Oliphant: Stuck in Irvine Traffic and Upset? Take a Hike…I Mean Bike

In a recent opinion piece about Irvine’s traffic problems forVoice of the OC, a fellow Irvine resident makes several assertions I wish to dispute. First, she diagnoses our city has a traffic problem because we drive too much and so should be penalized for it via a fee – a tax – for driving at peak times. Second, opposing our city council’s approach to building would only result in ever-increasing prices of housing. Third, Irvine’s traffic problem has nothing to do with construction.

The proposed fee has several problems. Even if you support such an idea to charge a fee to drivers who drive at peak times of traffic, such a fee is politically impossible. On June 5th, a State Senator in Orange County was actually recalled over raising the gas tax at the state level. In Irvine, voters overwhelmingly approved (by over 75%) measure C that requires two-thirds of the City Council to approve a tax increase – with only one precinct out of 101 voting against it.

Let’s assume against all reason that such a plan was possible. A fee will not have much of an impact here. Driving is what is known as an inelastic good. This means it is not price sensitive. This lack of price responsiveness is especially the case in a part of the world built after the invention of the car.

Also, traffic tends to be concentrated at certain times of the day: when people go to work and when they come back. A fee would have to be very high to discourage driving at these times. When was the last time you could call in to work saying “Sorry boss, I cannot drive to work today because it is too expensive to drive there today”?

In Irvine, a lot of driving in peak times is also concentrated among parents driving their kids to school, picking them up and taking them to after school activities. Can you use a bike or a bus for that? As a father of two very young kids, it is not exactly possible – let alone practical.

Speaking for those of us wanting to provide more of a voice to Irvine residents in the construction process, we do not accept nor appreciate the label of being anti-growth or NIMBY. These labels are inaccurate and are used in Irvine to discredit anyone striving for a more transparent development process. We cannot leave the process to our city council and commissions because they are heavily influenced by developers who are the only donors with the large amounts of money needed to determine elections.

In addition, I would argue the current pace and method of construction is not helping make housing more affordable. This mentality of “Build, Baby, Build” as the solution to high home prices is ineffective because it is unfortunately too simplistic. As someone who teaches economics, adding to supply in theory should help lower prices. But in the housing market, it is more complicated.

At a deeper level, economics is about incentives. Looking at the incentive structure for home building, high end building is far more profitable so this type of housing dominates construction. But the main way to lower housing prices is to build more affordable housing. So, by allowing developers to dictate housing construction as is the case now in Irvine, the land that could be used for more affordable housing will continue to be taken up almost completely with high end homes. As a result, Irvine will be unable to contribute much to solving California’s housing crisis.

Sadly, the opinion piece sounds like an attempt to merely deflect blame for the city’s traffic problems from where it belongs: the developers and the local government. The traffic problem is because of building that has exceeded the Master Plan. It is because the infrastructure has not kept up because the city council and their appointed commissioners ignore voter concerns. If it was just a matter of driving less and not construction and the lack of sufficient infrastructure, why are Irvine’s schools becoming increasingly overcrowded – e.g., in Cypress Village?

The problem with our fellow resident’s argument: it blames the wrong people. The argument is the traffic has nothing to do with the developers’ excessive building and the city council’s prioritizing of developers over residents. If you’re a resident in Irvine dealing with excessive traffic, our fellow resident and author of the recent opinion piece seems to say “Blame yourself.” If you complain about the traffic as being the result of our current policy of housing construction, the response seems to be “Go take a bike”. Her article sounds more like the response would be “Go take a hike”.

Wesley Oliphant PhD is an Assistant Professor of Economics at a community college. He is a resident of Portola Springs in Irvine and a member of the Irvine Watchdog citizens group. 

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

For a different view on this issue, consider:

Coleman: Paying More To Drive