Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Environmental double-speak

Alberta premier Ed Stelmach, who bowed out of this week's
climate change summit of premiers, need not feel so defensive about his province's environmental record now that building roads has become a cornerstone of green policy.

Yes, you read that correctly. Forget about investing in transit or bike paths: according to this
article, the federal and BC provincial governments are spending $790,000 of money earmarked for "greening" communities to expand a road in Nanaimo, BC. The news release states that the road expansion will reduce traffic congestion and idling, thereby helping to save the environment.

The argument is a laughably nice try, as even the idea that building roads automatically reduces congestion doesn't work: curiously, as soon as you build more and bigger roads to reduce congestion on an older road, the tendency is for the new roads to become as congested as the old almost as soon as they're opened to traffic. It's what author Anthony Downs refers to as "triple convergence" in his quite excellent 1995 book,
New Visions for Metropolitan America.

Downs's argument follows the principle that there is a sort of marketplace associated with the use of roads. Where/when the demand for a given road space is high relative to its supply, users find alternatives to taking the congested road by travelling at different times (e.g., leave early to beat rush hour), taking alternate routes that are less congested, and using alternative means of transportation (e.g., biking or walking or rapid transit). Build a new road or expand an old one to increase the supply and there's suddenly less incentive for people to use any of the three alternatives, hence Downs's "triple convergence" of extra traffic to the new, suddenly congested roadway.

The rush for everyone to brand themselves as "green" has reached a feverish pitch, and we can expect pals and enemies of the environment alike to start touting their good work. In some cases, some of those jumping on this "green" bandwagon are under the impression that rest of us have fallen off the turnip truck.

Photo: rush hour traffic in Maryland.

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