In the DC urbanist blogosphere (or, David Alpert across multiple platforms), ‘choice’ is all the rage these days. GGW writes about DC Planning Director Harriet Tregoning being “pro-choice” on transportation; Alpert in the Post writing about housing choices and transportation options; and Alpert again talking about zoning and parking requirements on News 8.
And of course, who isn’t against choice? Richard Layman pushes back on the ‘choice’ rhetoric a bit, noting that maximizing choice alone isn’t sufficient for good policy, and then focusing on outcomes, noting that it’s about “making the right choices.”
My most recent Metro read was Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, devoted to a lengthy discussion of the vital importance of ‘choice architecture’ in our lives (also mentioned in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – in the reading list). Choice architecture is all about framing the decisions we make, usually with large impacts on the final outcomes.
In that vein, Layman’s critique of the narrative about choice is spot on – there’s a lot more to a successful policy outcome than just providing choice. However, Thaler and Sunstein might disagree a bit with Layman’s goal of getting people to make the “right choices.” They frame their goals as using choice architecture to nudge us into better outcomes, while still being free to make choices as we see fit – calling this ‘libertarian paternalism.’ Making the choice for someone would be straight-up paternalism.
I don’t want to speak for Layman (and this is almost certainly splitting hairs in terms of semantics), but I can see how his framing on transportation choice would not meet the libertarian threshold. That sense of having decisions made for you certainly explains some of the all-too-predictable ‘war on cars‘ backlash, no matter how misplaced it might be.
There is also the matter of rhetoric. While simply maximizing choices might not be a complete policy, it makes an effective argument. Implementing a good choice architecture is imperative, but is also rather in-the-weeds for common debate. Given how skewed our transportation system is towards framing auto use as the default, changing the choice architecture often is the policy change – people’s behavior will follow.
Examples of transportation nudges can range from how fringe benefits are offered to employers to how parking is leased/bought in apartment buildings. Decisions about the physical environment, such as how much parking to build, are more about broader development markets, as renters/buyers already factor the price/availability of parking into their decision making. Barring interference from something like minimum parking requirements in the zoning code, the choice is faced by developers, not end users.
The existence of such minimum parking requirements (as well as other aspects of land use regulation) is also an interesting look into choice architecture. I’ve often heard Chris Leinberger speak not just about doing the right thing with development, but also shifting our regulations so that doing the right thing is easy. So much development follows the path of least resistance. In terms of choice architecture, they opt for the default. Even if not speaking about the choices of individuals (but rather firms and corporations), the impact of choice architecture is enormous.
The parallel that comes to mind is David Schleicher’s emphasis on the process of land-use decision making, and how that impacts outcomes. Schleicher’s argument is that our procedures for land-use decision making provide multiple opportunities for (as an example) NIMBYs with concentrated, hyper-local interests to influence decisions over broader, city-wide interests. In essence, the procedures and process for this kind of decision-making is a kind of choice architecture – arguably, one with (in Richard Layman’s words) “sub-optimal” results. Opposed to the libertarian paternalism that aims to structure the choice architecture to achieve better outcomes, this architecture is not structured at all – there isn’t an architect.
Nonetheless, this is a complicated discussion – ‘libertarian paternalism’ and ‘choice architecture’ aren’t likely to be effective talking points in a community meeting. There’s a reason why opponents to some of these changes fall back on incendiary language (“war on cars,” etc), as that rhetoric is simple and accessible. The rhetoric of providing choice is just as simple (and, I would argue, more honest than the “war on cars”), even if the underlying policies must be more complex.
(EDIT: as I publish this post, Richard Layman writes another post on choice, also mentioning Thaler and Sunstein)