September 1, 2005

Soaring Gas Prices And Our Auto-Dependent Society

We may be about to pay a heavy price for decade of development that foolishly assumed an endless supply of cheap gasoline.

Gas prices soared past $3 a gallon in many places this week, and the issue for American consumers may go beyond expense. "Concerns are now mounting over limited supplies of gasoline, including the possible return of long lines and scarcity reminiscent of the 1970s gas crisis," Associated Press reports. "In Georgia, a few gas stations were charging as much as $6 per gallon Wednesday after other retailers had run out of gas and long lines were reported across the state."

What, exactly, are our options if we face a long stretch of time with shortages of gasoline, and prices at $5, $6 or more per gallon? Few people outside of major urban centers have the option to walk or take public transit to do anything - even to get to the store, let alone to work.

A colleague of mine returned from England recently marveling at the lack of sprawl - towns were compact and easily reachable by train. It's the same feeling I get whenever I come back from Europe - astonished at how easy it is to get around without a car. It's not simply that you can take public transit within major cities or between them; but that once you take a train from a city to a smaller town, you often don't need a car to get where you want to go within the town.

Yes, cheap gas gave many Americans the "freedom" to live in the exurbs, with daily 40-mile commutes in single-passenger gas-guzzlers. It allowed and encouraged sprawl. But it ended up taking away our freedom of choice when most of us living outside of densely packed urban centers CAN'T realistically walk or take public transportation anywhere.

I'm not trying to take away people's private cars. I'm not hostile to the automobile (although I've always been against monster-size gas-guzzling behemoths driven in urban and suburban settings by single commuters). What I object to is the extreme auto-obsession here that builds everything exclusively around the needs of the single-passenger automobile, to the expense of every other kind of transportation - walking, cycling and public transit.

In a number of smaller communities outside more densely packed European cities, you'll see development patterns where cars, pedestrians, cyclists and trains &/or buses pleasantly co-exist. It's a much rarer site in the U.S. Perhaps prices like $7/gallon in Amsterdam and $6/gallon in the U.K. have something to do with this?

Update: Planner Wally Siembab argues at that it's possible to retrofit suburbs so residents can shop, get services and work within a mile or two of their homes. See The Smart Sprawl Strategy.

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