20 May 2007

$4 A Gallon? Still Too Cheap!

If this article in the Chronicle is to be believed - always a stretch where the Chronicle is concerned - people are still buying gas-guzzling SUVs despite the price of gas reaching levels never before seen in this country.

To hear Americans bellyaching, you'd never imagine that apart from the Middle East, the good old USA still has some of the cheapest energy prices in the developed world, though from the way Americans squander fuel of all sorts, it should be pretty obvious. I'm constantly seeing people sitting in their SUVs with the engine idling for an hour or more while they sit there doing God knows what, and giant big rigs and buses, which probably gobble up a gallon every minute or two, are even worse offenders. The streets of New York are lined with shops and restaurants with their windows and doors flung wide open to the world while they run the heating or the air conditioning full blast. My neighborhood is served round the clock by two subway lines and three or four bus lines, yet there are still so many people who can't imagine going anywhere without driving that the streets are perpetually clogged with cars, parked, looking for parking, and, one suspects, committed to driving aimlessly around ad infinitum for reasons long since forgotten if they were ever known in the first place.

I don't want to get up on a high horse about it, and I know people love their cars and the freedom (or illusion thereof) they confer, but all of the above seems to provide clear evidence that the price of gas and fuel in general is still far too cheap. Humans are rational beings (more or less), and they don't waste hard-earned money that they can't afford (again more or less). If energy costs were allowed to rise to true market levels (e.g., without hidden subsidies like the hundreds of billions in "defense" dollars spent to prop up the oil companies' predations around the globe), yes, people who've become dependent on the private automobile would endure considerable hardship. But it wouldn't take long for an irresistible demand for more rational transportation planning to coalesce.

Alternatively, we could go on the way we are, with energy prices rising slowly but inexorably, gradually squeezing the wealth from the transit-poor suburbs and creating a class divide in which those rich or lucky enough to live in transit-rich areas like New York have an enormous advantage over those who have no choice but to continue driving. More crucially, sooner or later - and probably sooner - war or natural disaster or economic dislocation will create another energy shock like that of the 1970s and the fallout will prove disastrous for those with no alternatives to the car.

So if you just paid $50 or more to fill your gas tank and are feeling in the mood to strangle me for saying you'd be better off paying $100 for the same privilege, believe me, I understand your sentiments. But trust me, in the long run, you'd be better off. We'd all be.

1 comment:

Amy said...

I'm not arguing with you because I pretty much agree. I would love to be able to get rid of my car and only use public transportation. Unfortunately, the US doesn't seem to be in any big hurry with developing any kind of mass transit system outside of a few select cities. The buses don't even run 24 hours and there are huge pockets of the city where buses don't go at all. Maybe someday I'll get to stop driving my own vehicle but for now I'm stuck paying way too much money for gas.