Sunday, February 19, 2012

The High Cost of Cheap Gas

Jennifer S. Roberts wrote one of those posts that gets me up and blogging at 4:00 AM because, to my mind, it manages to both illustrate the problem of gas prices and miss the main reason why someone like me, who is fairly depicted as a cycling advocate, welcomes higher gas prices. In her post

Jennifer argues that people won't change their behaviors, a lot of places have lousy car-only infrastructure and poor people get hurt by high gas prices. The point that I think Jennifer fails to make, the point I am hoping to make here, is that the way out of the trap is to recognize the true costs of the trap.

Brad Pitt made this point quite nicely in an appearance on The Daily Show where he was promoting his film Money Ball. Mr. Pitt asked:

"What if we invented the automobile today? Would we say, I know, we’ll run it on finite fossil fuels, we’ll export a half-trillion dollars of our GDP, we’ll spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year to protect that interest, and it will pollute the environment?”

I can think of a few more questions. Would we build a national system that kills one person every 13 minutes by "accident", spews poison into the air every time we drive, paves an area larger than the state of Connecticut just for parking and makes it so a person like Jennifer and millions of others like her are routinely doing 29 to 50 mile commutes?

I welcome higher gas prices because the artificially low prices we've had created the dismal landscape Jennifer describes. The true cost of cheap gas is seen in the poor quality of life we've built for too many Americans.

Here in the Seattle area we are "lucky" because we have light rail running from downtown to the airport. It took us years to get that "luck" and we would have been luckier, sooner, if gas prices had been higher. And the neighborhoods along that light rail corridor are seeing more growth now. The McMansions in the 'burbs? Not so much.

I had a couple in my bike shop yesterday asking about my walk-to-work, walk-home-for-lunch life. A few decades ago I decided $1.25 (or whatever it was) was too much to pay for a gallon of gas. Actually, I decided my life was too valuable to waste sitting in a car. This young couple are not alone in looking for ways they can live without spending so of their life and their dollars supporting their car.

High gas prices do hurt. But cheap gas has been killing us for years.

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


Jennifer S Roberts said...

Sorry to have kept you up so late! :-) I agree with a lot of what you are saying. There are a number of externalities that are not captured in the price we pay at the pump, which distances us from the true cost of driving as much as we do.

I feel very fortunate to have access to options and alternatives to driving and, like you, I've made decisions professionally to keep my commute manageable. I don't believe everyone is as lucky. I'll be delighted when prices reflect the true cost but only when people, who are more vulnerable in society are given some additional options.

Thanks for commenting. It's always great to share ideas on this.

Peter Wang said...

I think the era of really cheap gas is over forever. You hear a lot about the oil reserves in North Dakota that rival Saudi Arabia... the Bakken Shale... wel,, Bakken production shuts-in if oil drops below $70 per barrel, because the fracking is so expensive that they lose money below $70 a barrel. So there is a natural floor to oil prices that we won't ever go below again, IMHO.

jeronimo said...

This is crap. Rising gas prices got us where we are now. Stuck in a house surrounded by car-only infrastructure. Can't sell my house and move somewhere more sustainable because of the economy. High gas prices will only keep those who want to change where they are. The others won't ever change.

Doug said...

March 2000...That's when gas prices hit $1.45 and I made the conscious choice to stop driving my truck. That's the month and year I parked the truck and started to take the bus and bike to work. By July of 2002, I realized I wasn't driving my truck at all and sold it.

The sad part of this conversation is the total inability of people to see the bigger picture. The fossil fuel age will end and for most of us it will end in our life times. We're starting to see the signs now.

It will be a very long painful end. We will see continued wars over oil, we'll see governments fall, and every bit of our current lifestyles will change. Population will drop because we will no longer be able to feed the 7 billion people on the planet the way fossil fuels allowed us to.

Think about our lives right now. Everything single thing we touch is the result of fossil fuels. From the clothes we wear, the food we eat, and every single manufactured thing you touch. There is not a single alternative fuel source out there right now that can replace fossil fuels in our life. What the hell are we going to do when the oil runs dry?

mwangarch said...

Living in urban areas or traditional streetcar commuter suburbs where density and public transport make life possible without cars makes it difficult to comprehend the auto-centric lifestyle of the "new" suburbs.

Local governments are already finding it increasingly difficult to continue funding maintenance of the civil infrastructure. has an excellent series about this.

Peter Wang said...

Harris County, TX, where I live, the poster child for sprawl, now has no more funds for road construction or even maintenance. The Ponzi scheme has exploded here. Problem is the County "assumed" that Houston would annex the County forever, so the costs would go to the City. Annexation has ceased. Oops! County left holding the bag.

RoadieRyan said...

Excellent, post Kent. Great quote from Mr. Pitt, unfortunately I don't think the folks at the Auto-Oil-industrial complex will go gently into that good night or have the foresight to adapt to the changing times as evidenced by the continued pressure to drill in Alaska, build pipelines from Canada across the Midwest, extract oil out of shale etc. IMHO that is rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic not looking for long term viable solutions. As I a Seattleite I too am happy, and relieved the light rail FINALLY got built and hopefully it will grow from here as the Light rail down in Portland did.


RoadieRyan said...

Ok I realize I need to give the Auto industry some credit in the form of: Prius, Insight, Leaf, and the um Volt ok, maybe not the volt.

James said...

I totally agree with you. And i would always prefer using a bike, less cost, no gas to buy, and is a good way of exercise.

Dan said...

HAHA I love that gas sign. It's the truth and the prices are just going to keep increasing!

Apis said...

So I posted this one on my facebook timeline and asked for civil discussion. It drew quite a visceral reaction that elicited many of the same points espoused above.

I happen to fall into the "we're screwed by Henry Ford" camp. However I was "forced" into making a decision a few years ago regarding a career change that afforded me the opportunity to work very close to home in a very rural part of northeast Ohio.

I happen to believe that "cheap" petroleum got where we are now (and there are those that claim it was artificially cheap). The way out will be painful, but we've made our bed and only now have discovered the bedbugs.

Anonymous said...

If cyclists want to use the same roads as cars, they should be required to register/license their bikes with the state and pay insurance.

Until then, please shut the fuck up and climb down from your ivory tower. I hope for your sake you never do anything stupid while I'm out on the road. I promise you will regret it.

Kent Peterson said...

Hey Anonymous (why are you guys always Anonymous?)

You must be new around here. You could try learning how roads are really paid for, learn a little bit about the laws, history and a few things like that. But heck, I get the sense that's not your style.

Maybe just try getting to the point where you sign your work.

I'll keep an eye out for you on the road.

Apis said...

I think that Anonymous is way too chicken-shit to drive where I ride. I, and many of my compatriots, fight back.

We'll likely never know though because they are also too afraid to make their identity known.

Peter Wang said...

It's always good when a State like Washington has open or licensed concealed carry of handguns. Some might claim my highly concealable North American Arms .22 Magnum is a "mouse gun", but I've yet to find anyone who wants to be shot with it.

Allan Folz said...

While trolls may wish to shoot, or run-over the messenger, the fact of the matter is most of today's cyclists are merely that, messengers ahead of the curve.

The other day I was reading that in the original story the boy who remarked that the Emperor had no clothes was in fact hung by an angry mob. Not sure that's true, but I'd believe it. There was a time when the neurotic self-esteem of children was not of society's primary concern.

Anyway, for those laboring in denial, I submit a graph of per-capita gasoline consumption.

We're somewhere between 1997 & 1999 and receding fast.