Innovation, and the Gas Tax

I’m not sure why anyone would argue that the imposition of a carbon price, even a relatively modest one, wouldn’t spur innovation. Price increases — the market’s signal for scarcity — lead to a range of human responses, among the most important of which is invention. The opinion that a price increase will likely lead to innovation is little more than a ratification of the idea that markets generally work.

But Jim Manzi seems skeptical of this connection. And he cites variations in the gas tax rate as evidence:

Consider as an important example that most major Western European countries have had very high gas taxes – typically several dollars per gallon – for decades. But despite the efforts of lots of very smart engineers, the automobile has been a pretty stable technology for these same decades. Raising the price of gas does reduce consumption, and will of course induce some incremental innovation. But Western Europe seems to me to a big enough market so that if a low-carbon technology could be developed globally that was competitive with internal combustion in the face of a ~$5 per gallon gas tax, we already have a big enough end-use market to induce it. Why would increasing prices in America work when it hasn’t for Europe? There might be some carbon price that would radically accelerate innovation across the array of uses of fossil fuels (the limit case is simply outlawing coal and petroleum), but it has never, to my knowledge, been imposed anywhere at scale, presumably because it would impoverish any country that tried.

If you look closely, you’ll find that Manzi has gone and made the case for a carbon price in as compelling a fashion as you’re likely to find. Manzi thinks about automobiles and gas taxes and pictures a certain kind of innovation — new cars with new engines that don’t run on gas. And when he looks at Europe he doesn’t see it. But does that mean that there has been no innovation in response to the higher gas tax rates?

Clearly that’s not the case. In general, Europeans do drive different automobiles, which tend to be smaller and more efficient. Some of these have been innovative enough in their design to generate raised eyebrows from American tourists (see: the Smart car). In Europe, the scooter is far more popular and differentiated (the scooter with roof is a common sight). Bicycles are also more common and differentiated, and the institutional supports for cyclists are more highly developed (cycle superhighways are old news in Europe).

And then there’s public transport. From buses to trams to trains to high-speed rail, Europe is well ahead of America. When American transit systems go shopping for vehicles, they generally look to European manufacturers. When the District sought a technology that would allow the city to run streetcars without using overhead wires, it looked to France’s Alstom and Canada’s Bombardier (Canadian gas tax rates are considerably higher than those in America). And transit innovation goes beyond vehicle technologies. It includes fare-gathering methods, scheduling, system design and maintenance, and so on.

And then, of course, there are innovations in the physical structure of the landscape. Europeans do density well. So do some Canadians (Vancouver has the country’s highest gas tax rate and some of the world’s finest urban design).

And so on. The end result is that Europeans use a lot less gas, as Manzi acknowledges. But they don’t just reduce their consumption, as he intimates. They don’t lead lives exactly like ours, only they opt to sit at home while Americans go for Sunday drives. They have adapted and innovated their way around higher gas prices.

And the great breadth and variety of responses to higher rates is important to note. A country that sets its mind to innovating will approach problems with certain preconceived notions. They’ll say, “Well, we need to innovate our way around gasoline, so let’s see what new fuel we can find to replace it. Ethanol? Hydrogen? Electricity? We’re bound to hit on the right solution eventually.” But if you allow prices to do some of the work, you get many different solutions to the problem, many of which are far cheaper and more effective than the pre-conceived idea you had in mind. You get folks coming up with bike-sharing programs, car-sharing programs, and so on. You get effective innovation, which is exactly what we want. Manzi looks for the innovation he thinks he should see, and in the process he misses all the innovations that are actually there. And that’s precisely why the carbon price signal is so crucial.


  1. Milton Recht says:

    In response to high gasoline prices in Europe, Europe did not innovate. Europeans reduced their miles driven (actually the number of hours gasoline engines run) and reduced the weight and size of their vehicles, including the number and weight of passengers and cargo the vehicles can carry, which then require less fuel.

    If they had been able to innovate, such as to produce a much more fuel efficient gasoline engine, they would own larger cars and drive greater distances. Most mileage improvements have come from changes to the vehicle body and not the engine, such as air drag reduction and lighter materials

    There is a fundamental natural problem. For practical energy sources, gasoline has the second highest energy density only surpassed by nuclear power.

    Alternatives to gasoline as an energy source have not materialized because other energy sources are like the energy differences between fire and sunlight.

    Innovators have not been able to find a practical alternative dense energy source. Many of the popular media alternatives, such as hydrogen, pose great dangers. Hydrogen interacts with its container, weakens it, and is highly explosive. Batteries contain and are manufactured with highly toxic heavy metal and rare materials, many of which are in short and limited supply. Batteries move more serious and harmful environmental issues from the car to the manufacturing and disposal facilities. Large batteries can also be explosive.

    It is not clear that reducing passenger miles will help reduce carbon. If I will not drive to the Home Depot 10 miles away, hardware stores will have to move closer to where I live and within my acceptable driving distance. Supply trucks will drive the additional distance that I forego to bring the goods to the stores and more often because there will be more, smaller stores, with less inventory storage space, closer to more people. There maybe total carbon savings depending on relative fuel efficiencies or there may not be.

    Additionally, 45 percent of a barrel of oil becomes gasoline. If gasoline use declines, the question is how much can oil barrel production switch to non-gasoline products. About 25 percent of a barrel of oil is use to make plastics and other products. One has to look at the price change that will occur in the other products. The price may go up or down. My guess is the prices will go up, because if they were currently more profitable than gasoline, production would have shifted to produce more of the other products than gasoline to maximize earnings. That means with less gasoline usage, the price of the other products from gasoline will rise to recover costs formerly recovered by gasoline’s higher profitability.

    Changing byproduct costs, such as plastics, lubricants, etc. that are widely used in the US economy will cause dramatic production and price shifts. These economy wide production shifts may or may not increase carbon production.

    Most analysis about price changes (taxes) to gasoline look at the carbon reduction from the reduction to total miles driven. Driving shorter distances and using less gasoline will cause economic shifts to oil barrel production and the retail product supply chain in the US. The economy wide effects to the supply chain of reducing passenger miles will offset in part or in total the benefits of reduced passenger miles. Most European countries that place taxes on gasoline for cars recognize the need for increased trucking and do not place the same burden of taxation on trucks and other delivery vehicles.

  2. Memnon says:

    Milton, you are not thinking this through. Of course going from low to high density lowers emissions – there is just no comparison on the efficiency of bringing 1 000 cans of paint in a truck vs 1 000 families driving the same distance to pick them up themselves.
    While some European states have lower taxes on diesel for trucks than for cars, diesel taxes are still very much higher than here in the states.
    Finally, looking at emissions any way – CO2 per GDP, CO2 per capita, CO2 per travelled distance, it is obvious that both densely (Luxembourg) and sparsely (Norway) populated European countries are way more efficient than us – which conclusively demonstrates that the incentives you don´t believe in have indeed had the intended effect!

  3. Mixner says:

    Ryan’s response to Manzi doesn’t make much sense. There is nothing technologically innovative about the Smart Car. It’s just a very small car. Ditto for buses and trains. Electric subways and trams/trolleys have been around for over a century. Electric and motor buses almost as long. And whatever the motives for high-speed rail, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with fuel costs. I’ve never seen any serious analysis showing that HSR has lower costs per passenger-mile than air travel or bus travel. So where is all this technological innovation that is supposedly stimulated by $5+/gallon gas? The transportation market in Europe has not adapted to high fuel costs by aggressively pursuing new technology. It has responded with smaller, less powerful cars.

  4. BrianTH says:

    Ryan’s point about certain people not acknowledging innovation if it comes in forms they aren’t expecting is well-taken (and well-confirmed by some of the comments above).

    But I’d note there has in fact been an awful lot of innovation in automotive technology coming out of Europe. For example, the electronically-controlled common rail system developed by Fiat and sold to Bosch has been truly revolutionary (VW’s turbocharged direct injection (TDI) engines aren’t too shabby either). Fiat and VW also pioneered start-stop systems, and BMW and Bosch have developed a combined start-stop and regenerative braking system. These “micro hybrid” technologies are scheduled to achieve pretty impressive global penetration in the near future. Fiat (again) has developed MultiAir, an electrohydraulic valve system which is achieving impressive results and also seems likely to see widespread application in the future. And so on.

  5. Kyle says:

    These comments are funny. In response to evidence that increase cost of gasoline results in reduced gasoline consumption (and reduced C02 emissions), they say, “Where is all this technological innovation?” They seem to miss the point that the problem is C02 emissions, and increasing the cost of gasoline helps to solve the problem. Who cares whether it’s caused by smaller cars or more fuel efficient big cars? All that matters is the end result.

  6. Mixner says:

    BrianTH don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “innovation,” and Kyle doesn’t seem to understand that the point of the post is the relationship between price and innovation, not merely consumption.

    Using less gas by making smaller cars is not innovation. Using less gas by traveling on buses and trains instead of cars is not innovation. Americans used to do most of their traveling by bus and train too. Then they got richer and shifted to cars. Higher gas prices in the US might induce Americans to shift back to small cars and more buses, but that’s not innovation. It’s regression.

  7. BrianTH says:

    Innovation just means the introduction of something new. As Ryan rightly points out, the concept of innovation is not limited specifically to new vehicle technologies. Rather, innovation can apply to “fare-gathering methods, scheduling, system design and maintenance” as well as “urban design” and so on.

    And as I pointed out, it isn’t even true that the Europeans haven’t been innovating in the area of vehicle technologies. Unlike some of the commentators, at least Manzi tried to hedge a bit by dismissing “incremental innovations” from consideration, but I fail to see why that makes sense. String together enough “incremental” innovations (and many of these recent technologies are in fact compatible, or even complementary), and you can make a very susbtantial difference in carbon emission rates from vehicles.

  8. Zach says:

    This is what precedes the excerpted paragraph: “no realistic US price on carbon is likely to induce the kind of transformation that many advocates rhetorically imagine.”

    The “kind of transformation” that most advocates imagine is a transformation to a world emitting less CO2 than it does today. That’s it. No advocate who’s remotely up to speed on the issue thinks that movement to this end, especially movement within next few crucial decades, will come entirely or even mostly from some technological sea change.

    Increasing energy efficiency is the number one way to drop emissions in the short term. We can do this by pricing carbon or enforcing efficiency regulations.

    “Using less gas by making smaller cars is not innovation. Using less gas by traveling on buses and trains instead of cars is not innovation.”

    If there’s totally no genuine innovation what are all of the patent spats between Toyota, Ford, and Honda over electric vehicles? Do you imagine that there aren’t any patents covering inventions in the Smart Car? I’d bet that some new, patented inventions were required to get a car that small certified street legal in the States. Let’s see:

    Smart’s innovations in factory design, and manufacturing techniques:

    Check out several of Smart’s patents here –

  9. Mixner says:

    Innovation just means the introduction of something new.

    No, innovation is not a synonym for “new.” But buses and trains are not new, anyway. Neither are small cars.

    Telling people that it would be an “innovation” to take the bus instead of driving, or to replace their spacious, powerful family sedan or SUV with a cramped econobox that struggles to climb hills, isn’t likely to persuade them. They will view those proposals not as “innovations” but as a reduction in their standard of living.

  10. Mixner says:

    The “kind of transformation” that most advocates imagine is a transformation to a world emitting less CO2 than it does today.

    If that’s true, then “most advocates” apparently don’t really care much about climate change after all. To stabilize atmospheric GHG concentration at the supposed “safe” level (450 ppm or less) would require us to reduce emissions to at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is a much, much greater reduction than merely “less CO2 than the world emits today.”

  11. Adrian says:

    Innovation doesn’t have to be technical for it to be innovation. It can be social and/or political as well. For example I see as extremely innovative the way the Dutch and Danes figured out how to create a political consensus to build a network of separated bike lanes. Similar for building public transit networks. It’s not the bus itself that’s innovative, but the creation of the social and political pre-conditions that enabled the bus/train/streetcar to be deployed so widely.

  12. BrianTH says:

    From Merriam-Webster Online:

    Main Entry: in·no·va·tion
    Pronunciation: \ˌi-nə-ˈvā-shən\
    Function: noun
    Date: 15th century
    1 : the introduction of something new

    Anyway, I strongly suspect that there have been just as many or more innovations incorporated into public transit vehicles in Europe as there have been in personal vehicles in Europe. As an aside, the three examples I gave of important personal vehicle technologies first developed in Europe (electronically-controlled common rail, “micro hybrid” technologies, and MultiAir) all serve to substantially decrease CO2 emissions per unit of power. So the notion suggested above–that this is all just about reducing power in order to reduce emissions–is simply incorrect on the facts.

    But I think the greater point remains. The broader sense of innovation Ryan sketched–which would apply to everything from fare-gathering to scheduling to system design to urban design and so forth–has direct relevance to the notion above that it doesn’t count as innovative if all that is happening is people are using transit for more trips. All these sorts of non-vehicular innovations have direct effects on the actual experience of transit riders–their trip times will be shorter, with fewer transfers and dwell times, service will be more reliable and punctual, and so on.

    So these innovations are providing transit riders with a better experience. Which of course makes sense in the current context: pricing carbon provides an opportunity for transit systems to gain share, but maximizing that opportunity will result from making transit a better experience for riders, and pricing carbon in turn means transit suthorities will likely have better access to financing for such improvements (either through fares and other operating revenues, or the political process).

    In short, Manzi sketches out a puzzle–why wouldn’t carbon pricing lead to related innovations, as we would ordinarily expect? And it turns out his puzzle isn’t really a puzzle, and is instead based just on a combination of inexplicably removing “incremental” innovations from consideration and generally restricting the field of possible innovations to vehicular-technologies alone.

  13. stickman says:

    I’d be among those suggesting that a purely “technological” interpretation of innovation is far too narrow to be of any particular use in the climate change debate. Clearly, social and institutional innovations are hugely important as well. To be fair to Mixner, ‘technical innovations’ are the focus of Manzi’s post (and Noah Millman’s original post before that). However, as we all risk getting bogged down in semantics… I’d rather address Mixner’s general comment on “stabilizing” atmospheric GHG concentrations.

    Yes, it’s true that per capita emissions will have to be much lower in the future than today if we take the mainstream scientific view as gospel. However, the fact that we adopt “low-hanging” efficiency measures first (e.g. using public transport and other lifestyle changes) is entirely consistent with basic economics. These represent the easiest marginal gains to be had, while more advanced steps will come once the carbon price is high enough.

    I also support the observations of other readers here, in that we have indeed seen some notable technological advancements coming out of Europe. I’d emphasise an additional point (that some have implicitly made above): Much of technology is freely available in the USA and has been for some time. Useful innovation must, of course, have an element of adoption about it… If higher prices encourage the wider use of carbon-reducing technologies from previous decades; goal achieved, i’d say.

  14. Mixner says:

    When you say want to raise the price of gas to $5 to fund “innovation” in personal transportation that will reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, I think most people will interpret this to mean things like new technology that produce an SUV that gets 60 mpg instead of 20.

    When people find out that what you REALLY mean by “innovation” in this context is replacing the SUV with a subcompact, or not using an automobile at all and taking the bus instead, I suspect they would agree with me that you are using the word “innovation” in deceptive way and trying to con them into lowering their standard of living through the creative use of language.

  15. Mixner says:

    As for these claims of technological innovations in European cars, they are mostly irrelevant. European cars do not get better gas mileage than American cars because they use more advanced technology to improve efficiency, but because they are smaller and have less powerful engines.

  16. Mixner says:

    So these innovations are providing transit riders with a better experience.

    As Sarah Palin might say, this is putting lipstick on a pig. New technology may produce marginal improvements in the transit-using experience, but it cannot overcome the fundamental limitations of buses and trains, which arise from the fact that they follow fixed routes on fixed schedules with fixed stops. Transit will always be slow because users have to spend time getting to and from the stops/stations at each end of their journey, spend time waiting for buses and trains to arrive (multiple waits if the journey involves transfers), and spend time waiting as the bus or train stops at intermediate points along the way from their origin to their destination. Even if using transit had no other disadvantages compared to driving (comfort, privacy, convenience, flexibility, ability to transport shopping or other cargo, etc.) the time cost alone would relegate it to niche markets.

  17. Mixner says:

    For example I see as extremely innovative the way the Dutch and Danes figured out how to create a political consensus to build a network of separated bike lanes.

    Denmark and the Netherlands are small, densely-populated nations. Their urban areas are generally compact because they were laid out before the rise of motor vehicles. And they have mild climates year-round. Given these conditions, it doesn’t surprise me that these countries were able to build political support for extensive biking infrastructure. None of the conditions apply to the US. We are a continent-sized nation with low population density and little incentive to conserve land. Our urban areas were mostly established during the automobile era, and are therefore sprawly rather than compact. And we have an extreme climate, with bitterly cold and snowy winters in much of the northern part of the country, plus extremely hot and humid summers in much of the south and west. Given these conditions, building political support in the US for extensive biking infrastructure seems to me unlikely to be successful. Certainly, there is some support for bike lanes in some places. It’s cheap and easy to just paint a line along an existing road. But you’ll never create a biking infrastructure or biking culture remotely like what they have in Denmark or the Netherlands, because the demographic, historical and environmental conditions in the US are so different.

  18. Russell L. Carter says:

    Mixner’s underlying assumption is that bike lanes/mass transit/ride share/etc. infrastructure has to be installed nationwide across all those places that drive the AVERAGE density down. This is not true, and no one advocates for it. This argument is just a smoke screen.

    Also missing from his arguments is the fact that the current existing “sprawly” infrastructure didn’t just magically arise from some market-determined socially-maximizing function; it got that way because the &*(^&^$^$ Gubmint set policies such that the incentives were for it to get that way. A lot of the sprawly crap is just unintended consequences of bad government policies in exactly the same banal way as not-so-smart conservatives are constantly bemoaning.

    And that’s the point of a carbon tax. It’s the most efficient mechanism the government can deploy to evolve the infrastructure through market incentives in as gradual and non-disruptive manner as possible to something (somewhat) less efficient at destroying the planet. Dig?

  19. Adrian says:

    Mixner’s argument about the particular characteristics of the Netherlands and Denmark misses the point that both those countries became auto-centric in the years after WWII and only became the bicycling-oriented places they now are as a result of a massive government shift in priorities and a massive cycle-infrastructure building program that is still underway today, more than 30 years after it began. It wasn’t universally popular at the beginning and faced all the obstacles that Mixner identified it would face in the USA. But they were innovative enough to find a way around it.

    And the idea that cycling and public transit is necessarily slower and poorer quality than car travel is absurd – I live in “continent-sized nation” and personally drive only rarely and I find the experience awful compared to cycling – definitely slower and poorer. If you’re living in a sprawl city, then the innovation you need is one that transforms it into a less sprawling city, thereby making automobility less required.

  20. Mixner says:

    The major cities and towns in Denmark and the Netherlands were laid out long before the rise of automobiles. The layout of the central areas Copenhagen, Amsterdam and other major cities and towns goes back to medieval times. They were designed for walking and horse-drawn vehicles, so they tend to be compact. That makes it easy to adapt them for biking. American towns and cities just aren’t like that. They were built in the age of the car. The only way to make them conducive to biking would be to tear them down and rebuild them from scratch at dramatically higher density. That’s never going to happen. And our extreme climate is another reason why biking will never be more than a niche market here. Ever ridden a bike in a Chicago winter or a Phoenix summer?

    And no, cycling and transit aren’t “necessarily” slower than driving. They’re slower for the vast majority of trips. Transit and cycling have a role in our national transportation system, but it is a very, very small one.

  21. Russell L. Carter says:

    “Ever ridden a bike in a Chicago winter or a Phoenix summer?”

    Strange that Tempe and Mesa and Scottsdale (and Phoenix in general, sprawl cities all) and Tuscon are so bicycle friendly…

    I don’t think Mixner actually knows what’s going on there. And yes, I have ridden a bicycle in Tempe, including the summer, for 3 years. I am now however just 100 miles away in a place that is NOT bicycle friendly but does have spectacular year round bicycling weather.

    What’s the point of all this? The argument is just another smoke screen.

  22. BrianTH says:

    I often take catnaps on the bus I use for commuting. Other people read, play with their children, or so on. That would probably be a bad idea if we were all driving instead.

    Anyway, the three technologies I cited aren’t limited to low-output engines. In fact the new Audi 4.2L V8 TDI has adopted common rail, and makes well over 300HP. BMW is gradually introducing micro-hybrid technologies like start/stop and regenerative braking basically across their line, including the new M3 and upcoming new M5. Heck, the tiny 1.4L MultiAir available in the Alfa Romeo MiTo makes 168HP–the 3.4L base V6 in a mid-90s Camaro/Firebird only made 160HP (MultiAir both reduces emissions AND adds power).

    Frankly, it just strikes me as bizarre to claim that technologies that reduces CO2 emissions per unit of power are “irrelevant” to this discussion. It may also be true that on average, Europeans buy smaller and less powerful cars, but obviously adopting such technologies will have an impact on emissions independent of such trends.

  23. Pete says:

    I live in Phoenix. “Bicycle friendly” is the last thing I’d call it. We have more sprawl here than any other city I can think of. Summer temperatures frequently exceed 110 degrees, and it stays hot at night. 90 degrees at midnight isn’t unusual in July or August. The major roads are six-lane highways full of cars moving at 40 or 50 mph. There are a few pockets of relatively high density — few blocks in downtown Phoenix, the area in Tempe around Mill Avenue between University and Tempe Town Lake, the shopping district south of Camelback on Scottsdale Road. But for the most part it’s mile after mile of low-density malls and office parks and housing subdivisions.

  24. Russell L. Carter says:

    “I live in Phoenix. “Bicycle friendly” is the last thing I’d call it. We have more sprawl here than any other city I can think of. Summer temperatures frequently exceed 110 degrees, and it stays hot at night. 90 degrees at midnight isn’t unusual in July or August.”

    Funny that they still have innumerable summer softball leagues… I could never figure out why so many wholesome Americans would spend their summer evenings playing softball in 100F+ heat. All on their own. But they do…

    And you know what? Not every month is in the summer.

    More smokescreen. It seems to me somebody in Phoenix knowing that their electricity generally comes from limited sources would be somewhat more motivated to slow down climate change, which as has been discussed and analyzed in a many different venues is most efficiently implemented in *this* country through a transparent carbon tax.

  25. Adrian says:

    Re the idea that US cities like Phoenix were built in the age of the car and are therefore inappropriate for cycling – it’s the newer, auto-age cities and towns in the Netherlands that have the best-quality bike infrastructure and the highest cycling rates and the lowest population densities. The old cities like Amsterdam have the worst-quality infrastructure and the lowest cycling rates and the highest densities.

    But density is not an issue – it optimises itself in accordance with the prevailing forms of transport infrastructure.

  26. Mixner says:

    What “new, auto-age cities and towns” in the Netherlands? The Netherlands was urbanised long before most people could afford a car. It is the most densely-populated country in Europe. It has virtually no US-style urban sprawl because it doesn’t have any land to sprawl into. In fact, it’s had to create new land from the sea to ease overcrowding. Dutch cities and towns are dense and compact by necessity, not choice.

  27. Zamfir says:

    Mixner, it might surprise you, but the Netherlands are an extremely sprawly country. The 4 “large” (just more than 200.000 inhabitants) cities of the country haven’t grown at all since WW2. This was partially policy, partially a general dislike for living in apartments.

    There were some experiments with 10 to 20 level flat blocks in the 1960s, but those have been stopped pretty quick. I would not be surpised if a larger share of the US population lived in apartment buildings, both low and high rise, than in the Netherlands.

    Most people live in towns of between 10.000 and 100.000 people. The majority of those are spread in bands between the larger cities, and function a lot like suburbs. But a lot of effort is spend on keeping them individual units, with green land in between and separate centres in each of them.

    Many of those towns are essentially newly built in the last decades, often around an old village core. The high cycling figures come from people riding around in these towns, and who drive cars for larger distances. It is not driven by urban centres, where the people are more likely to use mass transit.

    The drymakings you refer to are largely used for agriculture (which is still 70% or so of the land area of the country). Sea clay happens to be very fertile ground. People could have chosen to sacrifice more farmland and nature* to accomodate even wider sprawl, but by and large people like to have farmland between individual towns.

    *All nature is carefully designed, planted and maintained, and has cycling paths through it. The idea of wild land is completely alien to the Dutch mind.

  28. Mixner says:

    Mixner, it might surprise you, but the Netherlands are an extremely sprawly country.

    You’ve got to be kidding. As I said, the Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe (unless you count Malta and Monaco). It’s more than 10 times the population density of the US. They couldn’t build a sprawling, car-oriented city like Los Angeles or Phoenix or Houston in the Netherlands because they just don’t have enough land.

  29. Zamfir says:

    Mixner, Los Angeles has a very high population density. Only the municipalities of The Hague and Amsterdam have a higher density (5500 and 4700 vs 3200/km2 for the City of Los Angeles).

    But the city of Los Angeles is much, much larger, 3.8 million compared to 1.2 million for The Hague and Amsterdam taken together. If you take the 3.8 million dutchmen in the most densest municipalities, you don’t come close to Los Angeles density figures.

    The closest the Netherlands have as a region is its densest and most populous province, Zuid-Holland. This has a population 3.5 million, but in a land area of 2800km2 vs 1200 for the City of Los Angeles.

    If you extend this to the metropolitan area of Los Angeles (Los Angeles County and Orange County), the difference gets even stronger. They have a population of 15 million in 12500 km2, while the entire Netherlands has 17 million in 34000km2 of land.

  30. Mixner says:

    Los Angeles is a good illustration of the fundamental problem with your argument. LA is the densest major metropolitan area in the United States. But no one would seriously claim LA is conducive to getting around by bicycle. The distances are too great and the infrastruture is designed for automobiles. LA is the quintessential car-oriented city. New York is less dense than LA, but it is much more conducive to bikes, because the population and infrastructure in New York is much more tightly concentrated in a few high-density clusters, most obviously the lower half of Manhattan. And so it is in the Netherlands.

  31. zamfir says:

    I don’t really have an argument here, i am just saying that the Netherlands do not actually look the way you describe.

    There are no Manhattan-type concentrations in the Netherlands, really none. The third densest city is already less dense than the average of Los Angeles.

    The Netherlands as a country have high density, but not because there are extremely dense parts in it. Instead it has loads of medium-sized, medium-dense towns with zones of farmland in between. The overall density comes from having lots of towns, without anything like Montana or Scotland to pull the average down.

    There is nothing obvious about this pattern. For a while after WW2, people did plan the clusters you talk about. There were some square miles in different parts of the country that are among the densest in Europe. The idea was to concentrate population growth in and around the large cities, while keeping the rest of the country at a lower, more agricultural density.

    But the concept didn’t spread. The high rise areas were impopular and eternally at risk to become slums. The real growth was in the smaller towns near the larger cities, in a process with some similarities to US suburbanization.

  32. Mixner says:

    There are no Manhattan-type concentrations in the Netherlands, really none.

    You’ve got to be kidding. Here is a typical intersection in Amsterdam:,4.864025&spn=0,0.047035&z=15&layer=c&cbll=52.362381,4.864202&panoid=9lkwkZPGmOj7-JGYgvBwog&cbp=12,2.24,,0,5

    Narrow streets and continuous 5-story row buildings in every direction as far as the eye can see. No separation between buildings. They’re jammed right up against one another. No detached homes. No yards. No garages. Virtually no parking space. This is how Amsterdam is conducive to getting around by bike — by packing people, residencies and amenities into very dense clusters. In the United States, this kind of urban form is extremely rare. And that is one reason why bikes will never be a practical form of transportation in American urban areas for anything more than a tiny share of trips.

  33. Zamfir says:

    Mixner, it may be rare in the US, but it is hardly common in the Netherlands either. There are two cities build like that, Amsterdam and The Hague, and together they hold less then 10% of the people in the country. The other two large cities, Rotterdam and Utrecht, are already a lot less dense. According to the figures, somewhat less dense than LA.

    And don’t overestimate the density of Amsterdam, it’s less than half that of New York City. Where, don’t forget, 3% of the US lives, against 5% of the Netherlands in Amsterdam.

    The borough of Manhattan has 28000 people per square kilometer, against 4700 for Amsterdam. Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens are also way higher. Only Staten Island is below Amsterdam levels, at 3200/km2.

    A last point: neighborhoods like in that picture are not seen in the Netherlands as particularly cycling-oriented. It might be weird given the way it looks, but you get a similar misleading impression if you look at NY traffic and conclude that it must be a very car-oriented city.

    Many older blocks in Amsterdanm do not have storage space at ground level, so people store their bikes in the street. As you can imagine, this makes cycling a lot less popular, but it makes it look more popular because of all the bikes in the streets.

  34. Michael D says:

    Assen is a Dutch city of 60,000 (2/3 of it post-war growth) where cycling is the most popular transportation mode, at 41% of all trips. They’ve achieved it with good cycling infrastructure, not huge density.

  35. Mixner says:


    Again, your density comparisons are not meaningful because they ignore clustering. Los Angeles is denser than New York, but New York is far more conducive to walking and biking than LA because development in New York is much more tightly concentrated into dense clusters. Similarly, densely clustered housing and infrastructure is ubiquitous in the Netherlands. That’s the only way to make it conducive to biking. In the US, virtually all urban development for the past 50 years has been low-density and car-oriented. Wide streets, even in residential neighborhoods. Large detached houses with front and back yards and a two-car garage. Giant malls and shopping centers and office parks with acres of parking space. That kind of development is extremely rare in the Netherlands. Your roads are narrow. Your housing stock is mostly small apartments in mid-rise buildings and row houses jammed together. You have many fewer cars per capita, and smaller cars, so you devote much less land to parking. And your shopping and commercial development is also much more compact.

  36. vhh says:

    I have to comment here. I am a physicist and engineer, and lived and worked for some years in France in the 1990s. At that time, diesel cost about 30% less than gasoline because of a much lower tax. There were multiple reasons for this. It had been thought that diesel was less polluting than gasoline (it is not if you include particulates), and (more importantly) every time the gov’t even breathed a word about equalizing the taxes, French truckers would block every roundabout in France for weeks (and there are a lot of roundabouts). And the govt even charged much less to register a diesel than a gas car of similar horsepower (this was thru a bizarre system of “fiscal horsepower” which penalized high power gas engines). Anyhow, for whatever reason, it was MUCH cheaper to own a diesel than a gas car. As a result, when I lived there, the fraction of passenger cars running diesels rose to ~60% of the car population. Many of these were small displacement (1.3 to 1.5 l) engines, and as anyone who has driven a small diesel car knows, they don’t produce a lot of acceleration. But the French (and other Euro) auto companies specifically developed small, high performance turbo diesels, there was a lot of innovation there. I later moved to Australia, where there was a lot of interest in importing such cars, but it was not then possible because they required low sulphur diesel fuel which Australia did not yet produce. The bottom line is here, I am absolutely certain that an artificially low price for diesel fuel caused auto companies selling into the French market to develop diesel engines of a type that did not exist previously. I discussed this with auto sales people, and I myself owned several of these cars. Ergo, Jim’s assertion that govt policy “never” produces automotive innovation is simply not true, as I have at least this one counterexample. (I went to MIT just like Jim did). cheers JHH