Monday, April 18, 2011

A Passively Virtuous Choice

It is a government's grander policy challenge to steer individuals towards the personal choices that result in the best societal outcome; to purposely induce the virtuous choice by making it a passive choice.

I'll define a 'passive choice' as the expected behavioral choice that a self-interested or apathetic person would reasonably make.

Optimally, individuals' passive choices will collectively result in the best societal outcome. It is in our best interest to design systems where individuals' passive choices are the most regenerative for society. Collectively, we should design for the adoption of individual behaviors that benefit everyone, whether or not the individual is actively choosing to be virtuous.

For example, if driving to work is cheaper and quicker than taking the bus or biking, then more people will surely choose to drive. 

Conversely, if driving to work takes more time and costs more money than taking the bus or biking, then more people will choose these alternatives. 

Generally speaking, marketing the adoption of energy efficiency choices is easier than marketing behavioral change. For example, most environmentalists understand that driving alone has a bigger environmental footprint than taking the bus. But, if you’re accustomed to the ease and costs of driving alone to work, it is difficult to force yourself to change your behavior to take a bus every day. Therefore, a policy that asks citizens to drive alone less, is not as pragmatic as a policy that encourages us to purchase a more efficient vehicle.

If we want people to get out of the habit of driving their car alone for their daily commute, then driving alone cannot be the passive choice. Biking or taking transit must actually become the best way for people to get to work in terms of cost and time savings. If we are to bike or bus to work, society must strive to make it the more compelling option, the passive choice. 

Many environmentalists advocate for behavior change and there is a place for that. But, out of pessimism, mixed with a cup of pragmatism, I prefer to advocate for design change. 

ADU’s have the potential to help us passively make virtuous societal choices in the face of many looming environmental threats, not the least of which is climate change. The building and transportation sectors are the two most energy intensive sectors in the US.

The charts above show the energy and carbon dioxide emissions 
associated with various sectors of the US economy. 

Smaller, urban infill housing represents an energy cure in the building and transportation sector. Compact, infill housing is akin to surgery intended to fix the clogged arteries of the building and transportation sector.

Urban density is a prerequisite for a robust and healthy transit system. ADU’s have potential to organically add density to the urban core in a meaningful, personalized, creative way.

The chart above shows the minimum number of 
residential dwelling units per acre needed 
to economically justify the associated transit service.

ADU’s are, by definition, smaller than the average residential dwelling; and building smaller is arguably the single most significant factor in building greener

ADU’s have the potential for a rapid payback period. In my case, I am striving for a five year payback period, a period which qualifies as a good business investment.

Economically, ADU’s are a shot in the arm for a homeowner's personal financial portfolio, the city's tax base and the state's unemployment rate. They also could help satiate the nation's thirst for creating US-based "green" jobs in a down economy.

Whether or not I cared about the green house gas reduction benefits or the benefits to the local economy, my self-interested choice to build an ADU is a societally virtuous one.

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