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News Blog

Utah's 'Clean Air Challenge' and tragedy of the commons

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2010-01-29 -

Governor Garry Herbert joined the "Clean Air Challenge" today--originally conceived in part by his Democratic rival for governor, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon. The effort challenges residents to make a commitment to cleaner travel (mass transit, bikes or walking vs. cars). All I can say is I AM TRYING, but dang it, "challenge" is the exactly the right word for it.

The governor seems to think a primary hurdle is people's ignorance of how to use mass transit and thus there will be a free day Feb. 12 for the fearful to learn how to use UTA buses, TRAX, and FrontRunner. But ignorance and fear are not my problem. I love mass tranist. My problem is economics.

First, I can't sell my car entirely because I work on deadlines and have to travel considerable distances for interviews. So that means I'll be paying for car insurance regardless of whether I use the car 20 times per month, or once. So that's $80 per month for car insurance. At least that's what I pay. I could ride TRAX on days I don't have one of those interviews, but then I have to pay for a train ticket even though I've already paid to use my car (I won't even get into parking fees, oil changes, etc.).

A day-pass on TRAX/buses is $5; a monthly pass $67. If you need FrontRunner access as well, it's $167 per month.

Here's the rub: being a car owner and riding mass-transit creates a substantial double charge. I'm already paying $2.50/day for my car insurance and now my governor and my mayors (Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker has also signed on to the "challenge") want me to pay additional fees for my transportation so that I can contribute to cleaner air. I'm not destitute, but I do have many debts I'm trying to pay off as quickly as possible, and the economics of owning a car AND riding mass transit simply don't make sense for me. I walk 2.3 miles to and from work when it's nice out (and I have the time and energy). I still take TRAX sometimes (not as often as I should).

I think "challenge" downplays what this represents. Very few people can arrange a comfortable lifestyle in the Wasatch Front that never requires a personal vehicle (but kudos to those who have!!). So I'm not the only one with this car insurance/mass-transit fees dilemma.

I think if our leaders are truly committed to cleaning up the air, they need to address the economics of travel, not just toss out "challenges" that put the impetus on citizens alone. UTA is expanding into more suburbs and extending to the airport; that's great. But my problem is not a lack of access to mass transit; I live and work very close to TRAX stops. My problem is that in our current system it does not make economic sense for me to pursue environmental goals. It's hard to "challenge" people to overlook their personal economics in pursuit of the common good. Though I don't have the expertise to say so, I think it defies human nature. If you want citizens to change their behaviors, I believe you must restructure the system so they are economically enticed/able to do so.

So my recommendation to these Clean Air Challenge-folk is to stop challenging us. I have enough challenges just being a young, indebted professional; others have much greater challenges than I. Stop challenging us and start helping. I have more means and opportunity than many, and even I can't make economic sense of this challenge. Moreover, it makes little sense for me to hurt my personal finances to clean the air if it seems to me--and it does--that so few others will be doing the same. It's truly a tragedy of the commons that no mere "challenge" will overcome.

Update 1:25 p.m.: the last time I wrote about my personal economics a very smart friend of mine said that he thought that I must have done my taxes wrong. I don't think he's right about that, but if you feel I've missed something here, please help me out! I would love to find out that things aren't as bad as they seem. 

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // January 29,2010 at 12:57

Ahhh, hell no! As a longtime user of Utah's mass transit system, I have a TON to say about this. But to be brief, a few thoughts ... As part of Governor Gary's initiative, is he actually promising to USE Utah's mass transit system himself for a majority of his personal travel? If he IS promising that, I'll believe it when I see it, brother! UTA charges relatively high fees and offers pathetically inadequate service for what it charges. The biggest problem with mass transit here is it is extremely inconvenient. There are tons of holes and gaps in its coverage. The system basically assumes that its riders have cars or at least have access to cars and only ride the buses and trains for convenience, not out of necessity. It is a terrible, terrible system for anybody who chooses to live without a car, much less for somebody who has no means to buy a car. I am angry!

 

 
 
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