One of the most difficult hurdles in the quest for urban sustainability is a phenomenon that behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls the "endowment effect." Stated simply, the endowment effect refers to our innate tendency to massively overvalue the things we have over the things we stand to gain.
In Ariely's excellent and highly readable behavioral economics primer, "Predictably Irrational," he describes an experiment he conducted with students at Duke University who camped out for days to enter a lottery to win Blue Devils playoff basketball tickets. When Ariely asked a cross-section of the campers after the lottery what the tickets were worth, the students who won them gave them an average price of $2,400; those who lost the lottery were willing to pay an average of $170 for a ticket. There was literally not a single buyer who could agree with a single seller on an amenable price. In the moment of the lottery win, the tickets became impossibly valuable to the winners and merely a take-it-or-leave-it thing to the losers.
Urban drivers, it seems to me, are a roaring case study in the endowment effect, treating the everyday grind of gridlock and gas-pump price shock and the futile quest for a good parking space like precious commodities essential to urban living. I'm not sure how we completely overcome this sense of impending loss, but I have a hunch it begins by showing, in very tangible form, what cities look like —how valuable they can be — when you plan them around the needs of people instead of their cars. The fantastic documentary, "Moving Beyond the Automobile," available in 10 bite-sized episodes from the ever-excellent Streetfilms.org, provides just such a window on (liberated) city living after the car.
Each episode of the Streetfilms doc highlights a different tool in the post-car urban design toolbox, using concrete up-and-running examples from across urban America. The films mostly speak for themselves, but I'll highlight my three favorite lines from my three favorite episodes to give you a taste.
1. "Traffic Calming"
"Altering the infrastructure to create an even playing field, to force traffic to behave in a more civilized manner, is the way that it has to go" -- Mary Ann Smith, Chicago alderman
2. "Transit-Oriented Development"
3. "The Right Price for Parking"
"If you have a scarce resource — parking spaces — and you have a lot of demand for that resource, the best way to manage that is to price it properly. That's a simple economic principle" - Matthew Roth, Streetsblog San Francisco contributor
Head on over to Streetfilms to watch the rest of the documentary. Happy less motoring!
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