Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Geography of Gas Prices

My family and I went car-less this summer.

It was a three month experiment to see how we would do without the family vehicle. It was a terrific success. In all honesty, it wasn't really that difficult. We had the pleasure of feeling virtuous without the pain of working too hard at it.

We spent those three months in the University City section of Philadelphia. There, we had easy access to good public transportation; bike lanes on many streets made it fun for the four of us to zoom around that way; the neighborhood itself is walkable, with a twice-weekly farmers market and a park down the street; and it is home to the best Vietnamese tofu hoagie in the country. On those few occasions where we really needed a car, we used the local car-share program. Philadelphia, as it happens, is better served by car share than any other city in the nation.

And we didn't miss the car much at all - for us, it was more fun (and relaxing) to take the train or the trolley, to walk where we needed to, to pretend we were living a European life-style without having to pay in Euros. Most of all, we read all those news stories about high gas prices as if they were dispatches from some foreign country.

Now that we have returned to Ohio and the experiment is over, it strikes me that the pain of rising gas prices this summer has a specific geography. That geography, in turn, might well predict much of our economic future.

Counterpointing the stories in the papers this summer about gas prices were stories about the increased use of mass transit. Needless to say, however, increased ridership on public transportation only happened in places that have public transportation to begin with: New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Metro DC.

People in much of the rest of the country don't have any alternative to the car. Like those living in most of the South and the Midwest, for example. Take a map of those places where the car is the only form of transportation and lay it over a map of the most economically distressed parts of the country and I think you'll find a fair degree of over-lap.

Exhibit A - Ohio. The state has been in serious economic trouble for several years. At the same time, there isn't a public transit system worthy of the name in the whole state. (Twenty years ago the local burghermeisters in Columbus conspired to tear down the city's train station, turning Columbus into the largest city in the country without any passenger rail service). Over the last two decades, suburban sprawl has been among the few growth industries in the state, reinforcing the reliance and cars and gasoline. Gas prices thus hurt here a lot more than they do in New York.

Put another way, those places with a wider range of transportation options are positioned to be economically more competetive than those parts of the country without them. This means those places with greater density - shorter commutes, shorter trips to the store etc - and those places where people have options about how to take those trips. The new economics of energy is going to reward places like Chicago and it will punish places like Birmingham.

Fifty-five years after Charles Wilson said it, it has become clear that what's good for General Motors is no longer good for the country. Good urban design, public transit, and increased metropolitan density, once seen as a conspiracy of liberals and do-gooders (see Tom's earlier post "Suburbanites Beware!), is now the key to economic prosperity. Or at least to my economic prosperity now that I have to buy gas for my car again.


CJ said...

Hey, another person from Ohio. And another person from Ohio who's seen the joys of Philadelphia's mass transit compared to Ohio's non-existent mass transit at that. I couldn't agree more with your points. But it does make me think a lot about what will happen in the smaller towns in states like Ohio which are a bit small for mass transit to make a huge amount of sense, at least outside of buses or something. Especially when there's no clear central area people are all going to for work.

aullman said...

It is pretty obvious that there is an economic benefit to driving less miles every day. However, there are locations around the country where driving is the only way to get to work.

There is an option for people who do not live in a city where there are alternative means of commuting.

The solution is to work remotely. Remote Office Centers are a fairly new option available to office workers, but they can be found in most cities by searching for Remote Office Centers in quotes on the internet.

Remote Office Centers lease individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from different companies in shared centers located around the suburbs.

The solution to the energy, traffic and polution problems is to drive less. This can be achieved by supporting programs that allow workers to work remotely.

$200 million is spent importing foriegn oil every DAY. This money could be better utilized if it were to stay in people's pockets and in the US economy in general.

hesperia said...

And another thing ...

Several years ago, I moved out of the city of Toronto, which likely has some of the best public transit in North America. I moved because I couldn't afford the price of accomodation in the city after I went on long term disability. I moved into much cheaper digs in the suburbs. And now I have to use my car for every single, small purchase of anything whatsoever. DRAG! Especially after using transit for forty years or so. I do worry that, one day, I will be living in isolated poverty in the land of previously green and now brown, dead grass. Not the good kind of grass either.

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