Lawrence Solomon: Fill ‘er up, with people

(January 16, 2014) Traffic congestion would disappear if the government regulations that cause it were abolished.

By Lawrence Solomon, published by the National Post on January 16, 2014

Lawrence Solomon: Taxicab regulation, to the extent it’s needed at all, should be done at the provincial level to let cabs operate freely and fully across city boundaries. Steve McKinley for National Post.

Lawrence Solomon: Taxicab regulation, to the extent it’s needed at all, should be done at the provincial level to let cabs operate freely and fully across city boundaries. Steve McKinley for National Post.

Rather than being congested from overuse, our roads are congested from underuse: Too many cars run mostly empty. Too many buses run mostly empty. Too many taxis roam mostly empty.

Too many trucks used to make return trips empty but we solved that problem, mainly by ripping up government regulations that prevented trucks from picking up return loads after a delivery to a different jurisdiction, just as taxicabs can’t pick up new fares outside the cities they’re licensed in. Now, with trucks carrying full loads in both directions, empty trucks less often congest our roads.

We can curb other traffic stoppers by ripping up other nonsensical regulations, starting with those limiting our use of taxicabs. Taxicab regulation, to the extent it’s needed at all, should be done at the provincial level to let cabs operate freely and fully across city boundaries. Cabs would operate more fully still by ripping up other regulations, such as those banning the sharing of cabs by unrelated passengers travelling along complimentary routes. Private sector services such as New York City-based CabCorner.com operate in numerous cities around the world, eliminating needless trips — particularly at rush hour, when cabs are often hard to find — by letting two, three or more people share a cab, and the expense.

Through such shared cabs, according to one estimate, existing cab fleets could serve up to four times as many cab commuters at a fraction of the normal cab fare and without the need for cities to invest in extra transportation infrastructure. The cab-sharing concept is so sensible that Environment Canada is trying to encourage Canada’s local municipalities to ease up on their cab regulations. In some places, private automobiles act as cabs, using similar cab-sharing software to pick up passengers on what would otherwise be a solitary journey.

Cab sharing could go further, too, by ripping up still more regulations — those that prevent cabs from operating along regular routes, picking up and dropping off passengers as do buses. In some cases, such routes would operate only during rush hour — say, between a working class neighbourhood and the factory door at the beginning and end of the day, each cab displacing several private automobiles that might otherwise be on the road. In other cases scheduled cabs might replace large, near-empty city buses that would otherwise clog up roads. Those big buses would be put to better use on busier routes, where they could attract grateful, paying customers.

Toronto’s history provides an example of what happens when public transit operations aren’t determined by the need to satisfy paying passengers. Before Toronto’s suburbs joined the City of Toronto in 1954 to create Metropolitan Toronto, all of the City of Toronto bus routes were run on a businesslike basis. They were profitable, providing frequent, reliable service and attracting customers. The suburban routes, in contrast, had too little traffic to justify frequent service.

After Metro’s creation, service changed in both city and suburbs as Metro’s suburban politicians demanded more frequent service for their constituents. To meet the politicians’ demands, many city buses were pulled from city routes to service the suburbs, starving city routes and leading city passengers to switch to the automobile. Before long, virtually all the bus routes in the city as well as the suburbs became money losers, creating a vicious circle of fare increases and disgruntled passengers — and creating more car drivers than would otherwise be the case.

Removing counterproductive regulations would add people to cabs and buses, subtracting drivers of private automobiles from the road — a benefit to the remaining car drivers, who would drive in less congestion, and to society as a whole. But society would do even better by minimizing all vehicular trips, something easily accomplished by ripping up a few more regulations and maybe laws, too — those that punish people who live downtown, near the office towers that employ tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of workers.

Because so many people like to live downtown, close not only to work but also to restaurants, clubs, and amenities of all kinds, property values and thus rents are naturally high there — that’s the market at work. Governments then drive those high rents sky-high by slapping on higher property taxes than apply in less expensive, lower density areas.

That’s not the market at work. Higher density areas, because they have less length of street, sidewalk and utilities to provide per property owner, cost less to service, an efficiency that cities should encourage. But instead of downtown residents seeing lower costs for city services, helping to offset the differential between living downtown and in other, less pricey neighbourhoods, the tax system exacerbates downtown living costs, making downtown living unaffordable for many. By reducing the property tax’s perverse effect — for example, by shifting to user fees that better align costs and benefits — many more people would live downtown, often making their commutes short, often even walkable.

Ripping up zoning regulations would also lead more people to live downtown. Cities typically dictate which streets — sometimes even which lots within streets — can be used for commercial purposes and which for residential, effectively barring much of the downtown for residential purposes. Letting property owners convert downtown office buildings to condominiums, if they wish, would create more opportunities for people to live near their work. Ripping up zoning regulations that enforce homogeneity in other city districts would have the same effect. As public opinion polls repeatedly show, people want to live close to their place of employment — they accept long commutes only grudgingly, not realizing that it is the government, not free-market real estate prices, that forces them to compromise on their living decisions.

In some cities, these removals of regulations would entirely eliminate traffic congestion; in others, merely relieve it. In all cities, these removals would enhance quality of life, at no cost to taxpayers. We have plenty of roads, plenty of public transit vehicles. We lack only the wherewithal to use them efficiently.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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