Congestion Pricing Will Make You Happy

happiness.jpg 

An op/ed by Eduardo Porter in today’s New York Times makes a passing suggestion that by reducing the number of people who do solo car commutes, congestion pricing would make New Yorkers happier.

I can say this for sure: If it also reduces the number of honking, revving, careening and exhaust-spewing sociopaths clogging New York City streets in their gigundo sedans and sports utes it’ll definitely make me happier. I don’t know if it’s just me or if for some reason there has been a sudden increase in idiotic driving and needless horn-blasting but lately I find myself wanting to take a sledgehammer to lots of New York City drivers’ windshields. I suppose this sinks me pretty far down in the happiness rankings. Here’s an excerpt:

The framers of the Declaration of Independence evidently believed
that happiness could be achieved, putting its pursuit up there
alongside the unalienable rights to life and liberty. Though
governments since then have seen life and liberty as deserving of
vigorous protection, for all the public policies aimed at increasing
economic growth, people have been left to sort out their happiness.

This
is an unfortunate omission. Despite all the wealth we have accumulated
— increased life expectancy, central heating, plasma TVs and
venti-white-chocolate-mocha Frappuccinos — true happiness has lagged
our prosperity…

Despite happiness’ apparently Sisyphean nature, there may be ways to
increase satisfaction over the long term. While the extra happiness
derived from a raise or a winning lottery ticket might be fleeting,
studies have found that the happiness people derive from free time or
social interaction is less susceptible to comparisons with other people
around them. Non-monetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time
with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in
satisfaction.

This swings the door wide open for government
intervention. On a small scale, congestion taxes to encourage people to
carpool would reduce the distress of the solo morning commute, which
apparently drives people nuts.

Perhaps no coincidence, Denmark — the land of Jan Gehl, communal, car-free public spaces and high-heeled cyclistsconsistently lands the #1 spot in studies of the world’s happiest nation. Here is a recent study in the British Medical Journal.

Map of World Happiness: University of Leicester School of Psychology.

  • Dave H.

    Oh wow, this really opening a Pandora’s box: are paternalism and perfections things that we want to espouse? Should government be in the business of looking out for people’s happiness, even if it appears to those people that it is against their better interests? Fun… my answer is a qualified ‘yes,’ but I can already imagine all the congestion pricing opponents identifying this argument with totalitarianism, communism and lots of other squalid things. They would be wrong, of course, but as for as rhetoric and winning the political debate goes, this may really be pitching them a softball.

  • Dave H.

    Some day I will post without a typo: I meant “perfectionism”

  • Dave H.

    Unless I have misunderstood something, that is an odd graphic to use. It shows that three of the world’s most auto-dependent countries (US, Australia and Canada) are among its happiest.

  • These happiness surveys account for lots of other factors aside from just livable streets-types of issues. The world’s most auto-dependent countries also generally have lots of wealth, high life expectancy, well-fed and literate populations, representative governments… That stuff makes countries “happy” too.

  • Dave H.

    Aaron, I absolutely agree with you. Of course there is more to life than livable streets. I was just pointing out that I didn’t exactly see the relationship between the graphic and the main point in the text below. I’m probably just being picky though.

  • “Non-monetary rewards — like more vacations, or more time with friends or family — are likely to produce more lasting changes in satisfaction.”

    That doesn’t imply paternalism. We need laws that give people the *choice* of downshifting economically – working less and consuming less. Most Americans don’t have that choice, though the Germans and Dutch do. See http://www.preservenet.com/studies/WorkTimeGlobalWarming.html.

    It is odd that the graphic shows that the wealthiest nations are happiest. All the research that I have heard about shows that, after a nation reaches a per capita income of about $15,000 (about one-third of US income), further increases in income to not increase happiness. Within each country, wealthier people tend to be happier; but among countries, greater wealth does not bring greater happiness after you reach this level of basic comfort. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness_economics#Happiness_and_GDP. That chart may be based on research aimed at supporting economic growth, against the overwhelming majority of research showing that economic growth does not increase happiness.

  • The link above doesn’t work because the period was included in the link. Try:
    http://www.preservenet.com/studies/WorkTimeGlobalWarming.html

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I agree with Porter, but I also agree with Dave that the map is weird. One of the most striking things about my visit to Mali ten years ago was that despite widespread malnutrition and disease, the people there seemed no less happy than Americans; if anything, happier. I always think of this when I see globalization zealots patting themselves on the back for getting people off of farms and into factories.

    The Atlantic Monthly last month had an article about Bhutan, which apparently has an official Gross National Happiness index – and the Wikipedia article I link to mentions some criticisms with this idea.

    As far as I know, measures like Gross Domestic Product were never intended to be measures of well-being. They were intended to be measures of how likely investers are to get a good return on their investment, which is not the same thing at all.

  • Aaron, it’s not just you.

    Lately, I’ve been seeing more and more driver behavior that’s not merely thoughtless or inconsiderate but deliberately and pointedly aggressive. Several months ago, walking at the edge of a road with no sidewalk, I was forced off the road and into a gully the first time, and nearly pinned against a guardrail the second. There was no mistaking the intent.

    I think drivers are coming to realize that the game is up, or nearly up; that private transportation arrangements are unraveling, in New York as in a growing number of cities worldwide. Their resentment finds a convenient outlet on our streets, with sometimes murderous consequences.

    As “This Week’s Carnage” reports make all too clear, I can’t as a pedestrian take my physical safety for granted; not in a crosswalk, not on a sidewalk, and as I learned, not at the edge of a road that doesn’t have either one.

  • glennQ

    Increased government restrictions in my life and finances never makes me happier.
    I think I know how to make myself happier than any politician or activist thank you.

  • Jonathan

    Charles, your “downshifting” argument raises many good issues that go beyond livable streets. But there are other sound reasons for encouraging people to work fulltime, including to some extent keeping Social Security solvent and promoting economic justice.

    Toward the latter point, NPR said this morning that in 2004 the average black family earned 54% of what the average white family earned. Given that disparity, I believe it would be more prudent to work on “upshifting” the many Americans who are under- or unemployed (or in prison) into productive heads of households.

  • Dave H.

    Having thought about it, I partially withdraw my comment #1 above. New York seems to be a place where limited, enlightened paternalism is accepted: the smoking ban and the trans-fat ban being examples of this. Perhaps the happiness argument will win over some people who are undecided on the issue of congestion pricing.

  • Dave H.

    And in response to GlennQ, do you really mean that government restrictions on your finances and “in your life” never make you happier.

    -Do you think you would be more or less happy if you did not pay taxes and, consequently, received no government services? (no police, no army etc.)

    -Do you think you would more or less happy if there were no government regulation of the food or banking industries. That regulation undoubtedly makes buying food or taking out loans more expensive for the informed consumer, but it also means (perhaps you disagree) that I have a lot less to worry about when I put my money in the bank, take out a loan or buy some chicken for dinner.

  • I agree with Dan above– drivers seem more stressed than ever.otoh there seem to be fewer of them.

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