Why I want gas prices to rise, eventually

Gas station line

The price of gasoline, the fuel (literally and figuratively) of our economy, is only in the news related to a change in its price. When prices are rising, you see article after article with statistics, and commentary about what it means, whether it’s the hyperlocal or the geopolitical.

When gas prices fall, you don’t really hear much about it.

What this tells me is that, from a perspective of public interest, people are only interested in gas in terms of the cost and how it affects them immediately. And in many ways, this is no different from any other commodity discussion.

Check this out. This is the Google Trends search for “gas prices”:

Google Trends “gas prices” keyword search. Higher values mean that more people were searching for that keyword. Source

And here is the price of gas over the same period.

Gas prices in the U.S. Source

Notice how well they line up: when the price change is increasing significantly or increasing for a while, the search trends goes up. When the price goes down, searches level out.

Right now, prices (and interest) are up. But while gas prices going up means that everyone’s budget is affected, I think it’s worth talking about the benefits of higher gas prices. Dare I say that it could be a good thing for prices to rise?

Sale!

Why do things go on sale? In short, to entice you to buy sooner than you would otherwise.

And it’s no shock that the cheaper things are, the more likely people are to buy it.

And gas is cheap, at least by world standards. According to GlobalPetrolPrices, the average U.S. gallon of gas around the world is $4.40, compared to our current $3.09. In general, the more advanced countries seem to have higher gas prices (look at Iceland at $8.02 versus Sudan at $1.29) though this obviously isn’t always true.

And because gas is cheap, we rather do like to use a lot of it. In fact, we have built our places to pretty much assume that you will have a car. Even New York City, as car-unfriendly as a place as it gets in the U.S., has so many concessions to drivers (free bridges and toll-free highways) that you can tell that the only reason why everyone doesn’t have a driveway is because they can’t afford to put one in.

This hurts. Places built for the car are generally hostile to people. Witness the roads without sidewalks, the arterial roads without crosswalks, the sheer unexpectedness of negotiating an area on foot.

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The chicken and egg situation is that since everyone uses a car to get around, we build places that accommodate that. Because a place can’t be both person-friendly and car-friendly, people who aren’t driving are necessarily marginalized. So they drive too. And so it goes.

$10 per gallon

Imagine gas prices at $10 a gallon in today’s dollars. For a 12 gallon tank, that’s $120 a fill-up. Assuming 400 miles in a tank, that’s $3.33 per mile driven.

If gas were to rise to this price, it would hurt people in the wallet, for sure. In the short term, it would be terrible, because many people wouldn’t have an option, and would have to absorb the cost.

But what about the medium term?

Those who had the option of using public transit would do so. This would cause crush problems on buses and trains, but would eventually be offset by the increase in revenue and subsequent increase in service. And even if fares rose, public transit is inherently more affordable than driving a car. Even supplementing in taxis, it’s still cheaper than the $8,000 or so each year it costs to own a car.

With more people moving around by public transit, which necessitates more pedestrian movement, we would eventually start building spaces that facilitated this. Instead of more highway-widening projects, we would see more place-making. These would be denser, more compact, more walkable, and more sustainable.

Yes, fewer people would be able to live out on a ranch and drive the two hours to the nearby WalMart, but instead, the local town might start to revive, with traditional downtown shops, since it would be impractical to do otherwise.

While in the short term, this would cause serious disruption to our lives, taking the longer view, this could make us more productive, efficient, and dare I say, happier.

Pretend today

You don’t have to wait for this to happen though. You could ask yourself, “if gas prices were $10 a gallon today, how would I organize my life differently?” Would you live in a different area? Would you live in a smaller space? Would you take the bus or train instead of driving everywhere?

And I know that in the short term, moving from your own vehicle for most of your travels to a shared transit vehicle is less comfortable. But in the long term, factoring in how our places would change, growing more organically and on a smaller scale, living in a place that’s more people-oriented it might just make you happier.

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So bring on the gas price rises, albeit a slow one. And before that happens, let’s start preparing for it, so it’s not a shock when it happens.

But enough about me. Could you handle $10/gallon gas?

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