Friday, April 24, 2015

Asymetric preferences, a trail, and my carbon footprint

One of my favorite freetime activities is trail running, though I don't get to do it often these days with a kid, a job, and.. well a life.

I'm part of several trail running online groups, including the Kansas City Trail Nerds. This weekend on Facebook, I was suddenly confronted with a barrage of complaints about about a trail running event in Lawrence Kansas.  The most epic thread FB is here.  Only read if you're in a mood for drama.

Here's a summary of what happened:
  • The trail nerds had a race Saturday.
  • It was raining, because it's spring in northeast Kansas.
  • They tore up the trail because.. you know... running in mud.
  • The local mountain biking group is now really pissed off, and says the race should have been canceled. 
  • The mountain biking group is demanding reparations, or a trail workday.

Example of some nasty trail conditions.  Photo credit goes to Brandy Holey (who I don't know but was gracious enough to let me borrow this picture).  I don't know the guys in the picture either.

This situation has actually played out several times in the last few years in this area, but this time seems to be the most viscous, and quickly devolved into accusations about other people's carbon footprint (as arguments between trail runners and mountain bikers often do).  Anyways...

There is an economic/behavioral aspect of this disagreement, that is largely being ignored.  Here are some interesting "trail" economics:

  • Damage incurred is more penal to mountain biking.  This is a nuanced point, and could be the reason that runners often damage trails without caring, while mountain bikers get massively pissed off.  In essence, the argument here is that it's easier to run on damaged trails than to ride on them, so bikers suffer the brunt of the pain.  Think of this in game theory terms, there's less directed downside for runners to damage the trail, because future impact to them is lessened.  (There are several trails I have run that are rough enough I never see mountain bikers on them).
  • Trail runners had more to lose short term.  This has been argued ad nauseum on Facebook, but the runners had a lot to lose if they canceled the race.  Most importantly, they would have to send out of state runners home, thought of refunding money, stored consumables for the future, etc.  Also, they would have lost a lot of reputation for their race and damaged future profits significantly.
  • The race had already started when the rain began, so it's impossible to measure the counterfactual, how much damage would have still occurred if the race would have been stopped.  This may not seem like an economic point, but it's the same as the argument about many policies.. how much damage could have been prevented if we reversed the bad policy sooner?  Would it have mattered, or has all the damage already been done?
  • The Trail Nerds were running a race in non-home territory.  In fact, they were running in Lawrence, KS, where there's another trail running club all together.  I'm not saying that they were effectively crapping in someone else's drinking water, but this fact certainly changes the incentive structure.
My point here:  The Trail Nerds were, from an economic perspective locked into a situation where the only real future negative consequence was future opprobrium from mountain bikers, and the upside of continuing with the race was too high for opprobrium to matter.  In fact, I would guess that if this happens again next year, the same decision would be made.

*One final side-note, one "metric" that was thrown out that each foot of trail costs ~$3 to build and maintain ($15K per mile).  Keep in mind that variance exists in the real world, and these types of all-encompassing statistics are many times total bullshit.

** A second final side-note, a good way to get people to shut down to your argument is to criticize their carbon footprint.  Half the world doesn't care and the other half is going to be so offended they won't listen to you.  Those are made up statistics, but random accusations don't get you anywhere when trying to persuade.


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