Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Externalities: Body Odor Edition

From the AP (dated 9/2/2009):

HONOLULU - A vote on a Honolulu City Council proposal that would bar people with offensive odors from public transit vehicles is being delayed.

The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to have "odors that unreasonably disturb others or interfere with their use of the transit system."

Councilman Nestor Garcia said Wednesday the proposal has some technical problems that need to be addressed.

Granted, Coasian bargaining probably doesn't work here. I assume they mean city-owned when they say "public transit," so there is a legitimate concern of granting the property right to the party that values it the most. In this case, some people value being stinky while others value the absence of stink on people.

I think it is interesting what people will have to admit to themselves in order to support or oppose this ordinance. Body odor is something of a random variable that is only partially determined by personal hygiene. Also random is the manner in which this must be enforced. If we think of body odor as a continuous spectrum, one must identify where they think the cut-off will be as well as where they are on the spectrum. Can they get the city to credibly commit to a point on the spectrum, even in tough financial times?

Update: Rachel Herz points out a similar ban has been in place in Novia Scotia for a few years:
The city of Halifax in Nova Scotia imposed a ban on scent in 2000, specifically artificial scent, which resulted in elderly ladies being kicked off buses for wearing perfume and high school students being accused of "assault" for sporting hair gel and Aqua Velva in class. I have not found confirmation that anyone has ever been jailed or fined for these Canadian scent offenses.
Herz goes on to point out, legitimately in my view, that the psychology of smell coupled with these laws could create class and race issues.


Matt E. Ryan said...

It's always fun to read between the lines on proposals like this; I gather this is serving a constituency that does not want the homeless on public transportation.

heather said...

As someone who has used public transport extensively throughout my life, I can certainly understand where this is coming from. There have been times, even in mild Bloomington, when I have had a hard time *breathing* on the bus because someone close to me had a very strong, foul body odor. Given the location, I would wager that this is not so much an anti-homeless issue as it is a PRO-tourism issue.

With the cutbacks in discretionary spending, not only will fewer people be likely to take a vacation in a famously expensive place such as Hawaii, they would probably also be more likely to cut back on luxuries like car rental if they did. If I paid $3,000 for a few days in Honolulu, I certainly wouldn't want my memories to be centered on rank sweat smell--and if they were, I would never go back or recommend it to my friends.

Just a hunch, but that's my best guess.

Justin M Ross said...

My hunch is closer to Heather's. The locals are worried about tourism. I doubt public transit is used as much by locals as it is by tourists.

cheap fifa coins said...

Because somebody who has utilized open public transportation thoroughly all through my entire life, I will definitely realize exactly where this really is originating from. There has been occasions, actually within moderate Bloomington, after i have experienced difficulty *breathing* about the coach simply because somebody near to me personally experienced an extremely powerful, bad entire body smell. Provided the place, I'd bet which this isn't a lot a good anti-homeless concern because it's a PRO-tourism concern.

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