A free economics lesson for London Councillor Anna Hopkins

Lee Friday – September 21, 2017

It sounds like London Councillor Anna Hopkins is in favour of formulating government policies aimed at reducing the number of cars on London’s roads, but she offers no economic justification for this view.

In the September, 2017 issue (no. 23) of the Byron Villager magazine (unavailable online), Hopkins wrote (emphasis added):

If anyone was to ask me what is the issue that you hear over and over again in Ward 9, I would have to reply “Traffic Concerns”. Not only on our main arterial roads but in our neighbourhoods. How we balance growth as Ward 9 expands and the need to improve congestion on our roads, to slow down and not cut through neighbourhoods has been a concern no matter if you live in Lambeth, Byron or Riverbend. It is becoming more apparent that we can no longer afford to keep on building our road infrastructure and maintaining it without looking at other means of transportation like transit, cycling and walking.

In other words, because London’s municipal government cannot solve the traffic congestion problem, residents may have to walk, cycle, and use public transit more often. Hopkins’ solution would be economically counterproductive, while ignoring the source of the problem government mismanagement. Traffic congestion is also a problem in other Wards, and I fear most (or all) of the other councillors would support this ill-advised solution. Previous actions by council point in this direction.

Each year, City Hall adds more cycling lanes to London’s roads. Yet, I often do not see any cyclists when I am out driving. For every cyclist on the road, there must be at least a thousand cars. Miles of empty cycling lanes is a constant reminder of municipal government waste. And for the few cyclists on the road, there is no evidence they are safer in ‘cycling lanes’. Car drivers and cyclists may believe cycling lanes offer an additional layer of safety for the cyclists, but this belief may cause both parties to alter their behaviour – such that they become less attentive, less cautious, which can produce more collisions. Indeed, we saw this with seat belt laws many years ago. In 2000, in the British Medical Journal, Malcolm J. Wardlaw wrote[1]:

. . . Between 1974 and 1982 cycling mileage in Britain increased 70%, but there was no increase in fatalities until the seatbelt law was introduced in 1983 . . . Compulsion to wear a seatbelt cut deaths among drivers and front seat passengers by 25% in 1983. But in the subsequent years, the long established trend of declining deaths in car accidents reversed, and by 1989 death rates among car drivers were higher than they had been in 1983. Evidently the driving population “risk compensated” away the substantial benefits of seatbelts by taking extra risks, putting others in more danger. This period saw a jump in deaths of cyclists. Although temporary, the jump can be explained fully only by cyclists having adapted to a more dangerous road environment through extra caution, retreat, or giving up. Is it coincidence that the long decline in cycling began in 1983? . . .

Research in the United States revealed similar effects of seatbelt laws. [2]

With London’s cycling lanes so sparsely populated with cyclists, where is the evidence to suggest that London’s car drivers would support Councillor Hopkins’ idea of cycling as an alternative form of transportation? Very curious! Even more curious because we live in an aging society. And car drivers are not going to become walkers either. I occasionally enjoy a healthy, leisurely walk of one or two kilometers. But that’s it. When time is a factor, as it often is, and I have to travel longer distances in the city for various reasons (as most people do), I need a car, period. Public transit? Seriously? Very slow and inefficient, and since time is money, this is not a viable economic option for a lot of people. If London’s economy depended on the government’s public transit system, there would be no economy.

What about the building and maintenance of London’s roads? Why is summer driving always a nightmare, with continuous road construction/repairs in multiple locations? Is it all necessary? How can we know? Bureaucrats make the decisions. City council approves the decisions. Are jobs sometimes awarded to favoured contractors at inflated prices?[3] Are other jobs awarded that are not actually necessary? What about traffic congestion, which in some areas is an ongoing problem, regardless the time of year.

The answer is that London City Hall’s road management is inefficient, as it is in other cities. The government simply cannot match the performance of private firms operating on the free market. History shows many of our road problems would disappear if roads were owned and operated privately. This is especially notable when we recognize that private firms lack the power possessed by government to steal land (expropriate in Canada, eminent domain in U.S.) in order to facilitate road construction. I have written about this previously – here is a brief excerpt:

In 2014, a private citizen in the U.K., frustrated by a lengthy detour because of government delayed road repairs, built his own bypass toll road which attracted many commuters and embarrassed the government. Read about it here, here, and here. The government delayed road repairs had a negative impact on the local economy.

It is often difficult to conceive of a different way of doing things, especially when a particular field is monopolized by the government. However, legally imposed monopolies are inefficient because they lack competition, which means they lack the incentive to maximize quality and minimize prices for the products and services they produce. Private versus public policing is a good example, which I have written about here.

Free enterprise delivers superior results because private firms are incentivized to quickly respond to the demands of the market, which means the demands of consumers. If they don’t, they lose money. This is a foreign concept to bureaucrats and politicians whose decisions are completely arbitrary and have nothing to do with satisfying the desires of consumers. When private firms fail to satisfy consumers, the firms lose money. When the government fails to satisfy consumers, the consumers lose money – the government does not lose money because consumers are still compelled to pay taxes. Thus, the government is wasting resources.

Simple, basic economics, which I know Councillor Hopkins can understand if she takes just a few minutes to think it through. With that said, Hopkins may be half right. There may soon come a time when it becomes “apparent that we can no longer afford to keep on building our road infrastructure and maintaining it” if our inefficient government continues to enforce its road monopoly, because taxes may become unbearable. But in this event, cycling, walking, and the government’s public transit system will not be viable options. Dependence on these alternate forms of transportation would collapse the economy.

Related articles:

London City Council spends $5.9 million for two bridges for the city’s cycling trail network. This money could have been used to reduce poverty in London, that is, if these politicians were actually serious about their previous commitment to do so.

The City of London wants to steal more land. But don’t worry, they say it is all legal – move along citizen, nothing to see here (it’s all about government road (mis)management)


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1119262/

[2] https://fee.org/articles/do-seat-belt-laws-work/

[3] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/montreal-engineer-says-he-was-adept-at-cooking-contracts-1.1153937


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