Monday, March 31, 2008

Road to Nowhere

Gas prices finally hit a point where my consumption pattern changed. After a grocery run on Friday morning I parked my Jeep Liberty in the garage and it hasn’t moved since. Luckily my option to occasionally work from home allows for this personal boycott of the local gas station but I know I cannot keep it up forever; there are very few places in the United States where is not a necessity and I live in one of those places. Eventually I’ll need to go into the office, head to the grocery store for milk, see a friend, take the dogs to the park, do any of a number of things that forces me to move my car from the garage and fill up the tank.

As a world traveler I have mixed feelings on our current gas price crisis. Honestly, we have been quite spoiled for years with our prices at the pump. Fuel was always more expensive overseas; I remember paying an exorbitant amount on a liter of gas in Spain circa 1998 while I was routinely paying about $.79 to $1.01 a gallon on my weekly drives from Delaware to either DC or NY. Whatever the reasons behind the price discrepancies, be it taxes, regulations, etc., US citizens became accustomed to gas prices being a non-issue in their everyday existences. No culture in the world has a love-affair with cars so intense as the United States. Compared to European and Asian countries, American history is still fairly young and undeveloped and the legends and folklore of this young nation revolves more around Henry Ford and automobiles then Knights and Kings in chariots and carriages. The French have the famous Champs Elysées lined with boutiques and restaurants and incredibly vehicle unfriendly. America’s Route 66, equally famous, but definitely not as pedestrian friendly as the grand roads of Europe.

The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, championed by Dwight D. Eisenhower and also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, was originally launched as a defense effort giving the United States Armed Forces the Infrastructure needed to transport supplies and troops for national security from coast-to-coast. While the complex and expansive road system is a huge strength of the United States Military it’s uses for non-military driving and growth of vehicle usage leading to a culture of commutes and road trips is probably the real reason why the Highway Act was heavily lobbied for by the US car manufacturers.

Supporting the construction of roads from sea to shining sea was only one way the auto industry created a culture so enamored of and depended upon vehicle transportation. One example of the automotive industry directly limiting the transportation options of a city is in Minneapolis which was once a hot bed of rail and streetcar activity. Economic reasons did lead to the demise of the early public transportation lines in the Minneapolis Metropolitan area but the city is one of many that fell victim to what is referred to as the Great American Streetcar Scandal. GM, Standard Oil, Firestone, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum purchased over 80% of the trolley and streetcar companies nationwide and systematically switched the services over to buses, ripped out the rail lines and made way for more cars. GM’s the president, Alfred P. Sloan said, “We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.” In essence, car manufactures and oil companies created a transportation monopoly in the United States. Infrastructure design nationwide still revolves around the construction of roads to get from here to there and it has only been in the last decade that cities outside the largest even considered true mass-transit options.

Beyond the car transportation being a monopoly in and of itself there is a very real business monopoly in the world of oil and gas. The same companies who own the oil wells also own the refineries and the gas stations; the suppliers, manufacturers and distributors are all the same people. Any other industry employing these practices would find themselves disbanded. Many automotive executives hold stake in oil and gas companies making it less then desirable to develop practical vehicles that get good gas mileage. Price-fixing and gouging is all too easy when everyone stands to gain so much. If the same company who owned the wheat fields also owned the flour mills and the bakeries our morning bagels would cost a hell of a lot more then they do today.

Many can claim American’s are lazy and should be offsetting the high gas prices by getting some more exercise. Sounds like a great idea but there are many obstacles in front of a person looking to use personal manpower for transportation. Zoning laws often prevent the construction of mix-use buildings meaning there are few places where a good bakery, restaurant and corner store is conveniently located on the first floor of a condo complex. Newer communities and well-established suburbs have vast distances between their residential zones and commercials zones. It is not a short walk to get eggs and milk. If distances could be covered by foot or bike often the roads were just not designed for anything but vehicle traffic; the Death of the Sidewalk, cross-walks, or paths. The obsession with the American dream of a large house with land in a nice neighborhood pushes people further and further away from their places of employment; the longer the commute the less likely there is an option besides a car to get into the office. Even in active and healthy Minnetonka, home of some of the best paths, parks and recreational opportunities around, my neighborhood just got a sidewalk, in the main road last year and this sidewalk falls about a mile short of the nearest grocery store. During the summers I like to bike to work at least once a week but last year's local construction projects made it impossible to get to work without getting on a highway and bicycles are illegal on highways! I can get to the Dairy Queen using this new sidewalk which is interesting given our obesity issue in the United States.

Our economy and personal lives are too dependent on fuel to bear the sharp rise in prices over the course of the past 8 years. While we should be paying more then a buck a gallon for fueling our car it is the sudden and rapid inflation on gas that is hard to swallow. We live in a country where people and supplies cannot get from here to there without the use of gas. Even if everyone had the option like I do to park their car for four straight days, outside of the most major cities it is nearly impossible to get around without a car. Sure I drive what many would consider a gas-guzzler but we made a conscious decision to pay more for a house 3 years ago and factor in gas savings from a shorter commute into the home price and it was one of the smartest moves we ever made (negated quickly by buying a house at the peak of the housing market). I might be boycotting the pump for a few days but my twice a month fill-up is really nothing to complain about at any price.

A perfect storm of gas dependence was created by businesses, individuals and government officials who continue to profit from the policies and practices put in place long ago. So much effort is going into finding alternative fuels but there is such little focus on what caused our consumption issues in the first place and addressing those. What is truly sad is people who are forced to change their driving and gas consumption habits due to their economics cannot quit driving to work, or heading to the store for groceries but instead skip out on things like traveling to family for holidays, attending events both locally and regionally, or seeing friends. Politicians can tout family values all they want but the weak economy but ultimately high gas prices and our lack of other non-gas dependent transportation options will only keep people from enjoying valuable time with family and friends.


drew said...

It's getting out of control! I had to jack up my monthly pre-tax metro check deduction at work from $30 to $35 earlier this year since they raised the price of a metro trip. Thats like a dozen or so trips to Starbucks over the course of the year I'll have to cut back on.

Explosive Bombchelle said...

*sigh* Drew, it must be so nice to live someplace with public transportation.
Using the Starbucks methodology for measuring the economic impact of rising gas prices yields 2 fewer coffees per week for me. Of course I all but gave up Starbucks when a Regular, black Venti started costing me over $2 so I guess my liquid spend is breaking even in the long run.