Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How long will the rich be willing to share the roads with the poor?

In Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451" we are told of a world with no private cars (above, a still from the 1966 movie by Fran├žois Truffaut). Bradbury had correctly understood that dictatorships not only tend to burn books but also don't like their citizens to own private cars. In this post, I argue that the growing social inequality in the West may soon lead to the demise of the private car for the middle class. This evolution may be helped by such concepts as TAAS (transportation as a service). 

In his "The Betrothed", (1827) Alessandro Manzoni tells us of how a dispute on the right of the way led to a bloody duel between two noblemen. The story takes place during the 17th century and it seems that, at that time, whether one should cede the way to another was a question of rank.

In our (perhaps) enlightened times, this attitude looks absurd. When you see a stop sign at a crossroad, you are supposed to respect it, independently of whether you drive a rusty Toyota Corolla or a shiny Porsche Cayenne. But, if you think about that, the rich must be very unhappy about having to share the road with the poor and their clunkers. They might well be thinking of ways to have the street all for themselves, avoid traffic jams, and regain the mobility that cars provided when there weren't so many of them.

Is it possible? Well, think of this: the diffusion of private cars in the Western World, and in particular in the US, took place during a period when inequality was declining and reaching values which were possibly the lowest in modern history. But things have changed a lot since then. Here are some data for the Gini Index in the US (from the US Census Bureau)

The Gini index is a measure of the income distribution: it is between a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 1, but in practice, it is between 0.2 and 0.7. The larger the Gini index is, the higher is inequality. And you see how, during the past decades, inequality in the US has been increasing. Similar trends can be seen in other Western countries. 

So, the concept of "public roads" for everyone was developed in a historical period when the Gini index in the US was around 0.35. Today it is around 0.45. That's a very significant variation which is surely destined to have important social consequences. I was telling you before that in Italy during the 17th century, the right of way was determined by one's social status. So, what was the Gini index, then? We don't have values for Italy but, according to Ourworldindata, the Gini index in England was of the order of 0.5 in the 18th century, close to the current value of 0.45 for the US. Just like the nobles of that time, our modern nobles may well think that there is no reason for them to share the road with the commoners. So, what may happen?

For one thing, the concept of "public road" is being eroded in various ways. In the US it is done under the name of "gated communities" whereas in Europe you see entire sections of cities declared off-limits to cars by local governments, unless you are a resident. Another way to expel the poor from the street is to make cars or fuel very expensive, that can be done by means of taxes and that's traditionally done in Europe -- so far that has not prevented the poor from using cars, but it may in the near future. 

Increased costs may have already reduced traffic in some regions of the world. In Italy, the consumption of gasoline is down to nearly half of what it was ten years ago. But in the US, the situation is far less dramatic. Other regions of the world show intermediate trends. On the whole, private cars are not growing in numbers, but they are not disappearing, either. There are good reasons for this.

The problem is clear: there is no way that you can serve this kind of urban environment at a reasonable cost with conventional public transportation, buses or trains. And, of course, the people living there have no place where they can go on foot. So, they will try everything they can to stick to their cars. It is the only way they have to move around. 

A further, and somewhat perverse, characteristic of private cars is the fact that they have a considerable capital cost. So, once you made the effort of buying one, driving an extra mile (the "marginal mile") is not so expensive. Actually, the more miles you drive, the less each mile will cost and this is an incentive to drive more. 

So, it looks like a no-win situation for the rich, unless they really want to create a
zombie apocalypse in order to expel the poor from the roads. But there is another possibility: it is called "Transportation as a service" (TAAS). This is basically a hi-tech rental service. The idea is that you don't own a car anymore, but you rent it as you need. Theoretically, TAAS should be less expensive than the current scheme because you share the same car with other people. And middle-class suburbanites should be happy to use TAAS. 

But, as it often happens, technological changes bring about unexpected social changes. With TAAS, you don't have anymore the "marginal mile" effect, so that in order to save money you have only one strategy: cut the number of miles traveled. With the current trends of rising inequality and impoverishment, suburbanites will be forced to cut all the non-strictly needed trips. 

Not just that: the concept of TAAS allows differential tariffs leading to the possibility of a control of the traffic flow unthinkable today. Want to use TAAS during the rush hour? You are welcome, but you must pay more. Want to drive in a posh shopping area? Again, you are welcome, but you have to pay for the privilege -- or, maybe, sorry, but you don't belong to the right club. But, in exchange, we can offer you a special TAAS deal if you go shopping at the supermarket tonight at 3:00 am. 

In the end, TAAS may well sweep the poor out of the public roads even faster than the current trends are doing. Will we arrive at a point when priority at crossroads will be determined by the social status of drivers, as it was in the 17th century? We cannot say, but TAAS vehicles could be programmed to behave exactly in this way. All traffic lights will be green for those who can pay.

Of course, this is not a fault of the TAAS scheme in itself. Transportation as a service is a good idea that should bring us a more efficient transportation, less noise, and less pollution. The problem it is the result of the increasing inequality in society which, in turn, is related to the gradual disappearance of our energy slaves, fossil fuels. If we don't find a way to replace fossil fuels with something equivalent to power our society, we will return to the kind of world that Manzoni described to us. A world where you could be killed because someone thought he was nobler than you and wanted the right of way.  

Below: an illustration of Manzoni's novel "The Betrothed." It is the scene when two aristocrats quarrel over a question of priority and the result is a duel in which one of the two is killed. 


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)