Radio Freethinker

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Combating Sprawl

Posted by Daniel Gipps on November 5, 2010

On episode 86 of Radio Freethinker we discussed the efficacy of building bigger highways to combat congestion. That debate is fairly straightforward and the evidence quite conclusively demonstrates that over the long term (over 10 years or more) expanding highways does nothing to lower congestion or speed up commuting times, and it comes at great monetary, and arguably social, costs. For more information on that debate, look at the references in the show notes or listen to the episode.

This blog post will focus on the secondary debate of the causes of urban sprawl which lead naturally to some conclusions on how to combat sprawl. I realized after I presented my argument in episode 86 that I did not do enough research into the causes of urban sprawl. Now that I have done my research I will present a non-exhaustive list of natural, and political causes of sprawl.


– Growth of income

– Reduction of transportation costs due to technological improvement

– Rising city populations


– Property taxes ( by incentivizing owner-occupier over owner-renter, and by incentivizing low density )

– Roads and other expenses to allow for cars

– Public transit

– Infrastructure

– Zoning laws, building codes, subdivision regulations

The natural causes are the causes that are not direct effects of government policy. I would argue that any sprawl created by just these forces is not something that needs to be combatted because it represents the natural expansion caused by human motivation, although others could still argue against it on environmental or social grounds.

The political causes are those created directly from laws passed by government. If the goal is to combat urban sprawl, it seems pretty clear that the best method would be to change the political laws. Ultimately, any method that could be successful would either have to involve reducing the political incentives to urban sprawl or by creating incentives for high-density or mixed residential/commercial communities.

While doing research for this topic I came across some interesting information comparing transportation subsidies in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S. only 25% of Public Transit operating and capital costs are covered by fares. This compares to 60% of road costs covered by gas taxes and user fees. Compare this to Europe where fares cover 50% of public transit costs and gas taxes and other user fees more than cover spending on roads and other driving services. It’s pretty easy to see why European cities are generally denser and why public transportation is utilized more heavily.

Another  city that is often cited as a great example of smart urban growth rather than haphazard sprawl is Portland, Oregon. To limit sprawl, Portland literally has a border where zoning laws change to very low density, and services like sewage, water, telecommunications, police, fire, and schools are greatly limited. Because of this and other policies like a transportation system built around public transportation, Portland is considered one of the greenest cities in the U.S.

Ultimately any policies implemented to combat sprawl or to improve transit need to be based on sound economics and evidence in order to avoid unintended consequences like those we now face from years of constantly building bigger highways.



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Politics and Skepticism

Posted by Daniel Gipps on February 13, 2010

Politics is one area in desperate need of more skeptical inquiry. The problem is that it can be difficult to look skeptically at government policies and laws. The reasons for this are numerous: party support, ideological or moral beliefs, lack of information, lack of time, and many others. Another one of the biggest problems is that many of these decisions are either primarily economic, or partly economic, and there are economists who will tell policy makers anything. There’s an old saying that there are as many different economic models as there are economists and politicians are no doubt thankful for this.

Is there good evidence behind this claim about the Olympics? A skeptical look is the best way to find out. / Daniel Gipps

Proof is an important concept in skepticism. Skipping over the philosophical problems of whether we can actually prove anything (not that it isn’t an interesting topic, but isn’t relevant to the topic at hand), we have the problem of determining whether something is proven to be, for all intents and purposes, true. In science, there is a rigorous standard of proof. Large amounts of evidence must exist for a theory to be considered proven. It can also be disproved with even a small amount of evidence that contradicts it. The standard of proof within the scientific community is therefore very high. This is also similar to the legal concept of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” which applies to criminal law. Someone cannot be sentenced guilty to a crime unless there is enough evidence to remove any reasonable doubt that they may be innocent.

High standards of proof work for science, and exist for crime to reduce the likelihood that innocent people are punished. However, not everything relies on such high standards of proof. Our civil law system, that is issues such as contracts, property rights, divorce and even charter challenges work on a different standard. This standard is known as the balance of probabilities. What it basically means is that whatever is most likely is considered “proven”. Without this relaxation of standards, civil law would be almost useless. It is just too difficult, or even impossible, to prove many things “beyond a reasonable doubt”. The problem is, skeptics too often hold scientific standards of proof for things that simply can’t be proven to that level. Politics is definitely one of those areas.

One example of this that I am sure is fresh in everyone’s mind is the 700 or so billion dollar bailout of the largest U.S. banks by President Bush and continued by President Obama. It would be impossible to prove their true motivations behind the bailout beyond a reasonable doubt. Was it done purely to keep the economy afloat as both have stated numerous times, or was it primarily to keep their wall street friends from suffering the consequences of their reckless actions? Neither of these can be proven absolutely. Even if a secret recording of backroom talks surfaces, it would not be enough to absolutely prove anything. There is no way to know if those involved were speaking any more or less truthful on the tape than in public. All that can be done is to look into what is more likely based off of other factors such as campaign contributions. In this case, one needs only to look at the major campaign contributors for Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign(hint: it reads basically like a list of corporations who have received bailouts) to see the balance moving towards helping out his buddies rather than the nation as a whole.

Another problem is that political opinions generally have ideological or moral roots. A libertarian is likely to see a government managed economy as morally bad, whereas a socialist likely sees it as morally good. Neither of these positions is wrong in any true sense, they are both based off of the subjective morals of the individuals. A skeptical argument can not be made directly attacking their moral positions, as neither is objectively correct. A skeptic can however look at evidence, or make logical arguments about the consequences of either position. As an extreme example, if a politician tables a law that would free all murderers and give them, and future murderers, $100,000 each, a skeptic would likely point out that there will be consequences to that decision. The most obvious being that it gives an incentive to others to murder. Obviously this is quite ridiculous, but it does highlight how skeptics can question public policy separate from ideology.

Another problem in looking skeptically at public policy is a lack of information, or a difficulty in getting information. Many bills that are passed are pages long, written in legal jargon, and made purposefully vague. It can be very hard to skeptically critique what a law might do when it is vague, or gives great discretion to secondary bodies (e.g. University Endowment Act giving great control to the UBC Board of Governors to pass rules). These problems make it difficult to properly argue what the law actually does. One example is the Vancouver Charter amendment increasing in fairly vague terms the city’s ability to go after signs. The city insists that it is only to go after ambush marketing, but many groups such as the BC Civil Liberties Association have argued that the potential exists to do more. I will not get into the argument here, but it does demonstrate some potential problems for skeptics. If the wording of a law is vague (as many laws are), should skeptics look for the consequences of the extreme interpretation or a more moderate interpretation? For now I won’t answer that question, as I eventually want to write a well researched blog post on it.

I have found a strong distaste for politics within the skeptic community and I feel that it is a missed opportunity for skeptics. Laws put into place by our politicians have enormous impacts over our everyday lives. The latest scientific finding doesn’t affect us nearly as often (I intend in no way to diminish the importance of science, I simply mean to point out that while interesting, most scientific findings only really matter to a very select few). If skeptics want to have an important impact on people’s everyday lives, they need to stop ignoring public policy and start looking into the consequences of political decisions being made every day.

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Michael Ignatieff visits UBC: Greenpeace makes environmentalists look bad

Posted by Daniel Gipps on January 17, 2010

Greenpeace protesters disrupt town hall

Michael Thibault/Crimson Phoenix Photography

On Friday, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff came to UBC as part of his Cross-Canada campus town-hall series. The event was definitely successful, with one of the Liberal organizers estimating about 1,200 people inside UBC’s Norm Theatre as well as outside in an overflow area connected via video. While I doubt that number is accurate, it certainly was impressive to see so many people come out to hear from, and ask questions to, the leader of the official opposition.

The focus of the questions was on the environment, and specifically climate change. Ignatieff was asked many questions ranging from what he will do to meet the Kyoto Protocol, which he more or less dodged a committal answer to, to whether he supports the Alberta tar sands. To his credit, he did give a strong and committed answer, even though those asking him the question were openly hostile towards him, and hardly gave him a chance to speak.

Ignatieff made it clear many times that he will continue to stand behind the tar sands. The National Post quotes him as saying, “If you’re asking me to shut down the tar sands, it’s not in my power to do so, and frankly, it’s not in the national interest of our country to do so”. What Greenpeace seems ignorant of, or more likely, chooses to ignore, is that the Constitution Act of 1867 specifically gives jurisdiction on matters of natural resources to the provinces. Not only is it a bad idea to just shut the tar sands down, it is not even possibly for Ignatieff to do this if he wanted to. The courts would almost certainly rule against the legality of any legislation designed to do that.

It seems to me that Greenpeace and some other environmental organizations absolutely hate the ideas of individual freedom, rule of law, and populist but limited governments. To them, these long established ideas that have existed to benefit individuals and protect us from overbearing governments exist only as barriers to their own specific goals. Rather than educating individuals to act more environmentally friendly, or at the very least educating voters so that they know the facts about global warming and can vote for logical, evidence backed solutions like a carbon tax, they would rather disrupt civil town-halls, destroy coral reefs while campaigning to save them, and disregard science all in pointless attempts to put in place policies that few Canadians support.

Greenpeace needs to go back to its roots, back to when it followed science not activism, and when it was about education not protesting.

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