Scott Sumner  

Matt Yglesias on environmental impact regulations

Down With Public Goods... Not So Hard to Argue...

Why was the proposed wind farm not built off the coast of Cape Cod? It was stopped by "environmentalists". Why don't we have high speed rail up and down the northeast corridor? "Environmentalists" won't allow it. Of course the real environmentalists support Cape Cod wind farms and high speed rail. But people who worry that these projects with spoil the view from their expensive homes can use environmental regulations to stop the projects.

Here's a Matt Yglesias post discussing why it so hard to get bike lanes built:

That's right -- taking a modest amount of space away from gasoline-burning cars and giving it to bicycles requires a one- or two-year environmental review process.

There are a lot of ins and outs about why that is exactly, but at a high level the issue is that environmental impact review requirements were written with the general spirit of "Let's worry about someone proposing to do something bad." Yet it turns out the exact same process that makes it cumbersome to do something bad also makes it cumbersome to do something good. And at a time when status quo transportation infrastructure is heavily tilted toward moving private automobiles and filling them with gasoline, that bias toward inaction can be very environmentally destructive.

In an earlier post entitled "Machete" I quoted from a trailer for the film of the same name:

If you hire him to take out the bad guys, make sure the bad guys aren't you!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Kevin Erdmann writes:

The idea that bike lanes are an environmental issue is only true to the extent that the extremely high death rate per mile traveled accelerates depopulation.

In Phoenix, at least, it would make about as much sense to encourage people to swim to work in the canals. And if the canals were infested with crocodiles, it would probably still be as good of an idea.

Lewis writes:

I work in this field. What is worse is that these environmental reviews are composed of junk science: estimates of things which cannot be estimated, made by urban planning consultants or "environmental engineers" without much training in statistics or even any particular reason to do a good job. There is a cottage industry producing these reports, but it is not of the fault of the people in that industry. The problem is that the requirements are only fit for an absurdly simple world: you'll have to estimate the job creation of building a bike lane, or the diversion of car traffic, or CO2 emissions. It simply makes no sense to estimate such effects at such a small level. There is no global "model of the world" to plug numbers into.
This is why I support federal action like subsidies for solar and carbon taxes. At a high level, it is possible to estimate america's fossil fuel consumption and seek to reduce it by altering big prices of materials that people use in countless ways. But these environmental studies are just junk exercises full of junk data that no one ever reads except if they have already made up their minds to overturn them.

Scott Sumner writes:

Kevin, I'd guess that bike lanes work better in some areas than others. Phoenix doesn't seem very promising.

Lewis. Great comment.

Levi Russell writes:

Regulation in general has a massively negative effect on GDP, productivity, capital, and labor.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

Sure, but my point is that advocates don't seem to be able to make these distinctions. And, if you arrange your lifestyle so that you can, say, bike to work every day, then that change has done most of the work, not the hassle of biking. In other words, living 4 miles from your office instead of 40 miles from your office makes a big difference. The move saved 36 miles of driving. All the trouble of biking saved 4 miles. Biking is not a substitute for driving.

The same issues that Lewis brings up are not just a part of the review process. They are part of the decision of what we are trying to accomplish. If outrageous review processes prevent the California light rail from proceeding, that will be a net gain for California in terms of net value.

john hare writes:

Actually bike expressways could be a substitute for driving. Enclosed bikeways with a 10 mph powered tailwind would allow people to average 25 mph and be out of the weather. Wind resistance is 80% of effort. Epass billed to the riders house could pay for it.

Powered tailwind can easily be distributed wind power. And during rush hour, every rider is a self powered fan blade creating a draft for the rest. Most fairly healthy people can easily do 35 mph if they have a 30 mph tailwind.

The various health benefits are known. There would also be a financial benefit of less car payments and upkeep. More parking spaces downtown. Independent transportation on demand for those with no drivers license.

ThomasH writes:

Consideration of externalities should be part of any cost-benefit analysis of a public investment or proposed regulation that economists conduct. It should not be a separate exercise. Of course considering externalities as opposed to ignoring them will inevitably mean a longer and more costly process, but that is as it should be.

Scott Sumner writes:

Kevin, I agree about light rail, and would add high speed rail as another boondoggle.

John, That's an intriguing idea that I had never heard before. I used to do a lot of "drafting" when I was a bicyclist, and I agree how important headwinds are.

Ak Mike writes:

Kevin - why so down on biking to work? It's a perfectly reasonable substitute for driving in many cases. Maybe Phoenix is pretty hot for four or five months of the year, but I bet it's quite pleasant to bike there for six or seven months. And it's not terribly dangerous - The Census Bureau estimated about 880,000 bicycle commuters in 2013, versus total bicycle deaths of 734, most of whom were probably not commuters.

The well developed network of bike paths here in Anchorage made it easy to decide to bike to work (and I did not have to move, or otherwise "arrange my lifestyle"), even in the winter sometimes. Bicycle infrastructure can without a doubt increase the extent and the safety of biking.

Kevin Erdmann writes:

In a city like San Francisco or New York, sure. But, in a city like Phoenix, I am very doubtful that the benefits are worth the opportunity costs of the work it would take to make it safe. I know of a couple friends of friends who have died here commuting by bike. It looks like bikes are 4-10 times more deadly per mile than cars for their passengers. Probably still a low number relative to non-accidents.

I was hit by a car as a teenager, on the way to school. I was basically ok, but maybe I have subconscious anger issues. :-)

My point above was that bikes aren't substitutes for cars, so selling bike infrastructure as a carbon strategy is unconvincing to me. I walk to my mailbox. I suppose I could drive there, but that's not what cars are for. Bikes are a less extreme comparison, because there is some overlap where the alternative to a bike would be driving. But, in modern suburban areas like Phoenix, everything is built around hopping in your car and driving 10 or 15 miles or more down the road.

I'm sure that if you enjoy bike commuting, you appreciate useful infrastructure. But I doubt that advocates that push the infrastructure necessary to make it safer fully account for all the costs, especially considering the small number of total commuter miles possible compared to driving. I expect a lot of opportunity costs aren't accounted for because advocacy groups see making cities less convenient for cars as a plus, not a minus.

What would you say is the range for bike commuting?

Hazel Meade writes:

Yet it turns out the exact same process that makes it cumbersome to do something bad also makes it cumbersome to do something good.

You don't say?

One might also ask Yglesias whether he expects the government to pre-judge which projects are "good" and which are "bad".

Hazel Meade writes:

Lewis - Too true. I think you just blurted out one of those socially unsayable things that everyone secretly knows. Environmental reviews exist almost entirely for the purpose of hampering development. The idea that anyone seriously cases about the actual environmental impact is a farce. That there's a cottage industry producing them simply acts as a subsidy so all the young activists who got their degrees in environmental sciences can work for someone other than oil and gas companies.

And now, of course here we have Yglesias making the precise complaint that this silly process his own people invented specifically to hamper development is hampering the kind of development he likes. Don't people know that this sort of regulatory harassment is only supposed to be used against the other side????

Mark Bahner writes:
Kevin, I agree about light rail, and would add high speed rail as another boondoggle.

The problem with any environmental review--or any analysis--of a system that's going to be in place for a long time (e.g., high speed rail) is that it's so tough to predict...especially the future.

My prediction is that in 20-30 years, the average speed of at least one lane of every interstate is going to be over 100 mph due to computer-driven vehicles). Also, if you've got a pretty-full computer-driven bus, you're probably getting reasonably close to passenger-miles-per-gallon of a train. So that makes the high-speed rail potentially a lot less worthwhile.

On the other hand, computer-driven cars will also mean that the "last mile" problem is solved, so people who take a high-speed train don't get stranded at their destination without a means to get around.

But all in all, I think computer-driven vehicles will be a blow to high-speed rail. But then again, it's hard to predict.

Mark Brophy writes:

Phoenix is a terrible place for cycling but the rich adjacent cities of Scottsdale and Tempe are much better. Adding bike lanes there encourages people to exercise even if the environmental benefits are small.

Ak Mike writes:

Kevin - thanks for your thoughtful reply. I've been commuting by bike off and on for about 25 years and not had any accidents nor known anyone who has, although of course I read about it in the papers. Bikes no doubt have more accidents per mile, but that could still mean fewer per hour.

Bike commuting is a major means of getting to work in a number of European countries, and could be much bigger here if the facilities - extremely inexpensive compared to roads - were expanded. For normal people I think a 10 mile radius is a reasonable commuting range - that would be around 45 - 50 minutes - even in Phoenix. That would certainly exclude a lot of commuters, but a 10 mile radius around the workplace includes more than 300 square miles, which should also include a lot of workers. 50 minutes is a longish commute, of course, but biking is much more pleasant than driving, and you are getting your daily exercise in at the same time.

MG writes:

I recall reading (and it may have been in this site) that the energy budget associated with producing and delivering the quantity of food calories required to fuel the typical bike ride exceeds that of many other forms of transport. I don't recall if this also accounted for a biker's increased CO2 emissions.

So, is biking mostly justifiable as a form of exercise? If so, subsidizing overeating could help justify subsidizing more biking.

ThomasH writes:

To the extent that the environmental aspects of project cost benefit analyses examine non-externalities such as job creation they need to be revised by the same entity that created them. Concerning CO2 emissions effects of something like a bike lane there ought to be “de minimus” provisions, although in this case the costly part is estimating the effects of the lane on automobile use, which needs to be done in any case. Plugging in the CO2 emission effects of the change in use ought to be pretty easy.

@ Helen Meade

And now, of course here we have Yglesias making the precise complaint that this silly process his own people invented specifically to hamper development is hampering the kind of development he likes. Don't people know that this sort of regulatory harassment is only supposed to be used against the other side????
In what sense is the creation of environmental regulation that may be uneconomically restrictive in some cases (and uneconomically lax in others) the responsibility of Matt Yglesias’s “people” any more than they are the responsibility of Helen Mead’s “people” or voters in general? Policy making, unlike electoral politics, is not a team sport that has "sides."
Jeff writes:

If you bike to work, you also need a place to shower and change clothes once you get there. Especially in a place like DC.

The cynic in me thinks the real purpose of local environmental reviews is the same as the purpose of zoning and other local regulations: to generate campaign contributions and bribes for local officials.

It's the same reason why there's a big push for tax reform every few decades: to clean out all the special favors done for contributors so they can be sold all over again.

Public choice: it's the law.

Fred Anderson writes:

I live in Pittsburgh, where a substantial program of converting auto lanes to bike lanes has recently been implemented.
Because of its topography, Pittsburgh probably has more bridges per capita than any other major city in North America. These, of course, are natural choke points in the transportation network, and restricting car lanes on select bridges to make room for bike lanes has arguably aggravated that choking.
A predictable reaction is a growing hostility among drivers (probably 90%+ of our commuters) towards bikers (probably well under 10% max.) Even our predictably liberal newspaper is starting to write articles about the "nobody uses them" fiasco.

Ak Mike writes:

MG - no, people who exercise don't eat more. No, the CO2 exhaled to push a 180 pound person/bike combo does not equal the CO2 emitted from an engine pushing a 2 ton automobile. I'm no greenie, but please don't use nonsensical arguments.

Jeff - no, you don't need shower facilities unless you treat your commute like a grueling training session. You can change in the bathroom, no big deal.

If we have to utilize centrally planned roads and streets - and for the present, we do - there is a reasonable role for bicycle facilities in such planned transportation corridors.

John Thacker writes:

The interesting thing about the environmental review process (setup by NEPA in the wake of concerns about the Interstate Highway System) is that it's not the final text of the review that really kills projects. It's very easy on megaprojects to get the "right" answer in the report for the preferred alternative. What kills the projects is simply the amount of time and effort required to do the EIS.

Floccina writes:
Of course the real environmentalists support Cape Cod wind farms and high speed rail.

That is debatable.

City diesel buses and electric trolley buses are both mildly worse than the car in energy efficiency. Light rail systems are also slightly worse, on average, though it varies a lot from city to city. Commuter rail and subway (heavy rail) trains tend to be a bit better, but not a lot better.

Floccina writes:

Addendum. It is surprisingly difficult to figure out what has less environmental impact. Replacing many programs with pollution and co2 taxes would help.

For example according to this MIT study CAFE coast 6x as much as a CO2 tax for unit of CO2 avoided. The price system is a marvelous thing! We should us it to advance the goal of a clean environment.

Mark writes:

Whatever their original intent the current primary purpose of both environmental impact reviews and environmental permitting processes is the delaying or preventing of things from happening. The difference is that EIR is a more intellectually bankrupt process since, as pointed out above, those doing them just make stuff up since no one can really predict long-term impacts.

It always amuses me when those who advocate for complex bureaucratic processes then complain about the results when their "good" projects don't happen or are delayed. I particularly like it when they complain about how in the 1930s we could build dams and big stuff but can't anymore.

Oh, and let's speak the truth about bike lanes in most American cities and towns; people don't use them (or use them in meaningful numbers). They mostly serve as chokepoints and irritants for drivers and add to their confusion as they try to obey the rules of the road. The advocates are confusing what they think people should do with what they actually choose to do. And, by the way, I used to be an avid bike rider - I like bike lanes but find it hard to justify them in most places from a public policy perspective.

maynardGkeynes writes:

My vote would be no bikes at all on heavily trafficked roads, but if we are going to allow bikes, bike lanes strike me as clearly safer and less disruptive to vehicular traffic.

Jeff writes:

@Ak Mike,

Depends where you live. In DC many mornings feature 80 plus degrees and 90 percent plus humidity. Merely twitching your finger is enough to make you sweat. A lot.

I had a folding bike years ago that I used to take on the Metro, then ride the bike to work. I could only do it about half of the year, the rest of the time it was just too hot.

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