Surprisingly, the latest runup in gas prices has resulted in some eminently sensible voices cutting through the usual screeds. Perhaps it’s because the proximate cause of the gas crisis — the drowning of Louisiana and Mississippi — was exacerbated by oil consumption, both in sinking southern Louisiana’s wetlands and in pumping carbon into a warming atmosphere that fuels stronger hurricanes. Or maybe it’s because years of steady increases and a do-nothing administration have worked to convince at least a segment of the public that the same-old won’t work any more.
* Ben Adler, a new face at TNR, sensibly suggests “gas taxes to spur New Urbanist investment”:http://www.tnr.com/etc.mhtml?pid=2759: “We mass transit users would be rewarded by a tax rebate, but we’d also be rewarded by investments in mass transit that keep our fares down and our service reliable. That would encourage more drivers to join us as well… The government could also use gas tax revenues to provide tax incentives to localities that impose sensible zoning restrictions — limiting sprawl, requiring density, encouraging walking (by building sidewalks) and, as I’ve previously mentioned, limiting garage size. But maybe now I’m just getting into the realm of fantasy.” Well, not really: cities across the country are already taking these steps. (A Friendster search on Adler shows that he’s a Brooklynite displaced to DC, and New Yorkers famously [and somewhat understandably, given the vastness of their backyard] know little about urbanist initiatives across the land.)
* The Center for American Progress proposes “feebates”:http://www.northwestwatch.org/reforms/feebates.asp along with a scrap-and-replace program as parts of a “Progressive Response to High Oil and Gas Prices”:http://www.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=669657. In the section on car-sharing, they point out that “the average U.S. private car sits idle 96 percent of the time.” (Of course, they don’t mention the built environment surrounding said shared cars — although shared cars, like any common infrastructure, work best in dense, walkable neighborhoods.)
* For once, the Trib’s right-wing editorial bias comes in handy. “Steve Chapman”:http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/columnists/chi-0509080033sep08,1,3368822.column?coll=chi-business-hed comes down firmly on the side of “something for high prices rather than nothing at any price,” he notes that price controls would be “[t]elling consumers they should waste fuel to their hearts’ content, and telling producers to leave the black stuff in the ground. When events in the world conspire to make oil dear, there is nothing to be gained from masking that fact. We can ignore reality, but reality won’t ignore us.”
* Somewhat related: “Gregg Easterbrook”:http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050919&s=easterbrook091905 refers to the “Hummer personality defect.”
* I think I did admirably in this “Flickr message-board discussion”:http://flickr.com/groups/gaspump/discuss/82822/#comment678124 of gas prices, considering the built-in hostility of posting amidst photos of people flicking off gas pumps (way to release your anger — like that’ll do something).
Many people living in urban areas already have great transit alternatives. 40% of the trips that Americans make are less than two miles long–a great distance for walking or cycling. New technology makes sharing trips or replacing trips much easier, whether telecommuting, finding someone to carpool with, or shopping online (thus sharing delivery trucks, instead of everyone driving their own deliveries). If you’re really mad about gas prices, you could do something really radical: never buy gas, ever again. Oh wait, I did that already…
Maybe other people shouldn’t be lazy, or at least maybe they shouldn’t complain loudly when they have to pay the price for their laziness. I don’t get ten bags of groceries at a time. Buying smaller quantities more often means fresher food. Even when buying for parties, I can carry it easily with a bicycle trailer or a small cart, or have it delivered. (I don’t know what you buy from Best Buy, but most of my electronic stuff is small.) And most of the time, people _aren’t_ traveling very far with loads of stuff. They’re just lazy, as you say, and so they drive…
Higher [gas] costs eventually get passed down; for instance, taxi and air fares have increased. However, someone who drives has to pay both higher air fare _and_ higher gas prices; I only have to pay the former. Gas taxes here in Chicago rank among the highest local taxes in the country, at around 30c/gallon, but residents of, say, the Netherlands pay gas _taxes_ of over $4/gallon. Since they’ve paid those taxes for a long time, though, the entire economy uses gas more efficiently. Food is grown and processed closer to cities, things are sent by boat or rail instead of truck, etc. So, the market prices for food and other necessities end up being no higher than here. Transit operators do end up paying more for fuel, but fuel is only 3% of my local transit system’s budget. It’s not an optimal situation for anyone, really, since even I’d prefer that higher prices be offset by better transportation alternatives or for rebates to lower-income consumers. However, let’s hope that today’s high prices will provide a strong impetus to begin using gas more economically, so that we’re not caught in a similarly bad situation during future oil-supply crunches — which, by all indications, will happen more frequently… We’ve successfully cut pollution: for instance, the Clean Air Act cut carbon monoxide pollution by 90% and sulfur dioxide by 60%, while CFCs have almost disappeared in 10 years since the Montreal Protocol. Many large (and quite wealthy) cities like Vancouver, Copenhagen, Singapore, Zurich, Melbourne, and London have used proactive policies to reduce car traffic and increase transit ridership, walking, and cycling, sometimes dramatically: walking has increased 60% in Melbourne and 50% in Vancouver. Here in the USA, our economy became 33% more energy efficient between 1970-97, and higher prices will accelerate that trend….
The key is to use transportation appropriately: instead of driving half a mile, as many people in cities and suburbs do, maybe we city folks should consider alternatives. That way, we can make sure there’s more scarce gas available for those who truly need it. Edit: “One economist”:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5080-2004May31.html calculates that a program combining a $2/gallon tax and a “gas guzzler buyback” (to ease the transition to higher prices) would save two million barrels of oil each day in the first year. By contrast, Hurricane Katrina knocked out production of 0.86 million barrels of oils a day. Smarter energy policies today will help us when future crises hit.