-year economics student can easily predict, more efficient appliances, cars, etc., did not drop per capita energy use (mostly, energy use increased). It is simple economics: Decrease per unit cost tends to increase consumption. This principle is known as “Jevon’s Paradox.”

Why did Greg’s progressive university see a decrease in energy use? Almost certainly because of self-selection, primarily. People who are already convinced of the need for conservation migrate to the progressive community (or in this case, the progressive university). That largely explains why there is so much transit and bicycle use in many university towns. It is largely not because of education campaigns or bike parking or lots of buses (people who migrate to a progressive place tend to already have a strong interest in bicycling or using transit).

I told Greg he was absolutely correct that it is conservation first, then efficiency, then renewables. The point of the Owen article is that even in enlightened places, there are no serious efforts to conserve. I formerly lived in Alachua County, which contains the relatively progressive college town of Gainesville FL. But despite the enlightened nature of the county, county government steadfastly refused to engage in serious conservation by increasing gas taxes for quite a long time (I was surprised and impressed to learn, however, that the County DID manage to increase their gas tax in 2006 or 2007). How many counties in the US have increased gas taxes in the past 10-15 yrs? I suspect the number is close to zero.

How can anyone claim “conservation first” if they don’t employ increased energy costs as a tactic?

In general, Americans tend to aggressively push efficiency and pay only lip service to conservation because it is a lot easier, politically, to adopt efficient light bulb standards than to increase gas/energy taxes.

“Demand destruction” (where effective tactics such as energy taxes are used to reduce energy consumption) is what we desperately need, but the US has almost entirely paid lip service to doing that (or, in the case of the political right, are violently opposed).

Until we start using increased gas taxes and other energy/carbon taxes, we are not seriously pursuing conservation.

What is most likely is that because the US has not seriously pursued demand destruction, we will have no Plan B in place (such as a train system) when energy prices start to dramatically increase. We’ll see a lot of demand destruction forced on us by $10/gallon gasoline, but because we did nothing so long to prepare for that, it will be accompanied by a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. Lots of pain. Lots of people in future generations wondering why our generation didn’t get off our ass and put Plan B in place (instead, our generation squandered the national wealth on things like wars and highway widenings).

To get back to my friend Greg, when conservation incentive programs are used at relatively well-educated or progressive universities or towns, such programs are being applied to a population that is already tending to be susceptible to the conservation message, which makes the incentive programs much more successful. But with less progressive towns, using non-price incentive programs within a town, as opposed to an enlightened university population, is unlikely to have much success in inducing meaningful conservation. Unless price signals are used.

It is no coincidence that higher gas prices ramp up non-car travel, as we have seen in recent years. The high prices ramp up conservation behavior far more than any non-price tactic. And far more sustainably (if the gas prices stayed high).

If all we have is a hammer, all our problems look like nails. In general, all we have are non-price tactics (because price tactics are nearly impossible, politically). So we are mostly stuck with non-price tactics as our (often ineffective) hammer.

But to be intellectually honest, we need to understand and admit the limitations of non-price tactics.

Basic economics clearly informs us that if we make driving more convenient, cheaper or faster by widening roads and highways, or by providing abundant free parking, we can be certain that a great many people will make the rational decision to drive more (and live in more remote locations) because the cost of doing so has shrunk. The prices are relatively low, which signals us to use more of it.

Simple cost-benefit analysis.

Similarly, if a person enjoys efficiency gains with better insulation or more efficient appliances, their price signals will nudge them towards using air conditioning and heat more often, not being as careful about keeping doors shut, and leaving lights on longer, because now it is cheaper to do so.

I am very concerned that too many of us have a tendency to “rest on our laurels” if we, say, engage in curbside recycling or drive a Prius. I have heard people, countless times, sanctimoniously state that they are living “sustainably” or “green” because they recycle newspapers and their car gets 45 mpg.

And yet they live in a sprawl location and drive everywhere.

They drive so much that they use a lot more gas than a person who lives in the town center. A town center resident who is chastised for having a car (which he hardly ever uses) that gets 20 mpg.

The guy in sprawl is enabled or otherwise encouraged to live in sprawl because his more efficient car means his gas costs less.  And he parks in a free parking spot for every trip he makes.

But he parks in a parking lot that uses native xeriscape, so he has done enough to live a “green” life.

Too many of us only fight the battle of making cars more efficient. And providing xeriscape parking lot landscaping.

We won those battles.

But we lost the war, because we naively congratulated ourselves when we used efficiency and xeriscaping, and ended up with more per capita gas consumption (albeit with people driving 45 mpg cars). We ended up with more people living in sprawl and driving everywhere. People who sanctimoniously tell us they are “green” because they have an efficient Prius and successfully lobbied elected officials to install xeriscape in parking lots.

Let’s put conservation before efficiency, like we say all the time. I’m very eager to do so, and have been pushing for decades that we adopt conservation tools that effectively sprawl reduction and car mileage reduction tactics. I’m much less eager to put efficiency first, as we so often seem to do.

Let’s not start with more efficient cars. I’m not interested in having us rest on our laurels when we have a guy live in sprawl with a Prius, and parking at a place using native landscaping.

Sustainability and “putting conservation first” means that guy is living in the town center. And our not “needing” that parking lot at all.

So this is where much of my frustration comes from. I am so tired of our saying “conservation first, then efficiency,” when all I ever see is “efficiency” efforts and ignoring effect demand destruction tactics.

We’ve been seeing aggressive efficiency efforts for over 40 years. It has been 40 years of brief gains in efficiency, followed by a return to unsustainable consumption when price signals led us to quickly forget about being efficient. We have therefore spent over 40 years failing to see durable gains in demand destruction, because we always seem to put efficiency first, and always seem to forget about effective conservation tactics.

There were at least three major economic events that substantially changed price signals over the past few years: A crash in the value of housing, a big jump in the price of gasoline, and fiscal woes for the nation and the world (largely caused by the most severe recession in several decades).

As an aside, with regard to the recession, it has been pointed out that the most effective way to reduce energy and resource consumption, and related pollution impacts, is to orchestrate (or suffer through) an economic recession. Indeed, there was a dramatic decline in per capita energy use, consumption, and driving in the US in recent years—which clearly illustrated the power of price signals in motivating conservation.

Given these enormous economic influences, we need to be extremely cautious about claiming that non-price incentives (such as building insulation, education campaigns urging folks to shut the lights off or recycle newspapers) are the primary cause of efficiency and conservation gains over the past 3-5 years. Instead, it seems nearly certain that price signals have been the primary cause of such gains when we observe what has happened historically: Several decades of aggressive, non-price education campaigns have only succeeded when we’ve seen big jumps in energy prices or big recession troubles with our economy.

In other words, it is going to take more than our urging people to shut off the lights to see durable, sustainable conservation behavior. Once (or if) the economy ramps up again, it is quite likely that the old, more wasteful behavior will return. Unless long-term price increases in energy and resource consumption are adopted and sustained.

Surely, more energy efficient buildings with, for example, better insulation, can reduce energy consumption in the long run. One needs to ask, though, why so many building owners who have recently installed such conservation measures waited for several decades to install efficiency measures in their buildings? Why were their buildings leaky for so long? Efforts to aggressively promote conservation by shutting off lights and using better building insulation have been in place since at least the Sixties. That is over 40 years of using non-price educational incentives. Why did those tactics not work for 40 years? I strongly suspect that the primary explanation for recent installation of conservation measures in older buildings is that we saw a spike in gasoline prices recently (which has a ripple effect for a great many energy and resource product prices), and, as I mentioned above, we experienced a painful recession/housing value crash.

Those factors caused substantial changes in price signals throughout the nation.

That, in turn, ramped up efforts to conserve and be more efficient (leading, in part, to the first decline in vehicle miles traveled that we have ever seen in the US). Combined with that, we’ve had quite a bit of media hysteria over these energy, resource and economic woes. All of us have therefore been sensitized to conserve and be more efficient as a simple matter of survival.

Note, by the way, that the media attention we’ve been seeing in recent years regarding efficiency and conservation have certainly helped somewhat, but again, I question whether the media will give such attention to these matters in the long term. Given the short attention span of the US media and American citizens, I suspect all this attention will soon fade away if/when the economy recovers and price signals inform us to be more wasteful.

What troubles me is that we may fool ourselves, as I said above, regarding causation. The conservation and efficiency gains we’ve seen over the past 3-5 were almost surely motivated by the price signals generated by the housing crash, the gasoline price spike, and fiscal woes for the overall local/national/international economy. Providing such things as better-insulated buildings and education campaigns to urge people to “shut off the lights” were leveraging these price signals and the resulting media frenzy.

The promotional efforts to get people to conserve have been pushed, again, since the Sixties. They are suddenly effective not because they work better than price signals. They worked, suddenly, because of concurrent changes in price signals (and the short term media attention).

If we desire durable, sustainable conservation and efficiency, we need durable price signals that clearly show us that saving energy and reducing consumption makes financial sense. That means higher gas taxes, carbon taxes, road fees, etc. Such price signals can help us overcome Jevon’s Paradox by masking price reductions that would induce us to consume more. Without those price signals, I don’t believe we’ll see durable improvements in efficiency and conservation. We’ll be back to leaving the lights on and driving SUVs. Back to a media focused on Paris Hilton instead of efficient light bulbs. Back to non-price education campaigns that fail to produce the conservation and efficiency gains we so desperately need.

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Is Education an Effective Way to Modify Behavior?

By Dom Nozzi

I have been shouting this message from rooftops for most of my life, with very little understanding on the part of others to show for it. I continue to hear the vast majority of people make the claim that “education” is an effective way to change behavior.

Nonsense.

Mostly, I hear this utterly naïve claim from political conservatives, and the cynical part of me thinks that they do so because they know “education” will not be an effective way to change unsustainable consumption behavior (behavior that many conservatives support). “Let’s use education to increase conservation.” “Let’s educate to convince people not to destroy valuable wetlands.” “Let’s use education to reduce suburban sprawl.”

Advocacy of “education” as a tactic is equivalent to recommending that nothing be done. Which is why it is plausible that political conservatives like to call for using “education.”

Notice, of course, that conservatives don’t call for “education” when it comes to crime or military action or subsidized parking or robbing banks – in these cases, in is perfectly legitimate to adopt coercive laws and higher prices.

For the vast majority of us, effective behavior change can only come from changes in material conditions – usually, that means change in prices for goods and services we consume, the layout of shops and houses in our community (more compact layouts promote more walking, bicycling, and transit use), street design (more narrow streets with fewer travel lanes promote safer, more livable driving), or adopting laws. If you want gas/electricity consumption to go down, you need to increase the price of gas/electricity. Calling for “educating” people about the merits of reduced gas/electricity consumption is another way of calling for nothing to be done.

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