Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

July 18, 2006

Boston Tunnel Accident: A Solution?

Category: Editorial – Tom Harrison – 11:40 pm

We live in Boston, and recently there was a failure of part of the new “Big Dig” tunnel system which caused a ceiling panel to fall on a car, killing the passenger. One tunnel was and still is closed, and traffic was snarled for several days afterward. But then something unexpected happened: people responded, and today’s paper reports that Despite closings, traffic is better than expected. My wife, who commutes to the city by bus right through the heart of the intersection most affected reported that her commute today was the shortest it has been in several weeks … better even than before the accident.

So I have, as Jonathan Swift would say, a modest proposal: let’s learn why traffic isn’t systemically bad and can respond like it has to this disruption. Why, when a major part of a major city’s transportation system is closed does traffic not turn into permanent gridlock but instead get better? It’s because of a little understood phenomenon: people respond to incentives (or disincentives). Everyone in Boston knew about the tunnel failure, and everyone knew that this would cause a traffic issue. So, they changed their behavior: they took public transit, they carpooled, they left later or earlier. And this all happened in just a few days. People respond to incentives, and in this case the response is probably saving huge amounts of energy in transportation.

Is my modest proposal that we create another tunnel disaster, or whimsically close a major artery? No, only that we take a moment to see that it is possible to adapt to new situations. In fact, we do it almost automatically, naturally and almost without pain (notwithstanding the loss of life in the tunnel accident, which I don’t mean to trivialize). So I propose that we take actions that seem bold or crazy, and see what happens.

Consider a gasoline tax of perhaps $1.00 or $2.00, whose revenues could go towards any number of good things (e.g. improving public transit). Even with our woefully inadequate alternative systems, the tax (in fact, even just the threat of a tax) would create an immediate response. People would be getting rid of inefficient cars, looking for other ways to get to work, reconsidering that move the the suburbs, and so on. Is a gasoline tax inequitable? Yes, it hurts poor people … so give some of the money back to them. But it hurts the transportation and energy infrastructure most, and we fear recession and other economic repercussion, which few politicians would want to be responsible for. So, instead, we wait for the unpredictable, plodding, volatile market to adjust price on its own — the market is not up for re-election in November, but it is a much more vicious and unforgiving master than any change we cause to happen by our own will. Doing nothing is the default.

We are cowards for not doing now what any sentient person can see is needed (a gas tax is just one of any number of things we should be doing); we fear change, even though time and time again, we demonstrate that we can handle it very well. Our instant response to the Boston tunnel failure is just an example. We can make changes that seem dramatic and unthinkable and change our ways almost overnight.

And we must.

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