Bryan Caplan  

Pick Your Road: The U.S. vs. Europe

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Follow-up Question for Modern ... Ray Kurzweil Watch...

In the U.S., we have low gas taxes, low car taxes, few tolls, strict zoning that leads developers to provide lots of free parking, low speed limits, lots of traffic enforcement, and lots of congestion.

In Europe (France and Germany specifically), they have high gas taxes, high car taxes, lots of tolls, almost no free parking, high speed limits (often none at all), little traffic enforcement, and very little congestion. (The only real traffic jam I endured in Europe was trying to get into Paris during rush hour. I was delayed about 30 minutes total).

If you had to pick one of these two systems, which would you prefer? Or to make the question a little cleaner, if there were two otherwise identical countries, but one had the U.S. system and the other had the Euro system, where would you decide to live?

Much as it pains me to admit, I would choose to live in the country with the Euro system. If you're at least upper-middle class, the convenience is worth the price. Yes, this is another secret way that Europe is better for the rich, and the U.S. for everyone else.


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The author at Market Urbanism in a related article titled Roads: US vs Europe writes:
    Pick Your Road: The U.S. vs. Europe, by Bryan Caplan In the U.S., we have low gas taxes, low car taxes, few tolls, strict zoning that leads developers to provide lots of free parking, low speed limits, lots of traffic enforcement, and lots of congestio... [Tracked on June 3, 2008 11:31 AM]
COMMENTS (25 to date)
kebko writes:

Ironically, while Europe is supposed to be more egalitarian than us, one of the largest obstacles to getting any of those reforms passed in the U.S. is the argument that those fees & taxes would be regressive.

David N. Welton writes:

No congestion my ... left foot. I think you're basing your claim on your recent trip, rather than statistics.

Steve Miller writes:

Bryan is from Southern California, went to college in the Bay Area, went to grad school in New Jersey (commuting from Jersey City to Princeton), and now lives in Fairfax County, Virginia.

I am going to gently suggest that his view of traffic congestion in the U.S. is biased. And I can't believe he's saying there's very little congestion in Europe. I've know several people who've lived in Germany, and they complained endlessly about traffic jams there. I've heard that the French countryside has light traffic... but so does the U.S. countryside.

Market Urbanism writes:

The US socializes and subsidizes automobile transportation, while Europe socializes and penalizes.
I imagine the European systems is closer to resembling a free-market transportation system than the US. But, we'll probably never know for sure...

Dottore writes:

I am not 100% sure if I should buy your different sets of alternatives.

In terms of congestion there is no such thing as "the U.S." or Europe. If your 30 minutes delay in Paris was your only one in Europe you were simply a lucky guy. But I could imagine that there is also a difference between New York City and the middle of Ohio, for example. I guess the same thing is true for traffic enforcement.

Of course, taxes on gas and cars impose costs but that doesn't mean the riches are better of. They have to look at marginal costs and marginal utility like everybody else. So probably Europeans don't spend much more on fuel or their cars but drive smaller and more efficient cars than the Americans. If that corresponds with taste the actual tax burden is even lower.

Where density of population is comparable to the one in Germany, for example, land will be scarce enough that free parking lots probably lose against almost all other competing uses so that the result is no surprise. You won't find much free parking in New York City neither, I guess.

As for the speed limits, I don't think the differences are that fundamental. Of course, in Germany I sometimes can drive as fast as I like, but that's a big exception in Europe and (unfortunately) even in Germany offset by limits for various reasons. The difference in actual "free flow" speed between Europe as a whole and the U.S. IMHO is not worth to mention.

So - what remains? Only one question: Do you like to live in a country with high taxes on gas, cars and else? And all hands go up ;-)

Someone from the otherside writes:

At least in Switzerland, zoning actively RESTRICTS sizes of parking lots and in some places REQUIRES them to charge outrageous fees.

Someone from the otherside writes:

At least in Switzerland, zoning actively RESTRICTS size of parking lots and in some places REQUIRES them to charge outrageous fees.

aaron writes:

We do have high taxes, they're just more arbitrarily applied and have far higher deadweight loss. They're called traffic tickets.

Bryan Caplan writes:
Steve Miller writes:

Bryan is from Southern California, went to college in the Bay Area, went to grad school in New Jersey (commuting from Jersey City to Princeton), and now lives in Fairfax County, Virginia.

I am going to gently suggest that his view of traffic congestion in the U.S. is biased. And I can't believe he's saying there's very little congestion in Europe. I've know several people who've lived in Germany, and they complained endlessly about traffic jams there. I've heard that the French countryside has light traffic... but so does the U.S. countryside.

All fair points, but I'm at least trying to mentally adjust for this. Compare driving on I-95 from DC to NYC to driving on the A4 from Paris to Strasbourg. In both cases, there are a number of mid-size cities in between, but I-95 traffic is quite bad and A4 traffic is very light.

You can say I've got a biased sample of Europe, but I've driven in seven different countries under widely varying conditions. I suspect that Europeans who complain about congestion just don't realize how bad the congestion in the most-populated parts of the U.S. is.

Stephen Smith writes:

In Bucharest at least, the congestion is horrible – far worse than anything I've ever seen in America. The state also subsidizes lots of parking, though not intentionally – people often park on sidewalks and places that aren't designated as parking.

aaron writes:

Though I didn't do the driving, and we didn't drive during traffic, I liked the roads in Italy. Mostly because they were in good condition, lot of 'em, and many more being built.

aaron writes:

I wonder if cogestion inreases during economic downturns due to increased ticketing. In addition to other incentive skewing reasons

superdestroyer writes:

I love how Bryan called Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Jersey mid-sized towns. The problems is that DC to NYC is really just one big city with almost to let ups. It also will cost more than ten dollars in tolls with some of the traffic created by the toll booths.

Bryan is also the ecnonomist who wonders why people to do shop in downtowns anymore. I guess the paying for parking has nothing to do with it.

Kris writes:

Bryan, staying on the same topic, but not just limiting it to car taxes (which I think is the only valid difference, as pointed out by Dottore above); what’s your view on a more general basis - US or Europe?.

I’m Swedish but took my 2 degrees in the UK where I have also spent the last 4 years working, and as most Europeans (first time I call myself that), I have seen most of Europe. On the other hand, I’ve spent 3 summers working in the US (NY, Boston, and New Hampshire), have friends and family there, and have the pleasure of working with very intellectual Americans at one of the big US banks.

I therefore think a have a reasonably strong foundation to stand on when I say that I loathe much of what’s coming out of the US, and I think it boils down to the ignorance I feel the greater mass expresses towards what’s going on outside of the US. Please note here that I’m shooting at the part of the population that’s less educated shall we say, and also towards those who need them to stay that way (read politicians).

I could go on and talk about mentalities, especially US individualism vs. European collectivism, but don’t want to get to bogged down and rather just want to hear if you have a general view on the topic. I should also point out that I don’t think there is such thing as a clear-cut European ideology or mentality, but let’s assume that’s the case.

Jeff writes:

I currently live in Germany, and traffic jams are a big inconvenience, particularly in the Ruhr valley. I was leaving Duesseldorf a few weeks ago and they announced over 20 traffic jams on the radio.

Partly this is due to the fact that the Autobahn is always in repair to maintain its high quality, and partly because Germans seem to have to aversion to more than two lanes.

But to answer your question, I'd probably pick the Euro system.

Krist writes:

Driving Strasbourg to Paris is not comparable to driving DC to NY.
There are only two mid sized cities on the route from Strasbourg to Paris, Reims (pop 200000) and Metz (430000).

Compare that with I-95: Baltimore metro has about 2 million inhabitants, and Philadelpia about 5 million. (And I'm leaving out DC and NY here...) The number of people living in the area served by I-95 is a multiple of that served by the A4, and the cities that the I-95 connects are also substantially larger than those at both ends of the A4. That would explain most of the difference in traffic level. I'd suggest professor Caplan tries driving from Groningen to Brussels the next time he is in Europe...

The other thing you shouldn't forget is that although fuel prices in Europe are much higher than in the states fuel costs aren't that much higher. Driving 500 km on a highway will cost you about 40 Euro in fuel with a mid size European car. With a modern US mid size car doing 30mpg it would cost about 30 Euro. With a SUV it would cost a lot more...

The last thing to mention is that the smart person doesn't drive from Strasbourg to Paris. The smart way to travel is to take the train, which is about twice as fast as driving on that route.

Effing and Blinding writes:

Bryan, come to England and you will see congestion you will not believe.

And I don't mean London. Mid-sized cities like Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Newcastle. And even smaller cities like York or Cambridge (pop around 100,000-ish each, small enough to walk to the edge) are pretty awful in terms of traffic.

Craig writes:

Very little congestion in Europe?

You've not spent much time there. London, for one example, is strangled by traffic. The suburban expressways are at a standstill for hours each day and as for Central London, well, you might have heard about that congestion tax thing?

Sean writes:

Having spent some time in England I certainly find it preferable to the American system. The density of the towns is very striking. As you drive from suburb to suburb in the US it is often difficult to tell where one 'city' ends and the next begins. The high cost of motoring in Europe keeps density high. Public transit is extensive and usable. A car is a middle class convenience, not a basic necessity. The usefulness of transit in Europe means that I don't see it as "better for the rich" - if anything, it's better to not need an old car that could need repairs any moment and is uncomfortable to drive. I'd rather have transit that works than have the worries associated with a cheap automobile.

Rob writes:

I suggest that you spend time on the M25 outside of London and compare that to the DC Beltway or equivalent in the US. In fact, it is hard not to spend time on the M25 once you get on it. The M25 on its best day is still worse than the Beltway. Similarly, crossing the Forth at rush hour is as bad as crossing one of the NY bridges. High gas taxes in the UK do not limit the commuting congestion as you suggested.

Comparing intercity drives with DC-NYC as your US benchmark is not an appropriate comparison. DC-NYC is far from the the rural drive between cities that Paris-Strasbourg is. Even Boston-NYC is a more valid comparison since Boston-NYC is not one giant metroplex like DC-NYC.

Peter Whiteford writes:

You can get from Paris to Strasbourg on the TGV (French for very fast train) in 2hours 20 minutes, and the best deal currently is 15 euros each way. If you have a large family (more than 3 children) it may well be cheaper. I think in calculating which system is better for the rich you need to take account of all the alternatives.

flo writes:

15 Euros for traveling by TGV??? If you book three months in advance maybe

Peter Whiteford writes:

Two weeks (looked at it last night)

Arthur writes:

Maybe the European system is better for the upper-middle class, but it is also better for those who cannot afford a car, or prefer to do without one -- and it would be even better for those Americans who would prefer to save the cost of a car or the inconvenience of a long commute.

What the American system does is subsidize car users with free roads and free parking, not something that an economist would usually recommend.

High gas taxes would also have helped the American economy to adapt in good time to high oil prices (if they had been adopted 10 years ago).

Richard writes:

Are you serious? The congestion in Europe is no better than the US. At least in the US the authorities try to do something about it, for example, in Chicago having patrols to remove breakdowns and accidents quickly. Also in Chicago, they are widening most of the expressways. When was the last time a motorway in the UK was widened?

In Europe there is a lot of enforcement, most of it done automatically by spy cameras. Your 80 year old grandmother can now get a ticket in the mail for going 34 in a 30 limit on the way to church.

That's European egalitarianism! And you can keep it.

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