Great Moments in Cost/Benefit Analysis

California’s S.B. 375 mandates that cities increase the population densities of targeted neighborhoods because everyone knows that people drive less in higher densities and transit-oriented developments relieve congestion. One problem, however, is that transportation models reveal that increased densities actually increase congestion, as measured by “level of service,” which measures traffic as a percent of a roadway’s capacity and which in turn can be used to estimate the hours of delay people suffer.

The California legislature has come up with a solution: S.B. 743, which exempts cities from having to calculate and disclose levels of service in their environmental impact reports for densification projects. Instead, the law requires planners to come up with alternative measures of the impacts of densification.

This is from an excellent post by Randall O’Toole about a major change in the way the state government plans to measure environmental impacts of transportation. The post is titled “California Thinks Your Time is Worthless.”

The state government is saying, in effect, “We know that certain measures we want will increase congestion and we know that congestion eats up people’s time, so let’s quit measuring congestion.” If you think I’m exaggerating, do as I did and read the 13-page draft, “Preliminary Evaluation of Alternative Methods of Transportation Analysis,” put out by Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

In my cost/benefit analysis course, one of the things I teach is that one of our most valuable resources is our time. As Randall O’Toole points out, the California government has decided not to measure time saved or time lost from various initiatives. He writes:

[T]hey [the state government planners] ignore the impact on people’s time and lives: if densification reduces per capita vehicle miles traveled by 1 percent, planners will regard it as a victory even if the other 99 percent of travel is slowed by millions of hours per year.

O’Toole concludes:

The real problem is that planners and planning enthusiasts in the legislature don’t like the results of their own plans, so they simply want to ignore them. What good is an environmental impact report process if the legislature mandates that any impacts it doesn’t like should simply not be evaluated in that process?

All of this is a predictable outcome of attempts to improve peoples’ lives through planning. Planners can’t deal with complexity, so they oversimplify. Planners can’t deal with letting people make their own decisions, so they try to constrict those decisions. Planners can’t imagine that anyone wants to live any way but the way planners think they should live, so they ignore the 80 to 90 percent who drive and want to live in single-family homes as they impose their lifestyle ideologies on as many people as possible. The result is the planning disaster known as California.