High Gas Prices Are Just One Symptom of a Much Greater Problem

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Just in the past two weeks, I’ve made a point of using my bike for some errands I would normally have done by car. That’s of course anecdotal, but there is data, too: we already have evidence that transit ridership is growing right now on systems like South Florida’s TriRail.

So people do respond to price signals. This is supply-and-demand 101. But we can only do that when we have alternatives. Or, in economists’ terms, when the price elasticity of demand for gasoline is high. Research has generally found that demand for gasoline in the U.S. is not only inelastic, but that it has become more inelastic over recent decades.

Think of “elastic” as meaning “stretchable” or “flexible.” What this means in plain English is that we are less able to adjust our gasoline consumption to save money than we used to be. Including in the 1970s. Why? Because our world has become ever more car dependent, and other options have been squeezed out. Compared to only a few decades ago, American cities have less neighborhood-scale retail and services, longer travel distances to jobs and shopping, and more people living in places where walking is simply not a reasonable option.

Through the way we design and build our places, we’ve turned cars and trucks from, as Jeff Speck puts it, “an optional instrument of freedom” into “a prosthetic device.”

The Self-Imposed Fragility of our Development Pattern

The core issue we, as a nation, should be fixating on here is car dependency. A lack of alternatives to driving (and to motorized transport of goods) introduces fragility into our lives at every level, from personal finances to foreign policy and national security. The fact that the Putin regime can mess with our lives in this way is a self-inflicted malady.

A gas price panic, however, predictably prompts a number of unhelpful policy and rhetorical responses. On the policy front, elected officials predictably trot out the tired proposal of a gas tax holiday. Such a proposal is already on the table in Connecticut. However, this is and always was a terrible idea: Most of the savings would almost certainly be captured by oil companies and gas stations, which could simply raise the pre-tax price to compensate. Furthermore, relative to the status quo, a gas tax cut incentivizes more driving, which—you guessed it—drives gas prices back up. And it puts government at all levels even deeper in the hole for road maintenance needs that the gas tax was already not coming close to funding.

As always, a spike in the misery associated with driving has given diehard advocates for non-car transportation the opportunity to be a bit self-satisfied and smug. I’m seeing memes circulate like these:

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