Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Manhattan Everywhere

I recently read a fantastic article in The New Yorker called "Green Manhattan." Unfortunately, it's not freely available online, but it's in LexisNexis. The article makes the counterintuitive case than Manhattan is good for the environment, when you consider our pollution rates per capita. The author goes on to suggest that other places be made like Manhattan, with wider sidewalks, narrower streets, little parking, small apartments, etc.

In the interest of disclosure, I live in Manhattan, I love Manhattan, and I would love if other places were like Manhattan, if only to make the real Manhattan a little cheaper. I love that Manhattan is more "green" than I thought. My apartment isn't just small, it's saving the Earth!

However, I don't think this is solid environment policy. It's good to know that Manhattan is an energy efficient design; maybe other places will tend towards this design. We shouldn't let our love for Manhattan and the environment blind us to other possibilities, though.

Let's assume that environmental protection is our goal and greenhouse gases are the problem. Well, forcing other cities to be unfriendly to cars may help by forcing people to take mass transit. Unfriendliness to cars is not necessarily the best policy, though. What if someone invents a very efficient solar-powered car? Suddenly, aversion to cars isn't the best policy; it's actually harmful.

Consider raising taxes on fossil fuels instead. What would happen? It would be more expensive to drive into the city, so people would naturally start taking mass transit more. It would be much cheaper to heat an apartment than a house in the suburbs, so people might start to prefer apartments. Maybe everywhere will end up like Manhattan. However, this plan is not hostile to change. If the solar-powered car comes along, it would be cheaper to drive than a regular car, so people might start driving again instead of using mass transit. Maybe they'll put these efficient solar panels on their houses and live in suburbs again. It's difficult to know what will happen, but it's safe to assume that things will change. Forcing places to be like Manhattan assumes that the Manhattan model will remain the best solution. Using the market lets everyone decide.

Even taxing fossil fuels is imperfect. If the problem is that we don't want greenhouse gases in the air, it may be possible to filter them out in other ways. Some people have suggested farms of algae floating on the ocean, or machines that sequester the carbon. In that case, fossil fuel burners would have to pay the farmers and machine operators, and you wouldn't need to tax fossil fuels at all. A natural market equilibrium would keep the environment healthy.

Sometimes, unfortunate approximations are necessary. Forcing the Manhattan model on people would be a mistake, though; we have other options.


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