Predictable traffic jams or ‘dumb mobility’ is hampering progress towards a better mobility, and will only be reduced when people take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes. This article considers whether the road network is a ‘commons’, and if so if dumb mobility represents a ‘tragedy’ of the commons. It suggests that the ‘commons model’ may be a useful framework for thinking about the challenge of getting people to take greater collective responsibility for mobility outcomes.
In a 1968 article in Science called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, Garrett Hardin provided a fascinating and very readable insight into the nature of mankind to breed and consume itself into extinction. Mankind depends on certain common resources for survival. A feature of a ‘commons’ is that individuals can consume the common resource without restriction.
Hardin explains that as population expands beyond some point, rational (self-interested) consumption of the common resource by each individual can be expected to result in excess consumption by the whole of the community, thereby destroying the common resource: a tragedy. Hardin called for ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’ as a mechanism for preserving the resource – in effect removing it from being a commons.
In 2009, Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences for demonstrating that ordinary people can create the sort of mutual coercion that Hardin spoke of. In her 1990 book, Governing the Commons, Ostrom explains that at the heart of the tragedy of the commons and similar models is the problem of the free rider – the one who gets the benefit of the collective action, but does not contribute to the joint effort.
Is the road network a commons?
The road network is somewhat different to the types of common pool resources that Hardin’s and Ostrom’s work explores. As well as not being a natural resource, a key difference is that road networks are (or were) expandable, so upon finding the shared resource full, more lanes could be constructed – not the case with grazing land, fish, or an aquifer.
Also, putting too much demand on the road network does not necessarily damage it for future use in the way that natural resources suffer from over-use.
However, once the limits of road network expansion are reached (either physically or fiscally) the resources seem more similar. And if the resource is framed as a thoroughfare, with the benefit derived being unimpeded passage on a daily basis, then an argument could be made that its function as an effective thoroughfare during peak periods on certain days of the week can be permanently damaged by predictable traffic jams.
In this way, the road network can be seen as a commons, and dumb mobility can be seen as a tragedy of that commons.
Governing the road network commons
Hardin speaks of inevitability. However Ostrom’s research identified a number of examples where sustainable self-managed shared resources existed, and had existed over long periods of time without becoming tragedies. She analyzed case studies of these situations and proposed a framework for evaluating options for alternative structures in different situations.
She proposed a small change in the theoretical model that explained a workable alternative, and presented a very real example of such a solution in operation. In essence, the users of a common resource (in this case a fishery in Alanya, Turkey) devised a solution that allotted fishing sites to local fishers without the usual methods of privatization or central (read government) regulation.
Ostrom goes on about examples that have worked and ones that have not: “The differences may have to do with factors internal to a given group. The participants may simply have no capacity to communicate with one another, no way to develop trust, and no sense that they must share a common future. Alternatively, powerful individuals who stand to gain from the current situation, while others lose, may block efforts by the less powerful to change the rules of the game. Such groups may need some form of external assistance to break out of the perverse logic of their situation.”
“The differences may also have to do with factors outside the domain of those affected. Some participants do not have the autonomy to change their own institutional structures and are prevented from making constructive changes by external authorities who are indifferent to the perversities of the commons dilemma, or may even stand to gain from it.”
As people sit in traffic, suffering from dumb mobility, to what extent are they participants in a tragedy of the commons in which they have “no capacity to communicate with one another, no way to develop trust (that they will not cheat), and no sense of their common future”?
To what extent are they bound to stay in this situation as a result of ‘powerful individuals or external authorities who stand to gain from the tragedy, or are indifferent to it’?
Further, is it possible in 2015 that the tools are beginning to exist that could help them communicate with one another and develop trust? If so, could a new paradigm of road network management be devised by the users (rather than tolling authorities or central government regulators) that would result in better outcomes?
What do you think of the idea that the road network is a commons? Is dumb mobility a tragedy of that commons? And do you think road users could devise a better management system? Please share your opinions in our comment section.
Please note that this article expresses the opinions of the author and does not reflect the views of Move Forward.