09 January 2015

Anti road rage

George Monbiot writes about city planning in England, and the lack of playing space for children: "In the places built 10 or 20 years ago, there’s plenty of shared space, but almost all of it is allocated to cars." It's sad how little input ordinary people have into the layout of our towns and cities, and it's tragic that subordinating our entire way of living to motoring (as distinct from motorists) has had such negative consequences for our physical and mental health. People from the new world travel for thousands of miles to experience, for a week or two, vibrant, safe cities that invariably were developed before motoring became important. There's no reason people shouldn't live in the sort of suburbs or satellite towns against which Mr Monbiot inveighs if that is what they want to do, but there are good reasons why such lifestyles shouldn't be heavily subsidised; indeed, so heavily subsidised that any alternative has become forbiddingly expensive or dangerous for the middle classes. What are these subsidies? As well as subsidised to oil extraction and consumption, there is, essentially, free parking. And the costs of accidents, injuries and the damage done to mental health by roading are, of course, borne by the entire population.

Once a particular lifestyle has received subsidies for many years it's very difficult (though not impossible) to withdraw them. As well, cause and effect are difficult to identify and far more difficult to translate into meaningful political action. That is where Social Policy Bonds might offer a way forward. Under a bond regime we could target things that are not amenable to direct government action: things like the loneliness of the elderly, or the broader physical and mental health of an entire population. We cannot know in advance what are the best ways of achieving such targets. But a motivated coalition of investors holding bonds targeting these goals is far more likely to achieve them than a ruling political party beholden to its friends in big business and government. If holders of bonds targeting such goals decided that the best way of enabling people to live fulfilling, healthy lives is to make everyone dependent on cars, then that is what they will do. But they would only do so if that is what the evidence told them. For myself, I suspect that there is no such evidence, and it's a catastrophe that governments the world over are acting as though there were.