Controlling the Number of Cars

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.

People in Provo would like fewer college students to bring cars, but sometimes assume that’s impossible. People in communities all over wish there were fewer cars and less traffic. In reality, however, there are clear economic means for communities to control the number of cars on the road and in parking lots.

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.

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6 Comments

Filed under BYU, Development, driving, economics, parking

6 responses to “Controlling the Number of Cars

  1. Philip

    The cost of owning and operating a car is enough of a disincentive for me not to own one. Luckily, living close to the grocery store and transit (to get to UVU and work) means I don’t need one right now.

    I wonder how many college students have cars that are “subsidized” by parents. It seems like if parents knew the kids could get around Provo without a car, that they might be less inclined to provide one.

    • Probably most are. The car I had as a student was actually my parents’, registered in their names and with out of state plates. It broke down after I graduated and only then (after thinking long and hard about the costs) did I buy my own car and get Utah plates.
      Maybe the DMV could be stricter about using a car in Utah that is registered in another state? My understanding is that students don’t need Utah plates. I’m confident that if I needed Utah plates (and maybe legal ownership of the car) to drive it here, I wouldn’t have had a car.

      • Philip

        Great points.
        I seem to remember as a full-time student that I kept my out-of-state drivers license. I wasn’t driving at the time, but I believe the DMV does require drivers to get Utah plates/license within some time period of moving to the state. Maybe students are exempted? I don’t see why they should be, unless there is some exemption for part-year residents.

  2. This is why I think the Joaquin parking permit program would’ve been great.

    The City of Chicago and surrounding suburbs require residents to buy “city stickers” that you stick on your front windshield. You need a new one every year and they cost upwards of $100. For most people that’s not much, but for a student that could be enough to leave their car at home. I don’t know if other cities do that, but it’s an example of something that could benefit Provo.

    One thing that I find unfair is that the city requires you to permit your bike (for $1 only; I’m not complaining about having to pay and I appreciate the benefits of bike registration), but doesn’t require anything for cars.

  3. drew

    The only economic incentive that will do the trick is the price of gas.

    Subsidizing the oil industry has to stop. If you take a look at the biggest companies in the world (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/global500/2012/full_list/) they are nearly all oil companies! There is literally no reason to keep the price of gasoline artificially low and for taxpayers to pay off these companies that effectively already own the world… except that they also own the political system and the politicians, which allows them to bend the laws to divert our money toward subsidizing them.

    All of which keeps engines running and wheels turning, and road rage rages on.

  4. Pingback: Even Free Parking Isn’t Free | (pro(vo)cation)

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