Policy affects choices

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Matthew Yglesias tends to write about a lot of the issues and policies that I happen to be interested in with the added bonus that he’s extremely smart and apparently knows everything about everything.  One of his most recent riffs was on this quote from President Bush about Bush’s non-support of energy conservation:

“The American people are smart enough to figure it out. They know the price of gas. They’re already driving less and seeking smaller cars. I don’t need to tell them; they can balance their checkbook.”

Y’s point is that the government can step in and make policies that give people more choices for conserving energy.  Essentially, the market sets up the conditions that the government can take advantage of to leverage relatively small investments into massive changes in behavior with huge benefits.

My example is the never-seems-like-it’s-going-to-be-built Schuylkill Valley Metro.  With gas at $4+ per gallon, with the costs of highway construction and maintenance rising, with the environmental implications of driving, the $2.1 billion for a reliable, efficient, frequent rail service from Philadelphia to Reading and from Philadelphia to King of Prussia and Exton, seems like a bargain.

President Bush is right.  I know gas is expensive.  I know I need to convince my wife to dump our Jeep Liberty and get a Smart Car (or my down-the-road dream of a plug-in electric).  I also drive a lot less in situations where I can get away with a bike, mass transit or walking.  But in the meantime, I’m still going to drive to the King of Prussia mall because there’s no other practical way to get there.

Folks are still going to drive to Columbus Boulevard and parts of Philadelphia east of Broad, south of Washington because there are no rail offerings.

I’m not an expert on zoning issues in the suburbs, but I’m guessing that a lot of the towns that are lucky enough to have a SEPTA regional rail station run through them also have density regulations that constrict the amount of housing available to folks who want to move to a car-free suburban location.

The point is, federal, state and local conservation policies don’t just mean mandating mileage standards for cars or recycling programs.  Those policies can touch our lives in ways that we don’t even realize.  Neither, apparently, does the president.

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