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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Another Take On McCain’s “Gas-Tax Holiday”

posted by on April 17 at 11:27 AM

By Grist guest writer Ryan Avent, who points out that the real failure of leadership isn’t the failure to keep gas prices low, but the failure to give people alternatives to buying gas:

The few lucky metropolitan areas with transit systems have enjoyed record ridership as drivers gladly substitute away from gasoline. Elsewhere, there are no such options. Families trim spending to buy gas. They become less mobile to conserve fuel. If they can afford it, they purchase a hybrid (even though that also requires trips to the local gas station). And every product that has gasoline somewhere in its production process grows more expensive.

We are, as a nation, incredibly vulnerable to increases in gasoline prices, because, as a nation, we have done so little to diversify our transportation network. We placed all our bets on roads, cars, and gas. Sadly, those were losing bets, and we did practically nothing to hedge.

Oil prices will fluctuate in the future, but the long-term trend is likely to be up, and up, and up. If we hope to minimize the pain of future fuel price hikes, now is the time to invest in automobile alternatives. We can do this by shifting funds from new highway construction to new transit construction. We can do this through congestion pricing. And we can do this by keeping and increasing our pitifully low gasoline tax. Better to suck it up and pay those few extra cents now in order to enjoy a range of options tomorrow.

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I kinda want to get a horse, a nice city vehicle that will run on grass and hay. it does have emissions, but i am willing to put that externality out on the street for the street cleaners

Posted by vooodooo84 | April 17, 2008 11:35 AM

If only we'd had the chance to vote for 50 miles of light rail...

Posted by MHD | April 17, 2008 11:53 AM

Well like ultimately this is going to actually change the urban form, but that will take forever.

The current urban form in the Puget Sound (and always gotta remember that Seattle is less than 1/5 of the population of the Puget Sound, and all of those people need solutions) is very difficult to serve with transit; thus all the parking spaces at light rail stations. But it's so bad that it will be extremely difficult to transform to a transit-friendly one. I will be very interested to see how this all works out.

In Toronto I was talking to a landlord who was telling me that already his bike racks are filling up faster than he can build them, while his garages are at half capacity. But Toronto has a lot of advantages over Seattle. oh yeah, and gas is almost $5 a gallon.

Posted by John | April 17, 2008 11:59 AM

It would be nice if car companies would stop prioritizing power and size over efficiency. Or, if the American consumer would, I guess. It's my understanding that in places like Europe, where gas is generally twice as much, their cars are roughly twice as efficient.

I just saw an advertisement for a car boasting that it got 20MPG. New fleet standards are what, 26? You may as well be dumping gasoline down the drain. Economy cars should be as economical as possible. They shouldn't take hits on economy to give them a slightly larger engine that they don't need.

Posted by Me | April 17, 2008 12:13 PM

@4 I was actually told by the marxist prof of my Environmental Economics class that fuel economy regulation was well known to be failed policy, that increased economy actually resulted in more driving which neutralized any benefits. I assumed he was referring to a substantial literature but i admit I did not check up on him.

Basically though his point was that high fuel prices are the appropriate and only effective way to reduce gasoline consumption, which according to classical economics at least, makes a lot of sense.

Posted by John | April 17, 2008 12:18 PM

I'm already depressed in anticipation of the soon-to-be-ratcheted-up debate about how the inclusion of park-and-ride facilities in an expanded transit system makes it worth killing.

Posted by JW | April 17, 2008 1:02 PM

@5 True enough. I was a little off topic in that I wasn't talking about reduced driving, mind, but just paying less for what you are driving. In areas without major mass transit (such as where I am), there is only so far you can go without a car of some sort, thanks largely to the comment about how we haven't invested in a different infrastructure.

Of course, now that you've written it out, I can't guarantee that I'd drive the same amount of miles if my car gave me more bang for my buck. In fact, I would probably feel free to drive more, which would help keep demand high, which would help keep prices high, etc.

Damn lack of choices.

Posted by Me | April 17, 2008 1:05 PM

I would like to see the gas tax raised immediately to a buck, and I support transit investment.

BUT transit is never going to be more than a small part of the picture, like it or not. Only in NYC does a major portion of the population commute by transit. SF commutes mostly by car. Chicago commutes mostly by car. Philadelphia and Washington and even Boston commute mostly by car. Spread-out Western cities that have built transit systems have seen almost trivial ridership for the most part; San Jose, San Diego, Las Vegas (hah!), Salt Lake, Minneapolis, Phoenix (not built yet), Denver, even Vancouver, BC -- these systems are in some cases having an effect but in no case are they carrying even ten percent of the commuter load.

Not to mention the non-commuter traffic, which is enormous.

The cost of a transit system that would serve Manhattan levels of people in most cities would cost many, many times the total GDP of the earth. Pretending otherwise is the kind of idiocy that makes environmentalists look stupid.

What DOES work is a sensible mix of transit and automobiles with a series of incentives to use high-mpg vehicles. Starting with expensive gas, and also including increases in the CAFE standard, manufacturer incentives for R&D and small car sales, and getting rid of the goddamn subsidies for trucks and SUVs.

Posted by Fnarf | April 17, 2008 1:08 PM

If the price of gasoline continues to rise for the foreseeable future, there are two strategies that I see for the suburbs:

1. Abandon them and move to the city.
2. Turn the suburbs into cities.

I suspect long term we'll have a mix of both. Big McMansions will become too expensive as single-family homes. Those far out will be razed for farmland or left to rot like old barns on the prairies, while those closer in will be subdivided into multiple unit residencies until such time as they can be torn down and replaced with apartments or condos. Inner-ring suburbs will simply become an extension of the core city.

Cities need to plan for this, which means family-friendly residences in the urban core, with a broader mix than just studio apartments or small two-bedroom condos. That can be done while increasing density, but it might not accommodate the whole population. To get everyone living densely will mean concentrating the current suburban population in dense pockets near rail transit. In some places, the economic benefit of this new suburban density might even allow some of the big suburban homes to persist on the periphery, but as a dwindling percentage of the population over time.

This is only going to happen if we build a regional rail transit network now that includes the suburbs. If we wait until the shit really hits the fan, then we might very well have cities without the infrastructure to handle a surge in people looking for jobs amid a suburban depression. Thinking only of the interests of the city as it is currently and pretending that suburbs don't exist only increases the likelihood of an eventual calamity.

Posted by Cascadian | April 17, 2008 1:25 PM

Generally speaking you're right -- suburbs will become cities (they are already; Bellevue already has a higher population M-F 9-5 than it does at night). But abandonment? I don't think so. Maybe temporarily, in lower-income outlying areas (the "meth belt"), but certainly not McMansions, which are owned by people who don't care how much gas costs.

Abandoned exurban development, to the extent that it exists, is just going to revert to the kind of tumbledown rural stuff that preceded it, and which it is only barely more than. I think you're exaggerating the willingness of lower-income exurbanites to move closer to cities.

Posted by Fnarf | April 17, 2008 1:41 PM

Referring to concepts like "the total GDP of the Earth" is what makes me gay for Fnarf.

Posted by w7ngman | April 17, 2008 1:47 PM

I don't want to overstate the abandonment side of things, but I do think we'll see some of that at the exurban fringe. I do think the less we do now to plan for the future the more abandonment we'll see. The same forces that in reverse left thousands of homes empty in cities like Detroit could do the same for the most far-flung suburbs.

I think certain anti-suburban city dwellers take a secret glee in the idea of suburban families losing everything and having to move to the city, but if that happens it won't be pretty for anyone.

Posted by Cascadian | April 17, 2008 2:01 PM

a 5.2% reduction in the price of gas at the current levels will do nothing for anyone.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 17, 2008 2:40 PM

@13 - with future oil prices at $115 to $140 (try to buy futures on the market for spot oil), a reduction of 5 percent is a total waste of time, and a subsidy for higher oil/gas subsidies - since it takes the heat off of Congress for reducing the oil/gas "research" subsidies.

But hey, in the real world, the CEO of Exxon makes more than you will in your lifetime - in one week.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 17, 2008 3:36 PM

Detroit's not a good example, though, because their suburbs and exurbs boomed while the center, or more precisely the innermost ring around the center, rotted away. That's what cities do when they die. The only evidence for rotting exurbs is extremely recent and extremely rare.

Posted by Fnarf | April 17, 2008 4:30 PM

Yeah, not like the spike in gas prices, heating oil prices, food, and the failure of housing values is going to doom exurbs ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 18, 2008 1:07 AM

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