Friday, July 11, 2008
Rising gas prices and public transit
I thought I’d spend a couple of blog posts talking (mainly to myself, I know, but it’s therapeutic) about public transit in general, and mass transit in Los Angeles in particular.
First, in general: It seems to me that one of the major economic problems the U.S. will be facing over the next few decades is the increasing cost of petroleum. I’ve seen many websites (some alarmist, others more reliable and practical) proclaiming that we are nearing the age of global peak oil. That is, within my lifetime (and probably within the next 30 or so years) we will reach a point at which humanity is producing oil for consumption at the highest possible rate, and after which the oil production rate will fall lower and lower. This time, called “Hubbert’s Peak” corresponds to the point at which we have used half of the crude oil that is accessible to humanity.
The fact that Hubbert’s peak exists for oil should not be surprising. It exists for any non-renewable resource. Crude oil is produced by processes of biological decay and geological compression that take thousands to millions of years, and we humans are using the energy from oil in much less time than it takes the Earth to produce more of it. Hence, on the timescale of human society, oil is non-renewable.
In his book “Out of Gas”, Caltech Physicist David Goodstein points out that we don’t have to wait until we are literally out of oil for a crisis to erupt. That’s because, as soon as we’ve hit Hubbert’s peak, and the rate of oil production begins to forever decrease, oil prices will be forced to continuously rise as the supply of oil decreases. In the 1970’s, oil production within the United States hit Hubbert’s Peak. OPEC realized this and, due to a variety of economic and political motivations, reduced the amount of oil they were willing to sell to the U.S.. The result was the Gas Crisis, with people waiting in long lines to get the small amount of gasoline available to them. We weren’t out of oil. . . availability just decreased for a time. And, when our car-based, consumer lifestyle continues to increase (along with our population), a small decrease in the availability of oil can mean real problems for the every day consumer.
Average gas prices in the U.S. have gone from the lowest (adjusted for inflation) real cost per gallon ever in 1999, to the highest real cost per gallon ever, right now. (See the plot above, collected from the U.S. Energy Information Administration) Though some types of governmental incentives and fiscal policies might cause the prices to go down by a few tens of cents at some point (the temporary band-aid of a "gas tax holiday" supported by McCain and Clinton), they will not be decreasing by half. Gradually, our gasoline prices will be increasing for the foreseeable future. Some people, including myself, think this might actually turn out to be a good thing. Check out this op-ed piece in the L.A. Times: The Joy of $8 Gas.
However, though it may be great that rising gas prices will encourage more people to use public transit, there needs to be a useful transit system available for them in order for the switch to work. This is where the U.S. gets hit in its weak spot. Use of trains and public transportation in metropolitan areas was high in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century. But after the economic prosperity that came about after World War 2 and during the Cold War, and with the (temporary) availability of cheap oil, U.S. society changed. People moved away from the centers of big cities, and created the suburbs. This was possible because roads could be built out into suburban or rural areas, and people could afford to drive their own cars to wherever they pleased without the governments having to invest public funds. The federal government began investing much more in the interstate highway system, and much less in the train systems. Even state and city governments put more of their tax revenue into maintaining more and more roads, leaving less money to maintain (let alone expand) public transit systems. The U.S. became a car country.
Now we are finally seeing some of the error in our ways. If gas prices keep going up at the current rates, it will become economically unfeasible for many lower middle class families to use their cars to commute to work. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if our society were used to using a good public transit system. But we are not used to public transit. We are used to the convenience of personal transit. And most U.S. cities do not have a good public transit system, though it is improving.
Robert Reich, a professor of economics at UC Berkeley, sometimes gives commentaries on NPR. One of his recent suggestions (on the June 4 podcast) was for the federal government to enact some fiscal policy and inject a real economic stimulus package that amounts to more than giving each American $600 to put in the bank. Instead, Congress should vote to imbue a great deal more money into public transportation. Gasoline is not going to get cheaper, and hybrid cars are great but will only solve the economic problem for the upper middle class people who can afford to buy them.
A better public transit system, one that allows people to conduct their daily lives without having to use their cars as often as they do now, is the right solution. It will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, reduce our production of the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming, and give relief to those who find it more difficult to pay for gas.