Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 20 February 2016

In praise of footpaths

After a short break (see end of this post), more normal service will now be resumed. While I was away in the US I did manage to post four times. Two of these were prompted by the publication of articles by me. Another was about UK policy stuff I am directly involved in, of which much more to come. The fourth post was about the basic commonality between support for Sanders and Corbyn which I felt many were missing.

I thought I would resume by talking about one big difference between the States and Europe that occurred to me over the last month, which has nothing to do with macro, and that is footpaths. By a footpath I mean a public rights of way over countryside that is not a highway (no cars allowed). In the UK in particular, if you think it would be nice to walk in the countryside for an hour or so without having to share the way with cars and lorries, you can usually do so by finding a footpath and walking on that. It is something that you take for granted until it is no longer there.

In the US as far as I know (and I think much the same is true in Australia and New Zealand) such footpaths just do not exist. There are many areas of public land which have excellent trail networks, but it may take some time to drive to these. The reason for this difference I suppose reflects history. Most of the footpaths in England and Wales were rights of way established in Anglo-Saxon, Roman or pre-Roman times, and these rights of passage are protected by english common law. (The position in Scotland is different.) Many of these became highways, but many did not, and those that did not become highways remain rights of way.

As a result, those who own land in the UK (perhaps just a few acres) may have a right of way over their land, and therefore have to accept that the public has a right to walk over this part of their land. It may be their property, but that ownership right comes with an obligation to protect the right of way. This system allows the public extensive access to the countryside, even if that countryside is privately owned. Of course these public rights of way are no longer used for their original purpose but are there instead for hiking (or walking the dog), and are extensively used for such. As this incurs very little loss in utility for the landowner, and a significant gain in utility for the public that use the land, then this seems like an excellent combination of private and public rights.

Of course the owners of private land sometimes do not see it this way, and the current system has seen its fair share of struggle between public and private. That struggle continues over the right to roam other unused private land that does not contain rights of way.

Is the absence of footpaths in the US an inevitable consequence of its history? One other thing I noticed travelling around California was how often public land (state parks etc) was the result of a private donation to the state. So perhaps enlightened landowners in the US could themselves create public rights of way over their land? Of course state or federal law could be changed to obligate large land owners to do so, but somehow in today’s America I do not see that happening any time soon.

22 comments:

  1. Yet another violation of the Coase Theorem.

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    1. in what way? What does the Coase Theorum suggest should occur that you believe does not?

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    2. Coase made it clear that his theorem ignored transactions costs, and these costs could be very important in practice. See Diane here for example:

      http://www.enlightenmenteconomics.com/blog/index.php/2016/02/coase-in-theory-and-coase-in-practice/

      The transactions costs involved in this example are pretty clear.

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  2. Actually, it used to be permissible in the US -- until property rights strengthened in the late 1800s.

    https://blogs.harvard.edu/jsinger/2009/09/20/trespass/

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  3. I think so. lower densities and longer distances. There are sidewalks and alleys but other than parks or remote trails, cars will be most everywhere. Exceptions would be access to beaches, enforced though much in dispute, and the conversion of some densely urban streets to pedestrians, complementing malls. Obstruction of such paths, forcing traffic along thoroughfares, is standard.

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  4. I would not question that your point is broadly true, but I believe that it is likely subject to more exceptions than you realize -- and that trends are for the better in many parts of the U.S. I use my home of Madison, Wisconsin, and environs as as a strong but not unique example. We have a large and growing network of non-vehicle paths that meet your description. Many are through disused rail corridors, for which the public easement has been retained. Most of those are designed for bicycling, but are intended for and used by pedestrians as well. For those who do not welcome an occasional passing bicycle, there are still good options. Guided tours on request.

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    1. To elaborate, in this context as in many others, "America" or "the States" is a generalization on steroids. It is a huge country with immensely varied terrain, and the nature of the landscape is more significant here than property law. My area, not uncommonly, has vast swaths of gridded farm fields that would not be highly tempting for walking or hiking in any case. Fortunately, we also have excellent parks, old rail corridors and other public lands, as well as lightly used rural roads. Those who enjoy walking and hiking do not generally feel deprived. Also, incidents of innocent hikers being shot are actually quite rare.

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  5. Canada is the same. There are some trails, but nothing like the dense network of footpaths across private land you see in England. The nearest equivalent to footpaths is the traditional canoe routes with portages. Which makes sense, because it is physically very difficult to walk over much of Canada, so if you want to get out of town and see the "countryside", the only way to do it is by paddling.

    I'm from a Herts farming family, and I love to walk footpaths, so I've seen both sides of the footpath question. AFAIK there is less concern about footpaths than there used to be, simply because the people walking them nowadays are nearly always responsible. It depends very much on walkers following the code of conduct. A little bit of carelessness or vandalism can cause a lot of damage. Both sides have responsibilities as well as rights. You need a culture, as well as footpaths.

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    1. I lived in Erin MIlls in Mississauga in Canada for many years. This was a planned development with a lot of paved pedestrian paths behind and between houses. These linked to trails through nearby creeks. I could do a 5 mile circular walk, crossing only 2 minor roads. There are also trails - or paved paths - along Lake Ontario in various locations either side of Toronto (but with a lot of gaps due to private shore fronts). This felt a definite public utility as part of living in the area.

      It seemed in Mississauga that new housing developments had to have pedestrian walkways - and small parks - to get permission to build, although I think very few now are of the Erin Mills extent and quality. Not sure about the rest of Canada.

      I did no long-distance hiking in Canada so not sure what was north of Toronto in terms of 5 to 10 mile trails. I assume there would have been some?

      Since returning to the UK I have completed (in sections) St. Cuthbert's Way in Scotland/Northumberland and various bits of the Cumbria Coastal Path and the Ribble Way in Lancashire. There seems to be a much greater choice in the UK - probably due to a combination of rights under common law and pressure from walking groups like the Ramblers and organisations like the National Trust. Whatever the reason this public utility is one of the definite benefits of living in the UK - even as you age and find a 5 or 6 mile walk in one go about your limit :)

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    2. Here in Ohio many of the former rail corridors, while remaining in public domain have been taken over by the lad owners who encompass the corridor or are adjacent to them. They have built barns, storage bins and in some cases homes. They threaten anyone who would dare follow the old rail lines.

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  6. I suspect that very few of the younger generation do much walking today and it is all too likely they are ignorant of the history and nature of land holding and rights. All to be lost, and soon.

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  7. Naive for sure. But at least you are thinking outside Model.

    I have have expectations for your European Referendum post. Why should we have free movement for Romanians but not Syrians? What does Nichola Sturgeon mean when she says she feels 'European'. Why does she feel more Slovakian than Chinese, African or New Zealander?

    Post Modernism, particularly as its theories of identity, explains a lot about why economists cherish their dear models. It also explains a lot about what is going on in the referendum debate.

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  8. In California, beaches are public property. There is no private ownership of the sand right up to the water. This also means that private ownership must allow access to that beach. So there are certain footpaths / staircases on private property which are public right of way to get to the beach. Most of the time, however, there is a public road to the beach and then one must walk on the beach in front of other's houses.

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  9. There have been legal battles in the U.S. over public access to waterfront:

    http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/12/02/scotus.beachfront.property/

    Even in cases in which land is publicly-owned, some people have other ideas for its use:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occupation_of_the_Malheur_National_Wildlife_Refuge

    I'm not sure where to begin in accounting for this. The U.S. has massive quantities of unoccupied land, and for a long time people could expand into this territory and do what they wanted, without getting in anyone else's way. And much of the expansion is relatively recent. For example the Louisiana purchase (a tract of land about the size of the existing U.S. at the time, west of the Mississippi) in 1803, led to the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804). Before then, Europeans didn't know what was out there. Canada is an interesting comparison. Even today, it's mostly wilderness. To my knowledge, I don't have the right to walk walk across private Canadian farmland unmolested. I probably wouldn't get shot, though.

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  10. In Connecticut I walked around the little lake I lived on every day. About 90% of it was a nature preserve and the state forest but 10% was owned by a guy who ran an illegal junkyard. He warned me off walking through his land and I told him if he stopped me I would put him out of business. He was too dense to understand. He used to lay in wait for me with his incredibly noisy truck motor running. So when I heard the motor, I walked around. Eventually he gave up.

    In Florida there is the right to walk along the beach. The problem is there is no way to get to the beach. It's all fenced off.

    While in England there are walking paths. In Scotland my experience is the lairds own the land and it is private to the point that one cannot boat up or down rivers and streams owned by a laird. The only way one can hunt and fish seemed to me to be to pay for the right to the laird.





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  11. Good historical observation on the Roman origin of European and Britain footpaths. In America, some of these were avoided as method to discourage Indian guerrilla warfare. National Parks runs many hiking trails some of which were established mountain-expedition origin. Once Henry Ford began pumping out autos, footpaths and bikepaths did not have a prayer here (USA). More's the pity.

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  12. Good historical observation on the Roman origin of European and Britain footpaths. In America, some of these were avoided as method to discourage Indian guerrilla warfare. National Parks runs many hiking trails some of which were established mountain-expedition origin. Once Henry Ford began pumping out autos, footpaths and bikepaths did not have a prayer here (USA). More's the pity.

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  13. While many routes in England may date back to before the Romans, they did not become "rights of way" until the enclosure acts. The extent of the network of publicly-accessible paths reflects the extent of enclosure and the necessity of compensatory gestures.

    In contrast, the lack of similar extensive rights of way in the US reflects the way that land (particularly in Western states) was expropriated from native Americans by the US government. The remnants of what went before can sometimes be seen in "desire lines", i.e. informal footpaths that have no legal standing.

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  14. You are right. It is one of the small things that I really wish were different in the U.S. (and one of the best things about the summer I spent in England). It is so frustrating to be driving through miles of lovely countryside, with no way to access it.

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  15. Here in Connecticut it is not unusual for trails to cross private land under various agreements between landowners and hiking clubs, trails associations, etc. I believe this is true in general for New England (!). These are not traditional, however, they are modern, and ongoing, efforts. They include the creation of long-distance trails, such as the New England Trail of ~350km, from Long Island Sound to the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, from which one can continue on trail to Mount Monadnock - sea level to 965m elevation.
    More modestly, one of my town's trails continues through three more towns, through both public and private land, for 32km total distance.
    Unfortunately, of the various arrangements with private owners, not all are binding on subsequent owners, so reroutes are sometimes necessary. But the scheme works well enough for useful trail maps to be published. Locally, the Connecticut Forest and Park Association publishes the Blue Trails Book for its over 1300km of trail in the state; this does not include trails in state parks.

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  16. Of course you could then go on and look at the Nordic countries (Scandinavia + Finland) and their "every mans rights" which typically give anyone the right to roam on most land as long as a respectful distance from lived in houses and yards is maintained. The right also includes the right to pick (wild) berries and mushrooms. From a Finnish perspective especially the US is an odd duck where you can honestly fear being shot if you walk in the wrong place.

    But I must admit that I enjoyed many of the public footpaths and specifically the marked trails on them when I spent an autumn there.

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  17. There's a big difference between Ireland (North and South) and England in this respect too. From my house in Hertfordshire or my in-laws' in Sussex I can walk off in any direction and be confident that there is a bridleway or footpath that I can follow. From my parents' house in Co Antrim, although the surrounding countryside is beautiful, it's almost totally inaccessible. There is good walking in NI, but only in certain areas like some of the Glens of Antrim - the density of the network in England gives a real sense of freedom. As I understand it, this is historically because traditional access rights were protected in the enclosures in England, but not in the Plantation of Ireland.

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