01 July 2008

The Upside Of High Gas Prices

Longtime readers will no doubt have heard me grouse that gasoline prices couldn't possibly be too high if commercial truck drivers can still afford to leave their engines idling for half an hour outside my window while they sip a coffee across the street, or while teenagers can still find the fuel to cruise and/or race around town aimlessly and recklessly.

Well, if this NY Times article is to be believed, at least the latter group is finally having a crimp put in its style. And before you retort that I'm a grumpy old killjoy who wants to deprive today's kids of the pastimes I enjoyed a youth, let it be known that while I did indeed do a fair bit of driving aimlessly and recklessly around as a teenager, it was never something I particularly enjoyed. In fact, I was never happier (not that I was ever happy at all; after all, I was a teenager) than when there were no cars available to us and the gang spent the night hanging out on the street corner or in front of the candy store. But once kids started getting their licenses, those carefree days and the generalized camaraderie were over, replaced by much more fragmented groups and the divisive politics of who was going to ride with whom.

Maybe other kids were/are different, but riding ten or fifteen or twenty times up and down the same street with a stop or a drive-through at a hamburger joint at each end felt soul-crushingly tedious by comparison. And the other main use we made of a car, which was to go on beer-obtaining and drinking missions, sometimes as far away as the Ohio state line over 50 miles away, were not exactly wholesome adolescent activities, either. In fact, it's a miracle we didn't kill ourselves or some one else, and by we I mean only my immediate friends; there were plenty of others who did die in the cause of profligate alcohol and gasoline consumption.

So long live $4 or even $5 gas, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, people will have to adjust, and so will society, but it's an adjustment that should have been made long ago, before we started tearing up all the public transit systems and scattering housing across the countryside as though gas were always going to be 25 cents a gallon. It's painful now, but it will be far, far more painful to put off that transition even longer.

In fact, I've recently read several proposals to the effect that Congress should legislate a $4 minimum price for a gallon of gas, so that even when the current speculative bubble bursts, which it almost certainly will, people won't go back to their gas-guzzling SUV ways, as happened after the first oil price shocks of the 1970s. All tax money raised in this way would be used to massively upgrade, expand and modernize our public transit infrastructure.

Which can't happen soon enough, as I discovered during my weekend trip to Baltimore via Amtrak. This used to be an excellent, albeit overpriced way to travel up and down the Northeast Corridor; often the trains were so uncrowded that I'd practically have a car to myself. No more, however; my trains there and back were packed full, sold out in advance so that anyone showing up at the station hoping to buy a ticket for a journey between New York and Washington would probably have been out of luck. It was still the best way to travel, despite a broken down train that delayed our arrival back into New York by half an hour; friends who made the same trip were stuck in traffic (oh, wait, I thought no one could afford those high gas prices) for up to seven hours, more than twice the time it took me, and even though an airplane could have made the trip in less than an hour, the journey to and from the airports and the lineup at security would have stretched it out to at least three hours and added a great deal of stress to the equation.

Given current demand, Amtrak should be running a train at least every half hour between New York and Washington, but of course we're dealing with a government-run bureaucracy here, one which the government has until recently been trying to starve to death. And without the sort of steady revenue stream that could be provided by higher gasoline taxes, Amtrak's prospects are still somewhat bleak.

So what about suburban and rural drivers who have no choice but to use cars? Wouldn't this policy impact unfairly upon them? Yes, it would, but by the same token, they've made a choice to live in auto-dependent situations and shouldn't expect the rest of us to subsidize their lifestyle choices any more than I can expect them to subsidize the higher rents I have to pay to live in a city where cars aren't necessary. And I don't think it would be out of order to offer some sort of tax credit for those who simply can't get to work without driving, though this should be done a limited and temporary basis while society is making the transformation to a more sane transit policy.


Anonymous said...

I gave up on the car years ago. Now I see all these stoopid lunks sitting in the traffic whilst I zoom past on my bicycle. I get from my home to work (six miles) in half an hour, keep fit and save money. Oh yeah, and I'm not pumping fumes into the atmosphere either! Murray

Erika said...

As a teen, in the 80s, we used to just drive around for fun. I'd steal $3 of quarters from my dad's change jar to put gas in the tank. 3 gallons!