[VIEWPOINT]Driving Korea’s cities to the limitIn economics, a person’s behavior is seen as the result of his choices to maximize his advantage under the given circumstances. Consequently, if there are proper incentives, a person’s behavior can be greatly changed. This is why economists are skeptical of suggestions that a person’s awareness or way of thinking can be changed that campaigns should be launched to solve certain problems.
There are numerous problems in Korean society, including waste, pollution, energy shortages, traffic congestion, junk food and credit card abuse, that arise from a clash between a person’s behavior and the public’s interest. Many people think these problems stem from a lack of civic awareness or irresponsible people. They are problems that require people to change their behavior to achieve a solution.
By definition, a person’s behavior can be changed even if his awareness is not changed. The amount of household waste has been reduced since the adoption of the waste metering system, drivers observe the speed limit more strictly where closed-circuit television cameras are installed and drunk driving decreases when regulations against drinking and driving are enforced. These changes of behavior are possible not because civic awareness is raised but because people know of the disadvantages their behavior will bring them.
One of the biggest problems that requires a change in everyone’s behavior is traffic congestion. It is self-evident that we cannot solve urban traffic congestion without changing people’s habit of driving their own cars instead of using public transportation. How can the habit of driving one’s own car be changed? There seems no other way than to exact a penalty on this behavior. Past experience proves that education by heightening awareness or persuasion does not solve the problem. Because we have tried to solve the traffic problems without changing the habit of using one’s car, we have not found a viable solution.
The selfish and contradictory idea that “I can drive my car as I want, but others should not drive their cars” makes it difficult to solve the problem.
We have to stop driving our automobiles into congested areas. Some people take it as a basic right to drive their cars anytime to go anywhere and to park wherever they please. But this behavior is no different from discharging untreated wastewater into the river or throwing trash into the streets.
To solve the urban traffic problems, the government is conducting campaigns to promote the use of public transportation. In response to this campaign, many citizens may start using subways and buses. But this will eventually lead to clearing the streets for those drivers who do not respond to the campaign. The initiative is not right if it brings disadvantages to those who participate in the effort to get people out of their cars and give advantages to people who continue to drive.
One of the most important but overlooked functions of price is that it can change behavior. Many cases here and abroad show that it is very effective to use this function of price to prevent pollution, to reduce waste, to save energy and to solve traffic problems. Being forced to change our habits just because of an external factor, such as price, would be very painful. But there is no easy answer to a difficult question. Attempting to solve this difficult problem easily, we have lost time and exacerbated the situation.
Unlike the rights to education and medical services, there is no basic right to drive in the city as a guarantee of equality and survival. Instead, it is a behavior that causes pollution and inconvenience to the majority of citizens who use public transportation. Imposing social costs upon those people causing pollution is the right function of the government to protect the public good.
* The writer a professor at economics of Hongik University. Translation by JoongAng Daily Staff.
by Kim Jong-seok