This past summer of 2013, I worked as a customer service representative at the Salt Lake City DMV. As a former employee, I am a witness to an environmental issue the state of Utah has created there that can be categorized as a ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ scenario, one in which an individual’s use of a shared resource is rational, but widespread use creates resource depletion and in some cases negative or hazardous side effects for all users.
The most common transaction processed at the DMV is the renewal of car or other motor vehicle registrations. Now, all customers have the option of renewing their vehicles online or by mail, as long as the process is complete by or shortly after their previous expiration date. Unfortunately, there is a large portion of Salt Lake’s population that either are computer illiterate (such as the elderly) and incapable of renewing online, or who for whatever reason do not receive notifications in the mail to remind them of their approaching expiration date. There are also many other customers who do not know about the online/mail renewal system or who come to the DMV to renew out of habit from years of doing it that way!
To keep lines in its lobby shorter, and to accommodate the thousands of customers who come to the office for registration renewals only, the DMV is equipped with three drive-through lanes on the side of the building, much like a bank. The three lanes are manned by two workers during busy times of the day or week. If required, customers place their safety and emissions inspection certificates along with their registration fees into a capsule that is vacuumed through a tube into the DMV to one of the workers, who then scans certificates into the computer, collects the money, and returns a sticker for their license plate indicating their registration has been paid. If there are no hiccups, the whole drive-through experience from the time the driver pulls up to the window to when they pull away is about two minutes maximum. However, there are many factors that increase that wait time, such as workers having to get change from a manager or switch stations with a coworker, workers calling the support center for a date change on the registration, and just a general back up as there are three lanes and only one or two workers handling them.
The environmental issue at stake here is pollution from these cars in the drive-through lines. During the busiest parts of each day, and certain popular days of the week and times of the year, there can be up to 25+ cars waiting in line! That is twenty five cars at any one time during a busy hour who are running idle, burning fuel and putting emissions into the air (no matter how well they passed their state-required emission inspection test!) and getting zero miles to the gallon. It is completely wasteful of a natural resource!
This is an example of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ because for the single customer at the DMV, going through the drive-up line to get your renewal processed is a very efficient use of its resources. With few people using those drive-up lines, renewal customers can be in and out in under five minutes, as opposed to coming inside the building, taking a number, and waiting for everyone else with much longer transactions (such as title transfers, handicapped placards, and impounds) and overall making the DMV lines inside much longer. However, the ‘tragedy’ that in actuality does occur on a regular basis is there are many renewal customers who head to drive-up, which then doesn’t save anyone time and creates unnecessary pollution! Let’s put it this way, if one gets in the drive-up line and there are five cars ahead of them in each of the three lines, that’s fifteen people in front of you. At two minutes a customer, that’s about 15 minutes of idling time (if there is two workers at the lines; it would be 30 minutes if there were one) for several cars during each afternoon. According to California’s Energy Commission, “for every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about one mile.” All that wasted burned fuel creates an air pollution contribution in the heart of a valley that already struggles with smog.
If I were the ruler of the universe, I would do a number of things to solve this problem, depending on my power. I would first try and make everything electronic—somehow make it visible on the license plate (make it glow, perhaps?) if someone’s registration were expired so they would be caught. On a more realistic plane, I would try to spread the word more about the online or mail renewal system! I would put out commercials for it, ads in the paper and online--whatever I could! To discourage people from coming to the DMV, I would make it cheaper to renew online (and would advertise the fact), which is the opposite of true right now and it needs to change. I would also penalize people who came to renew at the DMV somehow, perhaps by charging an extra fee.