John Buell

Gas Prices: Challenge and Opportunity

Has the dramatic increase in gas prices over the last year been enough to substantially reduce our almost total dependency on the private auto? Here in rural Maine it is hard to give an affirmative answer to this question. Low population densities, scattered residences and retail outlets, a culture that treats ownership of one’s car as a ticket to and symbol of adulthood and sexual maturity, all seem to suggest that the car is here to stay regardless of gas prices. Yet if the vast surge in gas prices may be regarded as a swift current disrupting world economies, this current is now encountering several other ripples that—in the face of persistently high gas prices—may fashion mutually reinforcing changes in how and how far we travel, where we live, and how we spend our time as well as money. Public policy has an important role to play in any constructive transformation, just as it was a key component of the establishment of car culture.

The vast runup in oil prices has occurred at a time when the auto already entailed increasing, albeit seldom-discussed, disadvantages. As more of us drive from our rural or suburban homes to commercial or business hubs, road congestion takes a toll. US census figures show that the average American now spends 100 hours a year in commuting time. Just as commuting time is increasing, working hours have grown as well. Over the last two decades a family of two adults has seen its working time increase 500 hours. We work longer hours to buy our cars and to support families we have ever less time to see. And as we spend more time in our cars and our workplaces, costly cell phones suddenly become a necessity, both to attend to our business interests and to sustain contact with our families.

Figures on commuting only understate the time burden of the auto. In addition to time-consuming commutes, most families have experienced comparable increases in time driving for shopping and other errands.

None of these trends is inevitable. Changes in zoning regulations that encourage integration of homes, businesses and retail shops can reduce commuting time as well as the necessity for lengthy errand forays. Land use planning and zoning changes aimed at clustering developments can preserve the rural quality of life while still increasing population densities. These strategies both encourage and are abetted by expansion of public transit options. The “smart growth” movement here in Maine has made substantial progress in fostering these goals and the appropriate policy tools to advance them.

Nonetheless, as the New York Times’ Paul Krugman recently points out, housing and community development patterns can change only gradually. Though conceding Krugman’s point, one should not let the difficulty of achieving the best solution stand in the way of promimate alternatives. Many rural communities can still make considerable gains. Car pooling options can be fostered not merely by individual businesses and by chambers of commerce, but also by state and local governments. More car pooling not only saves money on gas but reduces congestion and saves time for everyone.

In addition, even many rural communities can make more effective use of mass transit than currently. In a recent blog, Krugman points out that Canada, with population densities just as unfavorable to public transit, still manages to have about twice our per-capita use of public transit.

Public transit faces two related chicken-and-egg problems. Liveable communities and clustered housing becoming more appealing if transit is available, but by the same token it makes little economic sense to increase public transit absent adequate population densities. In addition, more frequent bus and van service encourages wider use, but until many are willing to use these services, there is little immediate economic incentive to improve them.

Governments at all levels can break these knots by moving simultaneously on sensible land-use regulations and incentives as well as transit subsidies for both operational and capital improvement purposes. Some Maine communities have transit vehicles already that are used at way less than capacity, and even slight improvements in frequency of service could increase ridership between small towns and commercial centers.

To those who choke over the words subsidy and regulation, it would be worth pointing out that our suburban sprawl and single driver auto mania are encouraged and enabled by the massive government capital infusions of an earlier era, land use regulations, and continuing subsidies.

But turning these trends around may also entail more imaginative reconstruction of current dilemmas. Better transit options can mean more time for recreation and family, and in turn theses experiences can build and intensify our desire to find ways to limit the auto’s hold on our lives. Over the next two decades we would build a markedly better quality of life if we regard high gas prices as not merely a challenge but as an opportunity.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2008

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