Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Losing the use of our feet

Fear not: this isn't a post running down the automobile. It's one about how to use them more efficiently. 'Pologies, Mr Berry.

Think about the last time you drove down a major thoroughfare (say, a road with four+ lanes). In the words of "Tommy Boy," you're driving along and you're driving along, and lo, you and eight-ten other cars have to stop suddenly at a stoplit (or a stop signed) intersection to let perhaps one or two cars out onto the thoroughfare. While one or two such stops in a trip might be more or less expected, my suspicion (evinced largely by anecdotal and personal experience) is that numerous such stops are what precipitate road rage and, in general, traffic anxiety. Indeed, city and especially suburban driving can be especially frustrating because of the prevalence of such intersections along widely used roads.

Now, it's clear that such stopping and going introduces a significant inefficiency into travel plans bedeviled by such intersections. To illustrate, consider progress along your car's route in two respects: the route your car actually takes and the route it would take if there were no stoplights or signs or what have you. Call the first route the "actual route," and the second the "ideal route." The degree that your actual route approaches your ideal route (as with most things) might be considered the degree to which your travel is efficient. Thus, the most efficient travel will be that which is least encumbered by stopping, and the most inefficient travel will be that which is most encumbered by stopping.

So, here's the more or less normative claim: at least one responsibility of traffic authority is maximizing travel efficiency. Thus, considered in light of that one responsibility, traffic authorities ought to eliminating as much stopping as possible; or put differently, traffic authorities ought to increase the relative amount of "going."

Given these preliminaries, it's pretty obvious that (at least) stop lights at the intersections of major roads and non-major roads (say, at a four lane road and the entrance to any private business, like a Wal-Mart, Target, or shopping center) are enormously inefficient and represent an abrogation of the traffic authorities responsibilities.

As bad as the inefficiency is, though, there's another way of putting this problem that ought to burn the biscuits of most semi-liberal anti-Wal-Mart types. If people had to wait significant periods of time when leaving their local big box store (or making a left-hand turn in to them, for that matter) the added time might well discourage them from patronizing that establishment. So, people who frequent large shopping centers and other businesses that have such stop lights slowing down traffic are going to be willing to suffer the extra time added to their schedules, because they know that on some future occasion, they'll be the benefactors of the inefficiency. In other words, the inefficiency is a sort of tax they're willing to pay because they know they'll benefit from the tax eventually.

I see two interesting corollaries of that traffic inefficiency tax.
  • First, even a general willingness to pay the tax doesn't reduce the aggregate inefficiency. Now, this is an empirical question that (obviously) I haven't tested. But anecdotally, I submit that very seldom is it the case that the number of people waiting at the minor thoroughfare will outnumber those inconvenienced by the stop at the major thoroughfare. This seems right, for one, because if it were often the case that more people used the minor than major thoroughfare, the minor thoroughfare wouldn't be the minor one; and for two, even when more people are inconvenienced at the minor thoroughfare, we can account for this with sensored traffic lights that detect the number of cars waiting at the minor stop.

  • Second, by supporting these sorts of inefficiencies with our tax dollars, we're usually offering tacit (but definitely effective) public support for the sorts of places where one often finds such stoplights. In my experience, these are usually large shopping locations and housing developments in rural locales. Think about these sorts of housing developments: would wealthy suburbanites so willingly flee the suburbs to more far-flung towns, if they knew their already considerable commutes would often be lengthened considerably by significant waits just trying to get out of their housing developments and onto the road? Many might, but my guess is that at least some wouldn't.
And further along these lines, how often does one notice such lights at the entrances to our more community-oriented and local establishments? By making it more difficult to enter and exit such places (and additionally, by making it easier to enter and exit the competition) our communities make it that much harder for non-ideologues to discover the places about which the rest of us are ideological.

All of that is just to say that there are very small but very effective ways that our communities tend to encourage the sorts behavior that are, themselves, anathema to community. Why make it easier to shop at businesses whose owners (and, often, employees) have no interest in the health of the place? Why make it easier for the same sorts of people to turn our farms into further sprawl? And not only that, free marketeers (read: Republicans) ought to stand in the way of these sorts of measures, since the measures create an artificial demand for living and shopping in these locations.

Do you have experiences like this, or am I preaching to an empty choir here?

Friday, July 2, 2010

I Maintain My Objection to Popular Things

Theodore Dalrymple, besides having a spectacular name, is quite right about soccer (er, football). Towards the end of his entirely reasonable article on snobbery, he sums up my thoughts:
On the subject of football, I am a snob. I do not detest the game as such, for I accept that it can be played with skill and achieve a kind of beauty, but rather the excessive importance attached to it by millions and hundreds of millions of my fellow beings. Try as I might to expunge the thought from my mind that this enthusiasm is a manifestation of human stupidity, I cannot.