Off-the-Grid

In my libertarian, survivalist, or perhaps anarchical, dreams of purely autonomous individuals acting independently, but still maintaining modern conveniences, many technologies need to be delivered in radically different ways.

  • We could produce power on-site, without need of a grid, through windmills on our own property, through now efficient rooftop solar, through geothermal, or through our own wells.
  • We can unplug from the telecommunications monopolies through a peer-to-peer internet system, where everyone’s WiFi connects to their neighbors. (See e.g. LifeNet)
  • We collect and treat our own rainwater and use that to drink and clean, before discharging brown water onto our property, and other waste into a septic system.
  • We school our children at home, or in independent charter or private schools.

What is the transport analog? Could we effectively decentralize the provision of roads?

The first obvious answer is air transport. All we need are flying cars, autogyros, hovercraft, or helicopters, and who cares about roads, we just use the air as a commons. The problem of course is the much higher energy consumption (and thus cost) required per trip. While for long-distance trips commercial aviation consumes a similar amount of energy on a per-unit distance basis as cars, this is unlikely to be true for shorter distance trips.

The next obvious answer is water transportation. But we run into the problem identified in the Simpson’s episode satirizing KITT: Knightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat

Announcer: We now return to “Knightboat: the Crime-Solving Boat”.
Michael: Faster, Knightboat! We gotta catch those starfish poachers.
Knightboat: You don’t have to yell, Michael, I’m all around you.
Michael: Oh, no! They’re headed for land.
[the poachers ride onto the beach, jump on motorcycles, and
speed away]
Michael: We’ll never catch them now.
Knightboat: Incorrect: look! A canal.
Homer: Go, Knightboat, go!
Bart: Oh, every week there’s a canal.
Lisa: Or an inlet.
Bart: Or a fjord.
Homer: Quiet! I will not hear another word against the boat.

So sticking with the surface, the last time roads were solely the responsibility of the adjoining landowners, we had roads of poor quality – justifying governmental takeover (either directly or through quasi-governmental organization) to impose prices. Like today’s sidewalks, the property owners was once responsible for maintaining a right-of-way across their property. But they had little motive to do this well (the analogy with sidewalks remains), and a race-to-the-bottom ensued, where these paths were of poor quality, inconveniencing travelers. As the Good Roads Movements (in various forms through history) demanded higher quality for the good of travelers, and landowners had no incentives, government naturally took over.

So if we cannot fully decentralize roads to the point where people provide their own, and if we recognize they are not well-structured as a commons, perhaps we can privatize them in such a way that they are competitive, so I have some market choice in which roads I use. Theoretically, this has a lot of potential in providing differentiated levels of service.

At the local level, (“the last mile”) roads are clearly natural monopolies, as local streets have high fixed costs and low costs per use, and it does not make sense to have your house served by two competing roads (just as you have only one electric utility, one cable TV utility, one natural gas utility, and so on).

I can think of an exception in places with alleys. I can access my house via the street, or the back via an alley. In principal, one could imagine different organizations controlling the different roads, and charging different rates for use. In practice, the collection costs for pricing such a discrete system will likely be greater than the costs of maintaining the system. Further most places don’t have alleys, and retrofitting would be expensive.

The last mile has been privatized in some places (just think of homeowners association streets), but these “private road associations” are basically monopolies or clubs, and are not competitive, and could be thought of as the most local level of government.

It might be possible to privatize city streets. I have a thought experiment where traffic signals are private contractors with specific incentives and green time is auctioned. Implementing a congestion charge might be part of this. And while this might provide users some choice about which vendor to use, this is not self-provided transportation autonomy.

Long distance highways are private in many places (like “Socialist” France or China, but unlike most of the “Capitalist” US or UK). If these firms were competitive, on long trips, you might have a choice of suppliers for the line haul part of that journey if not the whole trip. A first step is transformation of DOTs into public utilities.

In the end, we have to concede a certain impracticality in being “off-the-street-grid”, much as our founding fathers suggested in the Postal Clause, as with Adam Smith writing at the same time (1776):

From Chapter 11 of the Wealth of Nations:

I.11.14
Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expence of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that account the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighbourhood. They are advantageous even to that part of the country. Though they introduce some rival commodities into the old market, they open many new markets to its produce. Monopoly, besides, is a great enemy to good management, which can never be universally established but in consequence of that free and universal competition which forces every body to have recourse to it for the sake of self-defence. It is not more than fifty years ago, that some of the counties in the neighbourhood of London petitioned the parliament against the extension of the turnpike roads into the remoter counties. Those remoter counties, they pretended, from the cheapness of labour, would be able to sell their grass and corn cheaper in the London market than themselves, and would thereby reduce their rents, and ruin their cultivation. Their rents, however, have risen, and their cultivation has been improved since that time.

As I am quoted in Midwest Energy News:

“There isn’t a person in the United States who doesn’t get some use out of the roads,” says Levinson, who also writes the Transportationist blog. Even people who don’t drive still benefit from things like fire protection, ambulance services, and mail delivery — all of which depend on roads. “I suppose you could be Ted Kaczynski, but even he had to use the U.S. Postal Service to mail his bombs.”

One thought on “Off-the-Grid”

  1. These are excellent thoughts.

    We know that not are roads are created equal. Some are rival. Some are not. Some are natural monopolies. Some are not.

    Roads are neither non-rival nor non-excludable so they don’t fit the definition of a public good – though they are a collective good with significant positive externalities. Good networks of roads lower the costs of trade, so therefore increase gains from trade.

    And everyone does benefit from roads. I don’t know of a case where consumer goods were delivered by rail transit, or where police protection (except for transit users themselves) was delivered by rail.

    Interconnected road networks do not all have to be managed the same way. Thought experiments can certainly consider which types of roads can most efficiently be managed as common pool goods, club goods, or private goods. Managing roads as public utilities is certainly a productive place to start the analysis.

Comments are closed.