If we've learned anything from the last several decades, it's this: people respond to incentives and disincentives, not to moral suasion.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 22, 2010
Every year, Earth Day comes around and we're all treated to a chorus of exhortations to make better personal choices: take the bus instead of driving, recycle or compost that coffee cup (or better yet, get it in a travel mug), remember to turn off the lights when you leave a room, print on both sides of the paper - you know this stuff. You've seen and heard it dozens, probably hundreds, of times already.
There's a problem with these obligatory exhortations: for all their good intentions, they just don't work.
The idea, endlessly fashionable among environmentalists, that all we need to start doing the right thing are enough positive role models and moral suasion, has arguably done more to prop up the status quo than any amount of anti-environmental FUD.
If we've learned anything from the last several decades it's this: people respond to incentives. More specifically, if you want people to do less of something, charge more for it.
For years we were told to re-use grocery bags, use paper instead of plastic, bring reusable cloth bags to the store, and so on. Many grocery stores even offered a 5-cent discount per bag saved.
Yet most people, most of the time, still came out of the store with a new dozen plastic bags that would maybe serve double-duty as small garbage bags before ending up in the landfill.
It took the serious threat of a grocery bag tax for the supermarket chains to turn that 5-cent discount into a 5-cent surcharge - and reusable cloth bags finally went mainstream.
There are some important lessons here:
Despite the economic theory that they have equivalent utility, people will do more to avoid a surcharge than they will to enjoy a discount. (Hey, no one said we humans are rational.)
It's not enough just to incentivize positive activities; we also need to disincentivize harmful activities.
If, say, we want a more balanced transportation system in Hamilton, it's not enough just to widen sidewalks, add bike lanes and improve transit. We also need to make it harder for motorists to drive through the city at top speed.
As it turns out, in this case there's no way to add walking, cycling and transit facilities to our fixed-size road network without taking something away from the facilities that exist to accommodate cars - which makes them a deal-breaker for the defenders of the status quo.
Before the grocery bag price change came into effect, customers were apoplectic. I had several conversations with cashiers who regaled me with horror stories of irate shoppers threatening all sorts of mayhem if the store dared to go ahead with the plan.
Yet once the policy was in place, all that hostility melted away and people adjusted with minimal disruption. Instead of a revolt, people shrugged and started using cloth bags.
This is a common theme around changes to the status quo: people react with fear and loathing to the prospect of a progressive change but then accept and even embrace it once they see it in action.
Consider another example: in the months before the city of London (England) imposed a congestion toll for motorists driving into the city, city businesses were hysterical in their opposition and predicted all manner of disastrous consequences.
What actually happened was that it was suddenly possible to drive in the city again. At the same time, sidewalks became friendlier places for pedestrians, cyclists had a fighting chance on the road for once, and neighbourhood businesses started thriving in the new environment of balanced transportation. Public support for the plan swung from overwhelming opposition to overwhelming support in a matter of months.
This is really important: people who strenuously resist a good idea in principle will usually accept it in practice once they see it working.
Whereas congestion pricing in London was the result of a deliberate policy change, other price changes happen organically at the intersection of supply and demand.
Between 2000 and mid-2008, the price of oil increased from less than $20 a barrel to nearly $150 a barrel. World oil consumption grew by around two percent a year through the entire 20th century, but starting in the past decade, the rate of consumption growth slowed and then stalled in 2005 and has remained flat ever since at around 85 million barrels a day.
Yet oil consumption in many developing parts of the world is still growing, which means consumption in other parts of the world must fall to meet that flat supply.
In North America, the annual distance driven slowed, stalled, and actually went into reverse over 2007 and 2008, before the economy went into recession. At the same time, both cycling and transit use increased significantly.
In short, a rising price of oil driven by global supply constraints was able to achieve what no amount of moralizing could: it managed to shift the North American cultural obsession with driving into reverse.
If we try to exhort North Americans not to drive so much and they ignore us, it's tempting to conclude that North American car culture is simply too powerful to overcome. Yet the facts suggest otherwise: the culture seems to track the incentives and not the other way around.
For all that American politicians score rhetorical points by insisting that the American Way of Life is non-negotiable, we just witnessed firsthand what happens when that American culture comes up against the intractable reality of peak oil. What happens is that reality wins and the culture adjusts, albeit reluctantly.
This is not to suggest that car culture doesn't exist or isn't a significant incentive to drive. Rather, it suggests that the cultural imperative is just as susceptible to concrete disincentives as any other imperative.
One obvious conclusion is that merely stating facts isn't going to change many minds. No amount of patient explanation was going to assuage those apoplectic supermarket customers - you can have my plastic grocery bags when you pry them from my cold dead hands - until they actually experienced the bag surcharge and discovered it's not so bad.
Similarly, Ken Livingston was not going to convince Londoners to embrace the idea of congestion tolling until they saw for themselves how much better it made their city.
Those LRT opponents won't be satisfied by any amount of reasoning and factual analysis, but they might change their minds when the see how much their properties have appreciated.
Fear of the unknown is a powerful conserving agent, and the only reliable antidote is exposure that drains the scary unknown of its power. (It's no coincidence that most of Hamilton's early LRT supporters were people who had experienced LRT in other cities and seen firsthand how it transforms cities.)
But fear doesn't just stop citizens from embracing new ideas. It also stops politicians from risking their fortunes promoting those ideas.
The reason Metrolinx still doesn't have a long-term funding plan is that Queen's Park nervously backed away from the most obvious revenue stream.
Imagine the firestorm of rage and hysteria if the Province announced it was going to start charging variable tolls (by time of day) on highways and using that money to provide faster, more frequent GO Train service. It would make the harassment and abuse supermarket cashiers got over the bag policy look like a heated game of tiddlywinks by comparison.
Now imagine how much differently people would look at it six months or a year later, when you could jump on an electric GO Train leaving Hamilton that could reach Union Station in 45 minutes; when you could also drive to Toronto in 45 minutes without the daily misery of gridlock; when the GTA no longer lost billions of dollars a year in missed productivity growth.
And that's without even mentioning the environmental and public health benefits of taking tens of thousands of cars a day off the highway.
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