It’s For the Environment

The Bath family has been a one-car family longer than they have been known as the Baths. It hasn’t been difficult. What was difficult was having two cars and needing to drive additional, pointless trips so that both vehicles had a chance to be driven at least once per month and avoid getting their (starter) batteries completely discharged. Each additional car requires expensive semi-annual maintenance even if nothing goes wrong. And if you don’t drive a car for an extended period, expensive things seem to happen to the brakes. Even if you don’t use the car much, you’re still supposed to get an oil change every six months, which means dumping five quarts of perfectly good, clean, refined, and toxic oil and replacing it with five more quarts identical to what was thrown away.

So, I’m glad we sold our second car. I wish I had sold it four or even six years earlier than I did given how little it was used.

Our situation on this front hasn’t changed much even though our daughter has started preschool and I got a (non-teaching) job at my wife’s university. We still don’t need a second car.

What we do need is a parking spot.

For a variety of complicated but boring reasons, the logistics of getting two adults to work and one toddler to preschool involve my driving to work in the morning a couple mornings per week and my wife driving the car back immediately after lunch. It’d be nice to have someplace to park the car over that half-day.

The wait list for a parking spot, however, is five years. This is for a permit that costs a good bit more than $1000 per year.

car girl photo

Image by DVS1mn

But there’s a way to go immediately to the front of the line! If two university employees agree to carpool, then they bypass the line and get a parking spot immediately instead of sometime next decade. What’s more, the parking permit is heavily discounted from its regular price.

And the parking office even volunteered to me that if my wife works for the university, the two of us could carpool together. All we have to do is sign up together with up-to-date registration for both of our cars…

I asked if it was necessary to have two cars to qualify, and it is. The policy is meant to help the environment by encouraging carpooling. If they handed us a permit, they wouldn’t get credit for taking an extra car off the road since we don’t own an extra car.

So, to get a parking spot, I would need to buy a car so that it can be not driven to work.

These are perverse incentives, but they aren’t unusual for the society we have running here. See this Consumer Reports video:

Tips From the World's Most Efficient Woman | Consumer Reports

If you didn’t catch it, the world’s most efficient woman clambers into a 6,000-pound SUV to transport her own 145-pound person. But it’s a hybrid!

In 2016, environmental virtue is in buying shiny new solar panels, not in reducing consumption. The most highly subsidized car in America is a $100,000 sports car, and it got that way thanks to the efforts of a political party whose rallying cry is income inequality. The Consumer Reports video is the least problematic of any of this. There is something to be said for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but we’ve taken that to mean exalting the bad over the terrible.

A woman who works from home isn’t reasonable for most people. No one wants to subsidize her or make a video about her life. Even a walk-to-work woman fails the reasonability test because what are you going to do when the weather is slightly uncomfortable? Move?

Such restrictions make dramatic change impossible. The most efficient woman can be no more than 20% more efficient than the average woman. Consume different if you must, but the first order is to consume.


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Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1. ...more →

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24 thoughts on “It’s For the Environment

  1. And here I thought, by the pic at the top, that you’d bought an old T-Bucket as your second, never drive it car, so you could get that parking pass.

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  2. That is utterly ridiculous.

    So here’s me trying game the system for you:

    1) Q: How long do you have to own the second car? Do you have to renew the permit periodically with 2 legally registered cars? A: “Buy” a non-running car, register it, then sell or give it back to the junkyard you bought it from. (You should be able to get a running POS for $50-$100.)

    2) Q: There has to be a car registered in each of your name’s, right? A: find a good friend who will temporarily transfer registration, then transfer it back after you get your parking pass.

    3) Q: Got any friends at the University who already have a parking pass who have a second car registered to them? A: “Carpool” with their second car.

    Again, how ridiculous.

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    • Thank you for adopting a problem-solving attitude!

      (1) I just need to have the registration with my name on it. I don’t think I’d have to renew it. The POS option has occurred to me. I’m not sure I can find a running one for under $100 though. My state does vehicle inspections, which tends to cap the number of older cars on the road.

      (2) This has occurred to me too! I’ll have to research this some more. Do I have a good-enough friend for this? I think I’d have to transfer the title too, in which case there would be sales tax to be paid. And I don’t think I can just buy and sell the car for $1 without it raising flags with the state

      (3) This would be my preferred option, but I can’t think of any candidates.
      ———
      .Overall, I’m leaning towards some version of #1. Some sort of cheap thing, though it might be a few thousand.

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  3. This post is in danger of getting JonRowed! Are you claiming that the University policy is inconsistent with the stated goals (so it’s bad policy)?, or that “environmentalism” is incoherent since it doesn’t refudiate consumption?

    I don’t think either argument works as stated, actually.

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    • So does Vikram’s – it’s just run out of the parking administration office, and they call it “over a thousand dollars a year for a parking pass.”

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  4. “What are you going to do when the weather is slightly uncomfortable? Move?”

    Well, yes, on the margin. This is the key reason why California has the highest real estate prices in the world, adjusted for a given level of socioeconomic development.

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  5. I don’t think it is ridiculous. You and your wife aren’t really “carpooling” and giving you a spot doesn’t encourage the behavior that the school seeks to encourage. I understand why that might be frustrating but I’m not sure we can say it creates perverse incentives when very few people will be incentivized to do what you considered doing.

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    • No, they are carpooling, the definition does not really require that the people in a carpool be from different households.

      The problem with the incentive is that its specificity undermines its efficacy toward the larger goal.

      The stated goal is to encourage people to put fewer cars on the road. The specific requirement is that a car is taken off the road as a result of the incentive, but how is it furthering the larger goal of removing a car if it penalizes people who removed said car prior to needing a parking permit.

      If a bar was offering free soda to any designated driver, but only if that person committed to being a designated driver when they walked in the bar, because of the free sodas, would you not wonder if they were pouring themselves just a few too many shots of the Green Fairy?

      All either policy does is encourage people to find a way to game the incentive (see gingergene’s comment above).

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      • The college’s position is such that it sees two people driving in two separate cars and parking in two separate spots (or searching for two spots because neither has a permit) and says, “Hey, if you guys drive together in one car and leave the other car, we’ve reduced the number of cars on the road and the number of cars needing parking. That is a good thing.”

        If the college gives Vikram and his wife a carpool permit… nothing will have changed. Save for having one fewer permit to give out that actually achieves their desired outcome.

        Yes, you could argue that the university is “penalizing” the Baths for taking a separate action that achieves a similar result to the one they seek previously.

        Also, it isn’t clear to me if the college’s real goal is environmental or traffic reduction. If it is the latter, than I think Vikram has even less space from which to argue.

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        • Think of it this way…

          Imagine the university has 300 cars and 100 parking spots. There aren’t enough spots for everyone and the imbalance causes all sorts of traffic woes. The university says, “Hey, if we give priority to carpoolers, there will be fewer cars coming to campus! Huzzah!”

          So if Vikram and his neighbor, Joe, agree to carpool and get a pass, there are now 298 cars for 99 spots. That is an improvement!

          If Vikram and his wife “carpool” and get a pass, there are now 299 cars for 99 spots. That is worse!

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          • From the OP:

            The policy is meant to help the environment by encouraging carpooling.

            Assuming Vikram is not misquoting the parking office, then the policy is not about limited spaces, but about the environment (bet that $1000 fee is going to do a fine job of handling the scarcity problem). If that is their actual motivation, then the goal of the policy is less about the environment and more about the school being able to say, “Hey, this policy has removed X many cars from the road during the morning commute. Look how awesome we are.”

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            • Even so…

              300 cars driving to university (one full of Baths!) and 100 spots to dangle to provide incentive.
              Give one to the Baths and you still have 300 cars driving to university and now only 99 spots to dangle.
              Give one to the Smiths and Jones and you now have 299 cars driving to the university and 99 spots to dangle.

              The result doesn’t change: giving a spot to the Baths in their current situation doesn’t reduce the number of cars on the road because the Baths already reduced the number of cars they personally put on the road. Giving them a spot would change an incentive to change behavior into a reward for existing behavior. Those aren’t identical. And while they arguably deserve greater reward because their change in behavior has likely yielded greater longterm impact, that happened outside the university’s system.

              Again, giving the Baths a spot does not reduce the number of cars on the road. So why do it?

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              • Because there is an ongoing incentive for the Bath’s to get a second car to alleviate the issues they are facing.

                Preventing the birth of a new car in the Bath family may actually be better than carpooling.

                Interestingly, this is always the case in business decisions… the avoidance of a cost or negative effect is always and everywhere discounted to almost zero. If you try to build your case on avoidance, my experience has shown that your case will almost never be accepted up-chain. But, incur the cost and then remove it… now that’s some smart work that is.

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                • A fair point, but the Baths are in an atypical situation and the rule was not really intended for them. In fact, I’m surprised they would allow it to apply to a married couple. So, yes, the law provides perverse incentives but ONLY in situations like the Baths — which may be one-of-a-kind — and they are also perverse if we believe that the university’s sole intention is environmental. If, as I suspect, they are equally if not more concerned with logistics and traffic flow and the like, the no such perverse incentive exists.

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                  • I wouldn’t say that the Bath situation is really unusual. The triggering factors are 2 employees and 1 parking space. When you break it down, that’s the trade the university is asking people to make.

                    It sounds though as if the school is not going about it the best way. Rather than allocating just a few “special” spots, they should annually make every eligible employee apply for a spot and weight the apportionment and location according to your score. That score could be made-up of any combination/weight of things important to the school: Type of vehicle? # of employees joining application for single space? Length of Service? Tenure? Solar panels at home? Anything the institution might want to score to allocate this resource in accordance with behavior it wants to promote.

                    Now, my suspicion, should this ever happen, is that all the prime locations would be allocated to top administrators, deans, and tenured faculty regardless of environmental factors… but either way, it would reflect what the school actually values.

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                    • The thing is… the Baths aren’t making a trade. They voluntarily elected to be in that position absent incentive from the university. The university wants to incentivize people to change their behavior. The Baths already changed it! The university gains nothing from giving them a spot.

                      It isn’t the best thing in the world, but I don’t think it is the travesty or perverse incentive some folks are making it out.

                      And I say that as someone who generally likes Mr. Bath and would rather see things work out in his favor!

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  6. In many ways, this is no different than when, as a longtime subscriber, I would notice “special introductory offers” to the magazines I used to take that I wasn’t eligible for, since I was already a subscriber. Irritating as hell, but not really unfair.

    You know, just the other day, Josh Marshall posted a piece about the demise of Al Jazeera America, where he wondered at their strategy for taking over the market by doing lots of hard-hitting pieces on poverty. Somehow your piece reminds me of that. There are other people out there who make the sorts of choices that you advocate, they are just really quiet about it. I think most people in media don’t want to come off as accusatory or preachy.

    And speaking of the Model S, the plan is to take the revenue and push the price points of subsequent models lower. You knew that, right? “Show me” is a completely legitimate attitude, though.

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    • Yeah, but I fail to see why poorer and middle class folks have to subsidize Tesla vehicle purchasers, who are very well off, to buy a 100k car that only goes 200 miles on a good day.

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  7. You live someplace where recycling used motor oil isn’t mandatory? I didn’t know there were any such places left. My 7.5-year-old Honda Fit monitors all sorts of things and puts up a warning icon when the software decides it’s time for an oil change — for me, every nine or ten months. A chemical engineering friend tells me that the base oil may be okay, but that there’s a lot of fancy goop mixed in today’s lubricants that break down sooner.

    I’m not sure about the absurdity of the requirement. The university may be trying to encourage one specific behavior — two people drive to campus in one car in the morning and leave in one car in the evening. My experience is years old, but none of the carpooling programs I was eligible for ever matched up well to the needs of small children.

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  8. This reminds me of a former employer’s “incentives” to take mass transit or car pool. Those incentives were provided by various local gov’ts because of the heavy traffic in the area. Discounts for mass transit, “bike days”, squeezing employees to pay for ever more parking, etc.

    I asked, “why should I drive 45 mins to a mass transit stop to get onto transit and travel another 20 miles over the next hour when I can drive to work in 60 mins, not to mention having to pay for parking and transit”?

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