A Tragedy of the Commons: City Streets

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jul 7, 2013    •    1031 Views

As a frequent driver to NYC, I was surprised to learn how much space my car occupies. Driving down 5th Avenue at 15 kilometers an hour (9.3 MPH), my car requires 40 square meters of street (430 square feet). If I can accelerate to 30 km/h (18.6 MPH), then my coverage rises to 65 square meters (700 sq. ft.).

With streets representing slightly more than one quarter of the land in midtown Manhattan (2008), I have many opportunities to use exceedingly valuable real estate. Instead, according to a blog from NYU’s Urbanization Project, the cost of using an urban transport system should reflect its real estate value. Also, I might add that the cost should reflect the negative externalities like congestion that I create by being there.

Tragedy of the Commons and Cars in City Streets


This is where the tragedy of the commons enters the picture. Whether looking at air pollution, an overgrazed pasture or a messy faculty room refrigerator, people have the incentive to abuse publicly shared resources. Privately benefiting from our behavior, we tend to ignore the impact of everyone using the resource together. The result is a tragedy of the commons.

The Urban Project implies that we will be less likely to create the tragedy of the commons when transport systems adapt to population densities. They cite suburban towns like Glen Rock NJ where subways and motorcycles are impractical while reminding us that they make sense in highly populated cities. Consequently, a transport system should discourage us from creating a large fleet of vehicles that use expensive real estate.

Until they do, I suspect that I will continue driving into NYC even though my behavior, combined with thousands of other drivers, overuses the city’s real estate and creates massive cost for all of us.

Sources and resources: My graphic bubbles and Urban Project ideas came from their blog and we have more on the high cost of free parking in this econlife post. Hat tip to marginal for the Urban Project link.

2 Responses to A Tragedy of the Commons: City Streets

  1. Krise says:

    I find your post interesting I am about to write my B.s thesis and I cant get my head around a topic. At the same time a part of me wants to write about my capital city(accra, Ghana)and its common tragedy which has become the increasing level of pollution air and land and its environs. Since its a capital City, can I view it as a common? I really need a head start

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