Elinor Ostrom interview

Michael Giberson

YES! magazine presents an interview with Elinor Ostrom, “The Woman Who Just Might Save the Planet and Our Pocketbooks.” The sub-head teaser – “What if our economy was not built on competition?” – is a little over-heated. Nothing in Ostrom work, so far as I know, is opposed to competition. Rather, in the work for which she is now famous, she’s all about understanding cooperation in the face of common pool resource problems. But don’t let the framing of the article put you off if you are looking for an easy and very brief introduction to Ostrom and her ideas.

Other interviews with Ostrom, for those who want more:

HT to Marginal Revolution for the YES! magazine link.

Private management of the commons: Parking spots and Chicago snow

Michael Giberson

No doubt that since Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize last year for, among other things, her work on decentralized approaches to common pool resource issues, a small legion of social science graduate students are looking for new cases of non-governmental management of common pool resources.

Here is an example supplied by Fred McChesney: on-street parking spaces dug out from the snow in Chicago.

Alex Taborrak notes the Washington Post reports that in Boston the city has codified a similar practice: if you dig yourself a parking spot in the snow, a lawn chair or trash can will render the space yours for up to two days.

Perhaps a comparison to reclaimed-from-the-snow parking space management practices in the Washington, D.C., area would be possible.  Given the amount of snow that has fallen in the capital area, you probably have a few weeks to collect the necessary comparative data.

ADDED: Pittsburgh offers another variant of  law and practice:

“Chairs and barriers of any type holding parking spaces on city streets are considered abandoned property and will be removed and discarded,” Pittsburgh Police spokeswoman Diane Richard told Channel 4 Action News in an e-mail.

See also the discussion by Pitt Law professor Mike Madison. HT for both links to Freakonomics.

So Chicago has an informal practice guided by custom and tolerated by the city; Boston has the practice codified into city ordinance; Pittsburgh has an informal practice which is actively opposed by the city; and Washington DC doesn’t get serious snow often enough to have a well developed custom.  Lots of angles to study.

What about Minneapolis and Milwaukee?  What about Seattle or Denver?  Any more reports?

STILL MORE: Via Market Design, where Al Roth dubs the practice “anti-social,” a Boston Globe story on claiming parking spots before the snow begins to fall, “Claiming a spot before shoveling? That’s not Southie.”

Fish populations surge in Oregon

Lynne Kiesling

Here’s a good piece of news from the fishery and common pool resource front: salmon and steelhead populations are dramatically larger in the Pacific Northwest than anticipated, and than they were last year.

… More than 680,000 Coho salmon returned to Oregon last year, double the number in 2007. The Coho run was so bountiful the ODFW called in volunteers to herd fish into hatchery pens. There were reports of creeks so choked with salmon, “you could literally walk across on the backs of Coho,” said Grant McOmie, outdoors correspondent for a television news team in Portland.

And ODFW forecasters expect more than half a million spring Chinook salmon to start swimming upstream in March, about two and half times 2009’s run, and nearly four times what came home in 2007. That would be the biggest spring Chinook run since 1938, when Oregon began keeping records of returning Pacific fish.

It is all part of a fish rebound no one expected. In 2007, one state office warned, “Populations of anadromous [or oceangoing] fish have declined dramatically all over the Pacific Northwest. Many populations of Chinook, Coho, chum and steelhead are at a tiny fraction of their historic levels.” The year before that, a naturalist in Seattle wrote: “It is hard to find the silver lining in a situation as dire as the collapse of wild salmon off the Oregon and California coasts.”

This is very good news. I don’t, though, think that we can declare victory in our challenging attempts to figure out how to govern the commons in fishing, which is extremely tricky and complex. In fact, I interpret this population surge as indicating just how complex a system a fishery is, where the set of interacting effects on fish populations is large — overfishing, pesticides, changes in glacial melting patterns, changes in ocean temperatures that affect how much plankton is available (and how nutritious it is), etc. etc. In such a complex system, flexible and adaptive institutions such as individual transferable quotas and catch shares can at least deal with the overfishing variable (earlier KP posts on fishing, ITQs, etc. are here).

Roads and paths as common-pool resources, and the problem of governing them

Lynne Kiesling

Yesterday at Reason’s Hit & Run Tim Cavanaugh wrote about something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: the institutions we use for governing the shared use of paths between cyclists and motorists on roads, and among cyclists, walkers, runners, rollerbladers, etc. on multi-use paths. Tim’s starting point was Christopher Beam’s article in Slate on the same topic. Beam frames the question as “How do we get bikers to obey traffic laws?”, and classifies cyclists into two categories: vehicularists and facilitators:

What to do? Today’s cycling activists generally split into two groups: “vehicularists” and “facilitators.” Proponents of “vehicular cycling” believe bikes should act as cars: occupy full lanes, stop at red lights, use a hand signal at least 100 feet ahead of a turn. That’s the best way to make cars—and policymakers—aware of bicycles and to respect them as equals on the road. When it comes to making roads safe for bikes, vehicularists tend to favor training, education (most cities offer bike safety classes), and enforcement. Cyclists should not grouse about moving violations, the vehicularists argue. It is a sign that they’re being treated as equals.

Facilitators, meanwhile, say we should change the laws and the environment to recognize the innate differences between bikes and cars. That means special facilities like bike lanes, bike paths (elevated trails separate from the road), and even Copenhagen-style traffic lights for bikes. It would also mean changing car-centric laws that don’t make sense for bikes, like the rule that says you need to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

I agree with Tim that the best response is to be part vehicularist and part facilitator; I figure my split is about 80/20. When I am on my bike I am a vehicle. I think that when I am on my bike I am dangerous to pedestrians and they are dangerous to me because their behavior can be unpredictable, and thus I should be on the road and not on the sidewalk. On the road I ride single file with other cyclists (I generally don’t do group rides), I stop at red lights, I don’t weave in and out of traffic, and I use hand signals. I do not, though, stop at stop signs unless there are other vehicles approaching the intersection; as both Tim and Christopher note, keeping your inertia up is really important on the bike, and stopping at stop signs when there aren’t any other vehicles present is an unnecessary reduction in my inertia that does nothing to improve safety. In other words, I adhere to the Idaho stop law, under which Idaho cyclists are allowed by law to treat stop signs as yield signs in the absence of other vehicles. I am a “facilitator” to the extent that I believe we should amend existing traffic laws to enact the Idaho stop law more widely. In general, I behave the same way, and for the same practical and philosophical (i.e., anarchist) reasons as squarooticus voiced in his/her comment on Tim’s post:

Anyone who advocates that bikes (or all cars!) obey every traffic law has bought into the modern statist notion that laws are ends in themselves. The rest of us (especially the anarchists, who hate unnatural laws) understand that laws are a means to an end. In this case, that end is safety.

How many of you come to complete stops in a car when you get to an intersection in which you have 100% visibility in all directions and there is nothing coming? I certainly don’t, and I don’t know many people who do.

When I’m riding my bike, have perfect visibility, and am not in a position to surprise a driver, I will slow down at a stop sign or light, look in all directions, and proceed through if it is safe to so. I would actually be in favor of car drivers doing this as well, eliminating the need for most traffic control devices, if I felt that most car drivers were capable of doing so safely. Since half of them are yakking on a cellphone wedged between their shoulder and ear, smoking a cigarette with one hand, holding a coffee with the other, and driving with the left knee while the right foot actuates the velocitator and deceleratrix, it seems pretty clear that this isn’t the case.

SAFETY. That’s the point. Not blindly following rules for the sake of following rules. Follow the rules during situations in which predictability is integral to safety, but bend the rules when safety would not be an issue.

Similarly, when I am on the bike path in Lincoln Park I am constantly saying “on your left!” and making sure that the other users of the path are aware of my presence, since as a cyclist I am the fastest and most dangerous type of user on the path. But I avoid paths whenever possible, because the way I ride is more incompatible with paths than it is with roads.

I do find the hostility between motorists and cyclists disturbing, and the anger and attitude on both parts in the comments to Tim’s post show some examples of why it’s so disturbing. But it’s not as one-sided as Beam’s “how do we get cyclists to obey traffic laws?” headline suggests. Not surprisingly, I think of the cyclist’s dilemma on both roads and paths as a problem of common-pool resource governance similar to those that Elinor Ostrom and other new institutional economists study.

Let’s start with the path. This, for example, is my path, downtown near Ohio Street beach, although I spend most of my time on it up north, between Belmont and Foster, where I run. Note the ease of access and many multiple uses of the scarce common-pool resource (and if you look carefully you’ll see a swimmer there too!):


Moreover, when the path is congested, these uses can conflict. In particular, rollerblading and cycling conflict the most, because a rollerblader’s leg stroke is wide and his/her speed can vary widely, while a cyclist takes up less width, but is moving quickly. The potential for a serious accident is high. The institutions used to govern our shared use of this resource are mostly informal and grounded in common sense — cyclists are expected to have a bell and/or say “on your left”, pedestrians are expected to look both ways and yield to cyclists and rollerbladers before crossing the path, and runners are expected to run on the gravel path where there is one (and runners who love their knees are going to benefit from doing that anyway!). Path users generally evolve patterns that serve as a compromise with the other users; for example, cyclists doing fast (>16m.p.h.) training rides know not to expect to do so after 10 AM on summer weekends, and rollerbladers learn that they should coast when they hear “on your left”. It’s not perfect, and things happen that inject noise into the system (such as having a toddler dart out unexpectedly from a beach onto the path, or a volleyball bouncing in front of you, or a cyclist or rollerblader with earphones in when they should not be), but in general, the informal institutions that have grown on top of the formal legal requirement that it be a multi-use path keep things both safe and civil.

The economic logic of governing the commons also applies to the road as a common-pool resource shared by motorists and cyclists. It’s really only when there is congestion of traffic among the two types of users that their use rights come into conflict, although in some situations congestion kicks in early — for example, some of the smaller “B” roads I’ve been on in England would hit congestion with one car and one bike and a curve in the road! The institutions used to govern the uses of the shared resource here are a mix of formal (traffic laws) and informal (courtesy).

More so on the road than on the path, the formal institutions and the informal institutions interact. Here’s an example of what I mean: cyclists weave in and out of traffic and generally ignore stop lights, which angers motorists and makes them more disinclined to treat cyclists with courtesy, which angers cyclists and makes them more disinclined to obey traffic laws or to treat motorists with courtesy, etc. etc. Or let’s start from the other side: some motorists don’t like having to share the road with cyclists, even those who ride safely and generally obey traffic laws, so they don’t treat cyclists with courtesy (drive too close to them, honk at them, etc.), which angers cyclists and makes them more disinclined to obey traffic laws or to treat motorists with courtesy, which reinforces the motorists’ preconceptions and angers them further, etc. etc.

My view of the road as a common-pool resource governed by a combination of formal and informal institutions is why I’m 80% vehicularist/20% facilitator. The stop sign law for cyclists is excessively costly without increasing safety for either cyclists or motorists, and its stringency induces cyclists to ignore that law, which erodes the respect for bike laws more generally. However, it’s also true that most motorists don’t understand the physics and the dynamics of cycling. That’s why my general recommendation about formal governance in this case is two-pronged:

  1. Implement the Idaho stop law.
  2. Require all drivers to undergo bicycle training and pass a cycling test in order to get a driver’s license.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for cyclists weaving through traffic or people in cars throwing things at cyclists other than more strict enforcement and penalties …

As for the issue of separate bike lanes, I’m not sure that the costs outweigh the benefits in all cases, so in the spirit of Ostrom’s polycentric and organic institutions, I would recommend continuing to evaluate them on a local basis. If the combination of amending the traffic laws and taking measures that will increase the likelihood of courtesy makes both cyclists and motorists happier and safer without the expense, that would be a good thing.

Vincent and Elinor Ostrom and public ownership of natural resources

Michael Giberson

Among the news stories in response to Elinor Ostrom’s sharing of the Nobel prize for economics, an article from Alaska which mentions the important role played by Vincent Ostrom in the development of that state’s treatment of natural resources.  Both Ostroms worked on related ideas and management of natural resources was central to the work that Elinor Ostrom was recognized for by the Nobel prize committee.

From the Anchorage Daily News:

A political scientist at Indiana University, [Elinor] Ostrom studies the management of common resources, like fish, grazing lands and forests. She shed light on examples around the world — including Alaska’s fisheries — in which people have worked cooperatively to sustain their resources rather than destroying them.

Her husband and academic collaborator, Vincent Ostrom, is also well-regarded in Alaska. As a hired consultant in the mid-1950s, he was a key figure in the drafting of the Alaska Constitution’s natural resource article, which enshrined the idea that the residents of Alaska — rather than the state as a political entity — own the state’s mineral wealth.

That idea has carried forward into the distribution of state oil income as Permanent Fund dividend checks, the management of its fisheries and even the settlement of Native land claims, said Mead Treadwell of Anchorage, who chairs the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

…[Elinor Ostrom] has cranked out many academic papers refuting the conventional wisdom that people inexorably exploit public resources — like grazing lands — for their own need, and that the only way to keep those resources from obliteration is through private or government control of the land.

“She showed it doesn’t have to be that way,” Treadwell said.

Ostrum’s work isn’t about rebelling against authority. It’s about working together to solve problems, according to [Anchorage writer Charles] Wohlforth.

How different would development patterns be in many of the oil exporting nations of the world if royalties from the development of mineral wealth were paid directly to residents rather than governments.

(HT to Tom Fowler at NewsWatch: Energy, who notes a kind-of similar practice in Texas in which oil and gas royalties are paid into the state’s “Permanent School Fund.”)