One of the less-celebrated joys of working for yourself is not having to do the daily commute. This daily grind can be a true purgatory. Not having to do it is a much under-estimated luxury, which is only truly understood when you are stuck in a traffic jam, infuriated and anxious.
Yesterday, I was in a taxi heading to Heuston Station to get the 9am train to Cork and I experienced the sad reality of the clogged N11 at 8am. As the taxi whizzed up the bus lane, bracketed by buses moving equally swiftly, we passed thousands of motorists stuck in the jam.
They do this every morning, and they choose to do it.
But more worrying for the city is the fact that traffic congestion is back up to boom-time levels. All you have to do is listen to the remarkable Dublin City FM either in the morning or the evening to get a sense of the chaos on the capital’s roads.
We hear similar reports on national radio about debilitating tailbacks in Cork, Galway and Limerick.
This will get worse because car sales are rocketing and the more cars on the same roads, mean less space for all of us.
Traffic poses huge costs on the economy in terms of the enormous amount of time wasted in traffic, the massive amount of our disposable income spent on petrol and, obviously, road building and road repairs, not to mention the cash forked out on cars themselves.
We tend to think of traffic as a fact of life, like taxes.
But it’s not a fact of life; or at least it doesn’t have to be.
But before we talk about potential logical, economics-based solutions, let’s examine why traffic is so insidious. At the core of macroeconomics is this counter-intuitive idea that what is good for the individual is not always good for the collective.
When I jump in my car because I couldn’t be bothered getting the bus, I feel more comfortable initially, but my action adds a tiny bit to the traffic problem.
So when you add up all the people like me who choose the car over public transport or car-pooling, we all make sure that together we make the outcome worse for all of us. But we can’t see that or cost that when we make the decision to drive.
So had I decided to drive to Heuston and added one more car to the sheer weight of traffic, I would probably have added fractionally to the misery of my fellow drivers by adding a few extra seconds to their individual commutes. When you add all this up, the total cost of the misery is significant.
However, like lots of things in economics, we can never really assess the overall impact of our individual decisions, so we don’t worry about them too much.
So how do you solve it?
At the heart of the problem is that everyone wants to use the road from 7am to 10am and then again in the afternoon at rush hour to come home. Apart from that, the roads are relatively empty.
It’s a space problem. At rush hour, road space is too cheap so there is no reason not to drive. So make it more expensive when everyone wants it, and cheap when everyone doesn’t.
So the economist would say it’s an incentive problem. Charge the punters who choose to drive and we might make some progress. Given that we can do almost anything now with automatic tolls such as the M50, we could just charge the people who choose to drive alone, taking up space.
You could add it to their phone bill, for example. If the charge was steep enough, only die-hard rush-hour commuters would choose to drive in the most expensive times. This should free up the road for car-pooling or buses or the Luas or whatever more efficient method there is.
But there would be howls from the car lobby suggesting that the driver is already crippled with taxes and now here’s another one. This is an understandable view, and one that’s hard to argue with even though you are simply protecting drivers from themselves.
Those who choose to pay the tax are rewarded with much swifter and enjoyable commutes to work, less fuel bills and less time wasted in the car.
But we could go one further. Maybe we could introduce choice into the game so it isn’t seen as an exercise in crime and punishment.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning economist, discussed this notion many years ago. He compared roads to houses with views of the sea. Take, for example, the view of Dublin Bay: it is restricted because there are only so many properties that can have this view, so they are more expensive to reflect the fact that people want to wake up looking at the sea.
The problem with the roads is that there are no higher prices on the road to reflect when demand to use them is high.
What about creating ‘rush hour coupons’ and include them in the price of every car sold in the Dublin area? Each coupon would be worth, let’s say, a tenner. Then people who take the bus and leave their car at home could trade the coupons for cash.
They could then be rewarded for their ‘good’ collective behaviour. In contrast, people who still wanted to drive would have to buy the coupon and they would pay for the pleasure, but they would get the uncluttered commute.
The people who don’t use the car can use the cash for whatever they want.
Could this work? Of course it could.
The more you use, the more you pay. We could save huge sums due to the cost of traffic and maybe we have a few more chilled people coming into work first thing in the morning who haven’t suffered from a bout of road rage.
That can’t be a bad thing, surely?