Friday, May 23, 2008

Finally Saying 'Uncle' on Gas Prices...And, Of Course, an Upside

Ever since gas prices started rising from those less-than-a-dollar days in 1998, the media has loved the subject. For a while, I've thought of it as overblown, because even a one-dollar increase in gas prices would affect someone's budget by $80/month at 20 gallons per week. However, I finally *get* it now that I've seen the news stories that explain the significance beyond the usual "Can you beeee-leeeeeve how much it cost me to fill my Escalade!?!?" sort of tripe.

Gas prices have a huge ripple effect on everything in our economy. Beacuse we're so dependent on gasoline for everything we do, when gas prices surge it makes it more expensive for wholesalers to move goods. Their price increases get passed on to retailers, and then the consumers are the next to take the hit. And when gas prices start affecting individuals' consumer behavior (as they're just now starting to do, at $4 + per gallon), retailers are hurt by the fact that people go to the mall less, go out to eat less, drive to the beach less, etc. What are those retailers then forced to do? You guessed it. We all suffer, while wonderful regimes like those in Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria win.

So even though the per mile cost of moving a car is still lower today than it was in 1980 (adjusted for inflation and overall fuel efficiency), according to the NY Times, it's three times higher than it was in 1998. And yes, it matters.

But here's a potential bright side -- maybe higher gas prices will help drive (no pun intended...honestly, notice how I didn't use 'fuel' there) the small-city downtown revival going on in America.

Personally, I love the fact that I can walk out my front door and be on Merrimack Street in less than two minutes. Everything I need is right here, and I don't have to sit trapped in a glass-and-steel box to go and get it. Even if gas were free, I would still feel that way. Now that people are starting to act rather than just complain about gas costs (the people who track this stuff are starting to notice decreases in both total gasoline purchased and in miles driven by Americans), maybe it will drive them back from the suburbs and exurbs into the naturally beautiful small cities that have mostly been left to rot for the past few generations.

In most cases, everything these cities need is already there -- beautiful old brick buildings, nice parks, churches, schools, etc. What's missing in many cases, however, is a critical mass of people who live and stay without pushing out to the suburbs for more land and open space.

As obsessed as we Americans are with gas prices (just try watching cable news for more than ten minutes without hearing about it), maybe we'll start acting on it, and there will be spillover benefits for the environment and the strength of our communities.


KD said...

I agree about the pleasure of not needing to find a parking space (and pay for it) and spend time sitting in traffic. I love the days when I can go to work and do errands via bike. I feel healthier, interact more with my community, and feel like a participant in the world zooming past rather than an observer from behind the glass.

The New Englander said...


I'm in violent agreement! Still, I can't figure out why so many of our countrymen feel the need to drive to 7-11 when it's less than 100 yards away. Maybe, just maybe, high gas prices will cause a cultural change in that sense.