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Gas Is Too Cheap

March 10, 2011 Economy, Environment 8 Comments

I’m tired of the news stories about the recent spike in gas prices, as a nation we’ve enjoyed cheap fuel for decades.  Long enough to build ourselves into a corner where if we don’t continue to have cheap gas our society crumbles. Well folks, the party is coming to a close. Now the Obama administration is considering stepping in and selling some reserves:

“The U.S.-held emergency oil supply – called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – contains 727,000,000 barrels of oil … enough to supply the nation for several months.

Proponents say releasing oil from the reserves would calm spiking gas prices and limit the threat to the U.S. economic recovery. Critics say the oil reserves should be saved for a true emergency.” (CBS News: Would tapping oil reserve help in wake of Libya?)

An increase in price isn’t an emergency — yet.  We need to figure out how to transition from our cheap gas culture (sprawl, limited transit, etc) to the reality the rest of the world has known for years, oil supply is limited.  Officials worry about the economic recovery, but they want to get back to the old economy that requires cheap gas.

In other parts of the world gas can cost the equivalent of $6-$8/gallon! We must work on a plan to get us to this point with as little pain as possible.  We will get there at some point anyway, I’d just rather we planned for it than having it creep up on us.  The pain (war) it will take to keep our cheap gas society over the next 20 years will be far worse than planning for change now.

From April 2010:

“Responding to one of the first major directives of the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today jointly established historic new federal rules that set the first-ever national greenhouse gas emissions standards and will significantly increase the fuel economy of all new passenger cars and light trucks sold in the United States. The rules could potentially save the average buyer of a 2016 model year car $3,000 over the life of the vehicle and, nationally, will conserve about 1.8 billion barrels of oil and reduce nearly a billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions over the lives of the vehicles covered.” (Source: EPA)

Raising the CAFE standards was a good start, we’ve got to let gas prices go up so that buys demand the more fuel efficient vehicles the automakers must begin selling in volume.  The longer we wait the harder it is going to be when the time comes.

ABOVE: Modern streetcar in Portland OR
ABOVE: Modern streetcar in Portland OR

The following steps need to be taken:

  • Raise fuel taxes to fund modern urban transit systems (modern streetcars) and discourage auto use.
  • Change zoning & building codes to require compact/walkable development.

We don’t need to ban cars, we just need to tilt the playing field so people have legitimate options to get from A to B.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. JZ71 says:

    I agree, but not completely. Higher prices do not constitute an emergency, significantly-reduced supplies would. But I disagree that higher gas taxes elsewhere in the world were implemented as an urban design tool, they were implemented because it was the most politically-expedient choice to fund the level of services desired/provided. Plus, they were starting with higher densities and older infrastructure – their people simply didn't have to drive as far as we do.

    Missouri has income taxes, other states don't. Missouri has relatively high sales taxes, other states have lower. Missouri has relatively low property taxes, other states have higher. Missouri has the lowest tobacco taxes in the nation. Gas taxes are just one part of the whole government funding equation. And since public transit has evolved into a government service, higher fuel prices (exclusive of any taxes) negatively impacts the ability to deliver that service to the public, especially since the bulk of public transit relies on buses.

    As for your two bullet points, when you say “Raise fuel taxes to fund modern urban transit systems (modern streetcars) and discourage auto use”, are you assuming at the local, regional, state and/or national level(s)? I can see where this could work at the state or regional level; I doubt it would work at the state or national level – too much of Missouri is rural, and we already have significant transit funding at the national level. Plus, streetcars have limited applicability – buses are much more cost-effective, even though they do less to encourage higher-density development.

    As for your second point, I'm not sure how one would “Change . . . building codes to require compact/walkable development.” Building codes control life safety issues, not aesthetics. The only way to change the building code to encourage density would be to reduce the fire ratings, and thus the costs, for components in multi-story structures, and that ain't gonna happen. Zoning and local development codes are the ones that actually control things like density, bulk, massing, materials and design review. That said, the challenge with changing “zoning . . . codes to require compact/walkable development” is that zoning codes typically set minimums, not maximums. What really drives most commercial development outside the CBD is providing parking, either required by zoning or by the actual occupants.

    Finally, the “need to tilt the playing field so people have legitimate options to get from A to B” – coming from an area that is more successful in achieving that goal, I can identify several smaller, discrete, initiatives that go a long way to encouraging alternate means:

    – make downtown more desirable as an employment center – it already
    has the density, but the suburbs seem to sucking all the good jobs
    out of it
    – continue to work on alternatives in Clayton – their densities are good,
    and adding a circulator could convince more people not to drive.
    – increase transit frequency – make schedules irrelevent
    – make the cost of transit transparent – provide “free” passes through
    educational institutions and employers
    – treat transit as an integrated solution – buses are just as acceptable
    as rail – use the right tool to move people on each segment of their trip
    – focus on the missing links – make walking and cycling easier
    – make parking (more) expensive for commuters
    – quit building more highways, or make them toll roads – make commuting
    in the SOV more of a pain the a**
    – change attitudes – bus riders aren't weird, cyclists aren't weird
    – change attitudes – drivers and cyclists need to respect each other
    – trails can become commuting alternatives, especially if they're grade
    separated and provide a quick route to work, school or events, and
    not just a loop around a park
    – finally, the hardest to change is our weather – it is what it is . . .

  2. stlFan says:

    Or possibly Joel Kotkin's “The Protean Future Of American Cities”
    “continued evolution of urban regions toward a more dispersed, multi-centered form. Brookings’ Robert Lang has gone even further, using the term “edgeless cities” to describe what he calls an increasingly “elusive metropolis” with highly dispersed employment.”

  3. Tpekren says:

    The other alternative that is in direct competition with transit systems, a plausible threat to gas consumption in the next decade, uses existing infrastructure and favors the current desires and wants of a vast majority of people is the electric vehicle.

    • JZ71 says:

      Electric vehicles aren't the “silver bullet” some people want. They cost more, have limited range, perform less well in cold weather, and, most importantly, rely on offsite energy production, mostly coal-fired, around here. Until someone figures out how to integrate high-efficiency solar panels into their roofs, you're just shifting carbon consumption from internal combustion engines to power plants. Nuclear energy has its own negatives, and wind and solar aren't consistent or reliable, leaving hydro and natural gas as the most-likely “suspects”.

    • APS221 says:

      If you want to use Europe as an example, where gasoline is $6-$8 per gallon, then the answer is diesel. I was on another forum where someone asked about an episode of the British motoring show, “Top Gear.” In that program, the three hosts each had to choose a car and drive it from Basel (Switzerland) to Blackpool (England) on a single tank of fuel. That's a trip of 750 miles. They all chose diesel cars.

      You see, in Europe, diesel is cheaper than gasoline. It is taxed less than gasoline. In the U.S., the opposite is true. As a result, European automakers have developed diesel engines for cars, most European filling stations sell diesel, and people in Europe are willing to spend more on a diesel knowing they'll save at the pump. The drawback of diesel is that it produces more sulphur and nitrogen oxide pollution. However, the market for diesels in Europe has led European automakers to develop cleaner diesel engines.

      In the U.S., the focus hasn't been on diesel, but on ethanol fueled vehicles. While ethanol is cleaner than gasoline or diesel, it is the least efficient of the three. As a result, any savings from lower ethanol prices are usually lost due to lower fuel economy. Even here, in the middle of the corn belt, ethanol (E85) is still not easy to find. Current CAFE standards reward automakers for producing the flex-fuel cars, even if they aren't actually run on E85.

      The solution isn't to simply raise the price of gas, and force everybody to take public transportation. The solution is to develop standards and regulations that promote cleaner and more efficient vehicles.

  4. Miss L. says:

    I understand your perspective. People often can take public transit and they choose not to. People also move 45-minutes from where they work, which is not logical. That said, those of us in the rural areas really have no choice. We have to drive. Incomes in the rural areas also tend to be lower in the cities, so rural people may also have less ability to pay for that gas. Raising the gas tax might encourage some suburban people to move closer to the city. It might encourage some city and inner-ring suburban people to use public transit. It may overall decrease the amount of driving in and around cities. However, it'll only hurt those of us in rural areas, because public transit does not really exist here and it's not really plausible to have it.

    I don't know that raising gas taxes will encourage people to move into the city, especially if they have kids. The city's school district's reputation and the perception of crime (even if the perception is exaggerated) are probably bigger factors than how much the commute costs.

    • JZ71 says:

      In theory, people in rural areas should be involved in agriculture and not have to commute. If they have a 45 minute drive to get to work, they've become commuters, no different than any other suburbanite. You can't have it both ways, claiming to not be a part of the metro area, yet relying on it for employment and services. Choosing to live someplace with few jobs and fewer services (but better schools and lower crime), then expecting to be subsidized with lower gas taxes is not logical, either!

  5. shortindiangirl says:

    Right, and I am now working for Metro. Would like to catch up with you. asmohan at metro stlouis dot org.


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