It’s Not The Cars, Stupid

How regulators fail to analyze root cause and end up creating inane regulations.

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Image credit: Iwona Castiello d’Antonio on Unsplash

Every once in a while people become agitated about vehicle emissions. Whenever this happens, experts jump up and down demanding better fuel economy from vehicles. We’re also told that people should drive during non-commute times. People should move closer to their place of work. Let’s increase the price of fuel so as to discourage driving! Let’s have road congestion charges!

Over the years I’ve read every kind of well-intentioned proposal. Each one serves merely to illustrate how utterly clueless urban planners, traffic experts, policy experts, and consultants can be.

The thing is, if we pause for a microsecond and actually engage brain, we can instantly see that all of these ideas are stupid.

Why? Because they all assume that the people doing the driving have a wealth of choices available to them. This assumption is wildly wrong. So all the well-meaning proposals to cut the number of miles driven end up penalizing those who can least afford to pay.

Who can really afford to sell their house and move their children to a new school district because they’ve just secured a new job? Only the wealthy. Ordinary people can’t indulge in financial suicide.

Who can really tell their manager they’re going to come in late because they want to drive during non-rush-hour traffic? Only well-paid senior executives.

Who can afford to pay higher fuel prices? Only the wealthy.

I don’t understand why all the supposed experts have consistently failed to grasp the simple fact that people commute because they don’t have any choice. They have to commute if they want to keep getting paid. No one likes struggling through traffic jams for two or three hours each day. No one wakes up and thinks, “Yay! I get to commute again today!”

People do it because they have to, not because they think it’s a fun thing to do.

If we want to reduce the number of miles driven and reduce congestion and thus lower emissions from vehicles the answer is obvious (to everyone except, apparently, the experts involved):

Incentivize organizations to encourage work-from-home and disincentivize organizations from making people commute to the office.

This would be far easier to implement than any automobile-based policy. It would work much faster and be far more effective. It would also have the great merit of not penalizing those who can least afford to pay.

The reality is that the office was the 18th century’s answer to the need for centralized data processing. Get all the clerks into one building and hey presto! But today we have this curious thing called the Internet. We have Skype, we have rapid file transfer, we have all the tools we need to work from anywhere.

So why do hundreds of millions of people still waste billions of hours of productive time per week commuting into the office? Because we humans are total rubbish at adapting to new circumstances. Managers have no clue how to manage, so they default to mindless proxies like seeing who comes in early and leaves late. Some managers are so pathetic that work is their primary social life, so they really need people to be in the office in order not to feel lonely. CEOs want to have a big impressive building full of compliant workers so they can feel large and powerful.

But this is no excuse for what is today quite dysfunctional behavior.

Think of how much better people can work if they’re not stressed and exhausted from their pointless commute. Think of how much happier people will be when they don’t have to leave sick children alone at home in order to go into the office to attend meaningless meetings. Think of how much more productive everyone can be. And how much fuel, and hence emissions, will be saved thereby.

Furthermore, if we don’t have people commuting into offices we can save energy on HIVACs and lighting, not to mention the energy used to manufacture office cubicles and desks and task chairs.

So instead of fixating on SAFE and CAFE and all manner of other inadequate automobile regulations and policy proposals, let’s address the problem at its root.

For the most part we no longer need people to commute to work.

But we can only stop when governments create the necessary incentives for organizations to wake up and adapt to the fact we’re in 2020, not 1780.

Unfortunately there’s zero sign anyone in any government anywhere has woken up and noticed. So we can expect the stupid policies to continue, and people who are already struggling to make ends meet will be further penalized because the “experts” are too busy pushing their heads up their own backsides to get out and do the analysis necessary to understand the root of the problem.

But when I rule the world it will all be different.

Trust me.

You know you want to….

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