Transportation Regress

Scott Sumner discusses, among other things, the lack of meaningful progress in transportation technology over the past couple of generations:

If at age 10 I could have been magically transported from the 1960s to 2011, I would have been very impressed by the internet. But I might have also asked “Dude, where’s my flying car?“ I might have been surprised that people still flew in Boeing 7X7s that go about 575 miles an hour. Where are those super-sonic jets? I would have noticed changes, but nothing (except maybe the internet) would have blown me away.

In contrast a Roman or Minoan citizen would have been awestruck by the 1960s. An average working man can blast down the highway at 80 mph? You can watch TV shows? Even electric lights (which modern people wrongly take for granted) would have astounded the ancients.

Something that I think is worth paying attention to is the contrast between the pace of technical improvements in automobiles, which has been quite robust, and the basic stagnation of the driving experience. Cars are a lot better, but in general you can’t really drive faster. That’s because especially in our largest and most productive cities, the traffic jams are much worse than they were fifty years ago. This is a problem we can solve. It’s a problem we can solve with technology. But it’s not really a problem that car engineers can solve. We need congestion pricing. Similarly, there’s no reason for people to be regularly spending time circling the block looking for parking spaces. Prices should be responsive to demand. With the money we raise, we could run busses more frequent and equip them with GPS so bus stops (and websites, smartphone aps, etc.) could tell you when the next one’s going to show up.

Air travel is a bit of a different situation, but in many ways it’s the same. Today’s planes are, in fact, technologically superior to the planes of yore. But the travel experience has been made much worse by massive over-investment in airplane security. Inefficient pricing of runaway space leads to lots of problems. It’s possible today to build much better passenger trains than the ones we had fifty years ago, but it’s not politically possible to get straight rights of way for the tracks.

All in all, no matter how rich we get a day only has 24 hours. Things that cause us to waste time are very costly. And allocating space in systematically inefficient ways leads to a lot of wasting of time.