I recently attended a neighborhood meeting during which a woman said (paraphrasing from memory) “we should assume that every single college student that comes to Provo will bring a car. Period.”
The woman’s point was that there is nothing anyone could do to stem the tide of cars coming into the city. Therefore, the reasoning goes, the city needs to ensure that there is a place for all these people to put their cars.
Though the woman’s statement was framed in terms of a college town conflict, it’s fairly indicative of larger attitudes toward car usage: city growth means more cars, which require more parking and bigger roads. It’s inevitable.
Or not. In reality there are fairly easy ways to control and reduce the number of cars.
Take for example, China’s recent decision to temporarily lift tolls on roads. Via UrbanPhoto, I discovered an article from The Telegraph reporting that when China’s roads suddenly became free they immediately suffered from colossal gridlock.
Travelling the 190 miles or so from Shanghai to Nanjing took ten-and-a-half hours, the Shanghai Morning Post reported. Meanwhile, in the southern city of Guangzhou, the queues at toll gates saw cars moving just half-a-mile an hour.
Normally a 788-mile journey from Beijing to Shanghai costs around 600 yuan (£60), while the 500-mile trip to Dalian, on the coast, costs 380 yuan, significantly more than the price of a train ticket.
Li Daokui, one of China’s most prominent economists and a policy adviser to the Central Bank, said the snarl-up was entirely predictable.
The idea here is that if you have a resource that’s in demand and you make it free, everyone will consume it.
However, the inverse is also true: to reduce usage of something — parking, for example, or streets themselves — the cost needs to go up. In cities like Provo, where there is abundant free parking and streets, that simply means charging more for a place to put or drive car.
As is the case in China, rising and falling costs would have a direct impact on the kind and quantity of needed infrastructure. When the price for driving goes back up in China, fewer people will drive.
The same is true in any city and it’s surprising that more cities don’t look at the economics of the situation, rather than trying to supply a demand that is itself induced by supply. In other words, the number of cars on the road will increase indefinitely if communities don’t create economic disincentives for using those cars.