How does America solve problems? In America, does government solve problems or do Americans solve problems? As an illustration, let us consider the transportation problem. When we want to move people or their things, what does the government do? The primary thing that government does is provide a right of way. We buy our own cars and trucks. Private companies buy and run airplanes, ships, and trains. The government serves largely in a regulatory role. Except in this regulatory role, the government has little to do with the development of the technology or its implementation.
Our transportation system needs improvements. Our roads are congested, our vehicles pollute, and they use fuel from unfriendly, unreliable sources. Should we expect government to solve any of these problems? Not really. To a large extent, government caused these problems. Consider the issue of traffic congestion. Is there a shortage of asphalt and cement pathways for our vehicles? Not really. The problem is that we tend to funnel huge amounts of traffic onto a few roadways. That is simply bad design, and it should be no surprise. What do politicians know about designing transportation infrastructure?
Let’s look at some of the parameters.
- We have an existing network of roads designed to carry heavy vehicles. Much of our traffic, however, consists of one person in driving to and from work. In other words we have roads designed for 80,000 pound trucks clogged with autos and SUVs each carrying one human being weighting about 180 pounds. Building too many such roads is extravagantly wasteful.
- How and where we build roads are primarily political decisions. The relationship between supply and demand is weak. Politicians instead of citizens pay for roads.
- With the exception of taxis, public transportation consists almost wholly of mass transit schemes — light rail and buses. These technologies require the presence of paid drivers. Because paid drivers are required, a minimum passenger load is needed to break even on expenses. The minimum passenger load requirement makes the system inflexible; it forces two outcomes: large vehicles and a routing schedule. To reach their intended destinations, passengers have to waste their time going places they do not want to go. Moreover, the route structure of any mass transit system can only profitably serve high volume routes.
- To avoid the inflexibility of public transportation, citizens buy their own personal vehicles. Because they occasionally need their vehicles to transport freight, family, and friends, citizens buy larger vehicles than they usually need.
- Compounding the waste, most personal vehicles sit parked doing nothing. These vehicles sit and rust the vast majority of their useful lives. This is no way to use expensive capital assets.
How can we solve these problems? We must remind ourselves that all government can do is facilitate changes. We must encourage private enterprise to look for opportunities.
- When confronted with varying demands, private industry accommodates the needs of their customers. That is why we have a variety of different types of vehicles. Government, however, controls the right-of-way. Since we only have one type of right-of-way, a road surface, almost every right of way must accommodate 80,000 pound trucks. This requirement tends to make highway construction expensive. The lesson here is that local government should consider the possibility of providing a rights-of-way networks for light-weight traffic.
- Roads and other transportation should be paid for by user fees (i.e., tolls). To increase revenue, even monopolies must respond to consumer demand. In addition, tolls would discourage urban sprawl
- With proper system design, modern computer technology can replace drivers. Thus modern computer technology obviates the need for expensive human drivers and the large vehicles we currently associate with public transportation. With the use of computer technology, we can build fleets of small vehicles and serve the individual needs of passengers.
- The prospect of individual service would provide a great incentive for people to use public transportation. To increase this incentive, government should let private companies rent the services of their vehicles to the public. Multiple companies would benefit citizens by providing competition for their dollars. Competition would also limit waste. To maximize vehicle usage and profits, private companies would adopt price schedules that would maximize the use of their vehicles.
- We can also replace income taxes with taxes on petroleum. If we want people to stop polluting, the easy thing to do is to make them pay for the privilege. If we want to stop pollution, we should tax it.
How would the system I envisage be built? At this point, we only have ideas. However, there are a variety of ideas, and little new technology is needed. The predominant buzzword is Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). Check out some of the websites below. Or begin your own search (here).
Many of the technologies that would make PRT practical have only come about recently. For example, inexpensive, powerful, lightweight computers are a relatively recent innovation. To retain its competitive edge, America must explore how we can use these techologies to our best advantage.