Cars and guns do kill people, which is why we have redesigned cars and worked to displace them in cities…

One of the more popular memes flying around my pro-gun-loving friends on Facebook that either features Stewie noting that if guns kill people, then spoons make people fat and pencils cause grammar errors. I’ve written before about the connection between human agency and our material lives–e.g., that I suspect that tools and environments do factor into and shape human behavior, including choices. No, I don’t think that spoons make people fat, but it seems pretty clear that a simple choice to over-eat and under-exercise, the judgment levied at we fat people for ages–is also not a particularly good predictor of obesity. It turns out that families, neighborhoods, cultures, and food systems are pretty important supports in health systems. So maybe not spoons, but lots of other things residing very far outside of individual choice, do seem to matter. Turns out, child abuse is a pretty good predictor of obesity. Go figure. Treat a kid like crap and he learns his body isn’t worth loving or caring for. There’s a shocker.

That said, one of the analogies that is absolutely sticking in my craw concerns cars and guns. The old “Cars kill more people than guns, so why don’t we ban them” argument. First, there is a question about whether that is likely to remain true–see here, in the Economist.

And second, even if it is true, the fact that this argument is made tells us a lot about where Americans are in really understanding how our tools affect our lives.

To wit: we have long known that cars kill people and are, in general, not good for us, even as they provide copies mobility. As a result, we’ve worked and worked and worked on making cars much safer, and we have worked and worked and spent and spent and spent trying to get people to use them less! And while those on the left are likely to credit stricter standards and regulation with improving safety, those standards and regulations have come about not because government is looking after us, but because the insurance industry has skin in the game of crash deaths and injuries. They have been a very vocal lobby for enhanced vehicle safety.

If we had spent the time and the resources making guns safer as we have done with cars, guns might be safer. But it’s not like we haven’t spent any time and resources on guns: we have plenty of new technologies on firearms–in order to make them more effective.

Which is where every analogy breaks down, in the teleology. Cars are for mobility; injury and deaths are a side-effect. Pencils are for writing, and grammar problems are side-effect. Spoons are for eating, and perhaps over-eating and obesity is a side effect.

But the whole point of guns the telos–is to injure and kill, or at least threaten to injure and kill, for some other end: robbing, protecting, what have you. I doubt empirical evidence will ever convince gun-lovers that they and their family are probably not the exception to the statistics: they feel safer with guns, they want them, and there’s no reasoning around preferences. These folks think they are the exception, they are the exception, they are the exception: there was that one guy that one time who used his gun to stop a violent crime, and the media just didn’t cover it, because liberal media bias, and I’m competent like that one guy, not like the 100s of people who shoot themselves in the butt at Walmart.

I have long argued that we need to dispense with “car insurance” and “home insurance” and just require “personal liability and damage insurance.” If you, Bob, want to own a house and gun and drive a car, then insurance companies will figure what it takes to insure you, and you get to figure out if that is worth the costs. If you, Billy, want to ride a bike with no gun and live in a condo, then insurers will figure that out, too. That way, if the gun owner shoots his ass off in Walmart, well, then it’s on his insurance and not on health insurance to pay for it. If Billy the Bike Rider rides like an asshole and runs over some little old lady and breaks her hip, he’s on the hook exactly the same way he would be if he had driven a car and done the same injury.

THEN we would see real interventions into the gun market because insurance companies would have skin in the game, there, too, and there would be lots of incentives to have people sign up for classes on safety and other things that might help reduce the social costs.

Obama’s new CAFE Standards as a tax break

Eagle-eyed reader Don C referred me to this nice Op-Ed from the Ready for an Obama Tax Break: TxDOT might not be by Ben Wear. The key point:

Hang on first for some math.

Let’s say a Pflugerville physics schoolteacher drives 15,000 miles a year and, by coincidence, has a car that averages right at that 28 mpg existing standard. She would need 536 gallons to do that.

She pays both a state gasoline tax of 20 cents a gallon (which hasn’t increased since 1991) and a federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon (locked in since 1993). So her annual tax hit (paid invisibly at the pump) is $107 to the state and almost $99 to the feds. So, about $206 a year.

With a 56 mpg car, her total tax would be $103. Oh, and at $3.40 a gallon (and subtracting the gas taxes), she would save another $800 by buying half as much gasoline.

But here’s the problem, from a statewide perspective. TxDOT, which gets about three-quarters of that state gas tax revenue and about the same percentage of what Texans pay in federal gas taxes (because a quarter of it, unfairly in the eyes of Texas officials, is then distributed to other states), would lose a couple of billion dollars a year. Ouch.

I had to look up Pflugerville.

Finance folks in transport have seen this train coming for some time. The GAO issued a report in 2009 discussing the issue of improved fleet fuel economy on Federal coffers. Most of us have argued we should go with a mileage fee, or usage subscriptions for autos. Both of which could be handled by leases to private companies.

A primer on CAFE standards and “Better Than Nothing” Policies

My brilliant colleague, Richard Green, an economist, is acting like an economist about CAFE standards over on his blog. I have a retort, though an addled one. Peter Gordon, another brilliant and genteel colleague of mine, has also weighed in. Economists agree: a carbon tax is the way to go.

CAFE stands for Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. It’s one of those regulations that people tend not to understand terribly well because the rules are complicated. Here’s a nice overview by NHTSA.

President Obama, like just about everybody else for the past 20 years, wants to raise CAFE standards. For passenger vehicles, Obama wants to go from 25 mph to 39 mph by 2016 (that gives us 5 years to get there).

The rules pertain to a harmonic mean fuel economy of the fleet of cars that a manufacturer produces in a given model year. During the SUV craze (which doesn’t seem to be over if west-side Los Angeles is any indicator), US manufacturers could cash in on gas guzzling SUVs because they were not really considered passenger cars (defined by a weight of 8,500 pounds). The original limit was intended to keep farm and industrial equipment exempt from regulation, such as medium-duty trucks used by farmers and contractors. The wrangling over getting a set of light-duty truck fuel standards (for urban SUVs, used almost exclusively as commuting vehicles) took us a decade, and the damage was done. SUVs not subject to the standards have already penetrated the US fleet, where they will stay on average for 7 to 12 years. We have to make sure those glitches are gone if any revamped regulation–at all–is to be effective in raising fuel economy.

The penalties for CAFE noncompliance have also not risen concomitant with inflation. BMW and Mercedes famously have paid CAFE fines just about every year from 1983 to just recently (2008, largely because of the recession affecting their US sales). Right now, I believe manufacturers have to pay $55 for each vehicle they sell per each 1 mpg below their fleet target. Those types of penalties can be relatively small, and for luxury importers like BMW and Mercedes, they can easily pass those costs along to their buyers.

Automakers can get thus around the law–that’s a problem. And in addition, some economists have argued that by forcing fuel economy, cars became less safe than otherwise:

Lave, Charles and Lester Lave, “Fuel Economy and Auto Safety Regulation: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?” Pages 257-290 in Essays in Transportation Economics and Policy: A Handbook in Honor of John R. Meyer, edited by Jose Gomez-Ibanez, William B. Tye, and Cliffor Winston, Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1999.

(aka one of my favorite transportation books of all time).

The argument: cars had to get lighter and thus they got less crash-safe.

As a result, CAFE has few friends other than environmentalists, and many environmentalists I think have stopped advocating around car technology in favor of advocating for Smart Growth or the New Urbanism. After all, raising fuel economy just makes cars less expensive to use, and that flies in the face of the ideas behind these two urban models.

So here are my problems, in a set of bullet points:

1) Yes, absolutely, a carbon tax or simple higher petrol taxes would accomplish the same thing as revamped CAFE standards, and at lower cost. However, I don’t see how a tax would avoid the same safety issues that Lave and Lave (1999) talked about. The basic engineering principles mean you go lighter if you want to use less fuel; we don’t have any strap-on technologies analogous to the carburetor in 1980s or fuel injection that we can turn to. The alternative would be more hybrids, which are also lighter.**

2) Tax aversion pretty much seems to be controlling the world of US policy right now. I’m told that any and all taxes, even ones that would be good for us like most Pigouvian taxes, are off the table, forever and ever, amen.

3) So that means we are left with fuel economy regulation or…nothing?

4) Nothing may have fairly steep consequences. By far—BY FAR–the most effective thing we could for climate change emissions reduction in transportation is improving the fuel economy of the passenger fleet on the road for the next 20 years. Not even in analyses written by the most religious New Urbanist/Smart Growthy people can fudge the fact that most substantial, most immediate gains to be had in climate policy come from changing fuel economy as VMT changes marginally in response to built environment changes, and those built environment changes are happening slowly–even more slowly now that the recession has become permanent.

5) So, yes, it’s costlier and more convoluted to regulate cars via CAFE, but if it’s the only game in town, the additional costs associated with raising the fuel economy of the fleet becomes the price tag of tax aversion—not the fault of the second-best policy. It’s a legitimate democratic choice for voters to prefer to avoid taxation in favor of a costlier strategy. We can’t blame the costlier strategy for being costlier if the optimum isn’t the optimum according to voter preferences. I didn’t make up these rules: but Americans would rather pay more overall for fuel economy changes than pay taxes, well, that is what it is.

This “better than nothing” is the argument made to me for years about congestion pricing. Voters hate it; we aren’t going to do it. So we’re going to build lots of trains to alleviate congestion, and those trains will, in turn, be underused because we’re not pricing autos properly. But building and running half-empty trains is a “better than nothing” policy.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But it’s a debate worth having.

**See comments for Gabriel Rossman’s referral to the Continuous Variable Transmission technology, which would allow for fuel economy improvements without going lighter. (I still wonder, though, because the models where the CVT has been employed aren’t taking us up the economy notches that a harmonic average of 39 would need to go–the Cube, the Maxima, etc. Remember that this is a harmonic average. You have a number of ways of achieving it, and one of the most expedient is chopping off your lower tail of the distribution of models you are producing.)

Hilter rants about Carmageddon

For reasons beyond me, the New York Times and other national news outlets appear to be interested in Carmageddon, which is what we here Los Angelenos have dubbed the plan to close the 405 (aka the San Diego) freeway for two days.

This is the part of the 405 that is being closed, lest you think all the hysteria is somehow justified:

Voila Capture85

But then, west LA is the center of the world.

The Fifth District is represented by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Before anybody snorts that county politics are uninteresting, let me point out that County Supervisors in Los Angeles County determine services and policy for over 9 million people–more than many US governors. Yaroslavsky’s office created a list of 53 things families can do to avoid the mishagosh.

Finally,here’s a little mashup worth watching, sent to me by one of my brilliant colleagues (who shall go unnamed due to the massive use of the F-word here; be warned). It’s Hitler’s staff breaking the news that the 405 is going to be closed:

LA Will Lead in Electric Vehicle Sales?

UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation has a nice report out that is getting some press: LA is expected to be a leader in electric vehicle sales.

Here’s a quote from the KCET story:

What does that mean in actual numbers? In 2015, a 9% market share of new car sales is estimated to be 30,000, with a total of some 230,000 purchased through 2020. Those numbers sharply contrast sales this year. “The analysis predicts just over 2,000 electric vehicles will be sold in Los Angeles in 2011,” explained Luskin Center director J.R. DeShazo. “This number is due to the limited supply of electric vehicles; even if more residents are inclined to purchase them, it just isn’t possible right now.”

I’m sure the Luskin folks are right about LA being an early adoption area, but the long-term trends for energy costs in California are not cheap for any energy supply, electricity included. I wish I knew more about the grid in California, but I wonder how the infrastructure is really going to manage all the charging, even if it is happening off-peak. But I may be completely wrong here–I need to learn more about the basics of energy production in the state.

As one of my brilliant PhD students says, with an EV you are polluting residents of nearby states. Of course, you’re doing the same with your ICE vehicle (emissions can transport across large geographies).

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

In which epidemiologists tell us what we already knew

I’m on the editorial board of Transportation Research Part A, and it’s an excellent journal by any measure. But one article this morning seemed so promising, and then rather failed to deliver:

Graham-Rowe, E., Skippon, S., Gardner, B. & Abraham, C., 2011, Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence, Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

Great, right? Another review, and we probably needed another review after this inappropriately optimistic one appeared in JAPA last year:

Ewing, R. & Cervero, R., 2010, Travel and the built environment, Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(3).

The latter review was problematic because it summarized the evidence and then concluded “Yes, well, all the empirical evidence shows small effect and insignificant effect sizes, but we still think our interventions work under the right conditions.”

There comes a point where you have to wonder if those right conditions are feasible if the research can’t find them time and time again.

However, Graham-Rowe sort studies according to quality, stating what’s obvious to everybody: there aren’t enough randomized trials in applied social science research.

Gee, ya think?

There’s a reason why the high quality studies are looking at program evaluations and why the cross-sectional studies look at before and after projects. Unlike medical and psychological research, researchers in my world don’t get to randomly select controls for anything other than programs, and often not even then because there are practical problems with employers or city governments allowing some employees or residents–but not others–to participate in a program that carries a benefit, like being paid not to drive.

So undeniably, we’d have better research if I could select random samples and controls for selected interventions, use our godlike hands to pick drivers up by their heads, place them in case-control groups according to intervention versus non-intervention environments or programs, and make them live there/participate as long as we wanted them to. Unfortunately, doing that sort of thing in societies where human beings have freedom of movement and self determination tends to be frowned on.

The takeaway–AGAIN–is that self-selection and endogeniety go hand and hand. Gargh.

I don’t see a path out of this cycle of research-critique. We’ve hit a stalemate. People who are advocates of particular position–that mixed land uses and transit supply reduce auto use–are like Fox Mulder: “I want to believe.”

Social scientists can try to tinker on the margins of what we have, with instrumental variables and various econometric contraptions strapped on to different datasets, but there’s no way around the residential self-selection problems here.

We can publish critique after critique, and perhaps that’s useful, but I don’t see how. We know where we are with this research–and we also know that planning, policy, and forecasts are thundering ahead with the “I want to believe” attitude. The alternatives to believing aren’t particularly attractive, either.