one day in urban sociology class…

A few years ago, I found myself subbing for the teacher of an urban sociology class. It was the last day so we covered the last chapter in the text book, which talked about policy reforms. The book covered some reasonable topics, such as the need to have better regional government in the US to help coordinate things like transportation.

To spice things up, I added four intentionally provocative proposals that might improve urban life. I want you to guess which proposal triggered the most violent reaction:

  1. End the over-policing of neighborhoods by decriminalizing narcotics.
  2. Revive dying cities, such as the Rust Belt, by liberalizing immigration. A lot of poor people in developing nations would love to live in Detroit or St. Louis.
  3. Deregulate housing construction, so we can have higher density and cheaper homes for working class people. San Francisco – I’m looking straight at you!
  4. Surge pricing for roads to help relieve congestion.

Don’t look. Think about what the class thought the most controversial post was.

Answer: Surge pricing for roads. My gosh, people thought that surge pricing – charging higher tolls for roads during high use periods – made me some sort of demon. They thought that surge pricing would prevent poor people from getting jobs, reserve roads for the rich, and lead to all kinds of chaos. I was even more shocked that my other proposals, each one insanely controversial among voters and policy makers, were seen as boring, obvious, or both.

Were the students right? Use the comments.



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Written by fabiorojas

June 3, 2019 at 12:53 am

Posted in uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. Did the surge pricing proposal include a feature to soften any regressive impact on lower-income workers? Many people in the US assume, rightly or wrongly, that higher social class gives you more power to choose your hours to drive to work.


    Don Frazier

    June 3, 2019 at 5:41 am

  2. @Don: My argument is that surge pricing would be similar to regular tolls. If your job needs you to travel during peak times, the employer picks up the tab – just like truckers do not pay tolls out of pocket. It’s built into the price of trucking.



    June 3, 2019 at 2:30 pm

  3. Perhaps surge pricing for roads cut closer to home for these students than the other proposals? And your assumption that employers would pick up the cost seems particularly unrealistic for low wage workers for whom in all sorts of ways the opposite is happening: all the costs and risks are being increasingly transferred away from employers to employees. Think “just in time” scheduling that leaves workers not knowing their schedules for more than a few days in advance, if that; think the decline of employer-paid health insurance or retirement benefits; think the lack of sick pay for low wage workers; think requirements that people buy their own uniforms for fast food employment.



    June 4, 2019 at 10:18 pm

  4. Very fair points. My model is the trucking industry and taxi industry where customers pick up tolls.



    June 5, 2019 at 4:43 pm

  5. Current tax policy will charge employers taxes on providing amenities like free parking, so subsidizing for surge pricing seems even less likely than it currently is–and given the number of employers that already make employees pay for parking even where no alternative to driving to work exists, I cannot imagine many picking up the tab for surge pricing.

    The big missing link here is public transit. In a city with robust, efficient public transit, low-wage workers have a real (and lower-cost) alternative to driving, especially when the transit goes from where people live to where they work. In cities with poor or unreliable public transit, or transit that does not serve commuting routes, low-income people have to drive. In addition, even robust public transit systems may be inaccessible to people with disabilities who cannot walk the long distances to transit stops or navigate rail stations that frequently have broken elevators, so a surge pricing scheme needs to take this population into account to be fair and equitable.

    (It’s also worth noting that surge pricing can put a significant burden on blue-collar tradespeople, like locksmiths and plumbers, who may have to drive in and out of the surge zone repeatedly during a workday and who do not have the alternative of using public transit, but I assume there are mechanisms to adjust for this via the tax code or via limited-purpose unlimited-entry permits).



    June 5, 2019 at 6:32 pm

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