Gas Prices Too High?

It has been so utterly pathetic over the last few weeks to hear all these lazy Americans complaining about “high gasoline prices.” First and least importantly, gas prices are not really all that high at the moment by historical standards. If you adjust for inflation, gas in California averaged $2.42 a gallon in 1980 and 1981 (in 2003 dollars), and has generally cost around $1.75 per gallon (in 2003 inflation adjusted dollars) much of the time since 1974, according to the California Energy Commission. Another relatively unimportant fact to note is that the cause of the increase in prices is not a short supply from OPEC or oil companies — the cause of high prices is record high demand mostly from US drivers gobbling more gas than usual in all those SUVs, plus the increasing number of drivers around the world. In other words, not only do all those SUVs eat gas like there’s no tomorrow, but they collectively push up prices because they use so much gasoline. A recent chain email urging people to not buy gas for one day to punish oil companies for high prices was especially ridiculous. What about asking people never to buy gas again? That would be the best way to fight high gas prices and really stick it to those evil oil companies.

The point here is that Americans and American society are addicted to cheap gasoline, driving and fake “convenience” at the expense of anything standing in the way — certainly the environment. Threaten the gasoline supply or increase the price a few cents and Americans lose their minds.

The recent gas price increases have made it clear that this is not a “liberal” or “conservative” issue — Kerry and the Democrats have just as stupid a position as Bush. They all want to figure out a way to increase oil production to decrease prices, rather than to look at themselves and absurd oil consumption as the source of the problem.

The main cost of driving, of course, is not captured in the cost of gasoline. Numerous studies have considered all of the economic externalities associated with gasoline — costs to provide fuel that are not incurred by oil companies and not paid by consumes when they fill their tanks. Some of these costs are paid through taxes, while many environmental costs are never reduced to dollars and cents, but are instead measured in decreased quality of life, illness, and species of plants and animals doomed to extinction because so many people like driving a few miles to the store rather than walking, biking or taking transit (or not going to the store in the first place.)

For example, in 1998 the Center for Technology Assessment released a report entitled “The Real Price Of Gas” which found that the price of gasoline would have to increase between $5.60 and $15.14 per gallon if the price of gas were to include the cost of all the externalities associated with the production and use of gasoline. The report identified five types of costs associated with gasoline which are not encompassed in the price of a gallon of gas: “(1) Tax Subsidization of the Oil Industry; (2) Government Program Subsidies [road building, spill cleanup, etc.]; (3) Protection Costs Involved in Oil Shipment and Motor Vehicle Services [military]; (4) Environmental, Health, and Social Costs of Gasoline Usage;” and “other” including car accidents and subsidized parking. The environmental costs were the greatest — pollution, health problems, global warming, urban sprawl, and decreased quality of life.

When I hear drivers complaining about high gas prices, I cackle as I dream up extravagant fantasies about how to get drivers to pay for and experience the externalities associated with their driving madness. How about polluting the air in the houses of drivers so they all suffer from respiratory disease and have to fight for every breath? How about flooding their houses, so they can experience the sea level rise that is occurring because of their auto use? How about digging up their suburban back yards to make space for drilling rigs, toxic waste dumps and oil spills? How would they feel if it was their pets dying, rather than exotic animals and fish in far-away lands or Alaska? Maybe drivers could get run over once in a while too, instead of it always being cyclists and pedestrians getting killed.

The worst externality most drivers really get to suffer is when their are so many drivers all in one place at one time that it gets hard to park. Around Berkeley, the biggest battles are always around parking. Drivers want the city to spend millions of dollars to provide more parking to further subsidize driving. They want all new housing developments to provide ample parking, raising the cost of housing and blocking any consideration of alternatives to a car-dependent urban planning model.

So if parking is what makes drivers the most crazy on a daily basis, I say its time for a war on parking. Let’s dig up parking spaces and plant gardens or blockade parking lots with burning barricades of abandoned couches and tires. Remember: parking meters, meter maids (what is the modern term, anyway?!?) and parking tickets are the best friend of every cyclist and pedestrian because they raise the cost of driving and making driving a bigger pain in the ass. Car drivers have declared war on life on earth — we need to declare war on car drivers and their short-sighted abuse of the planet and our cities.

Oh yeah, and Critical mass bike ride should be every night and should go by as many freeway on-ramps as possible to make the commute a fucking living hell. Let’s block streets at random whenever we can with whatever we can. And replace the wasted oceans of traffic with bike-in theaters and art exhibits in the middle of the street.

We all know there can be legitimate reasons to drive, like for the ill and elderly, to move things too heavy to go by bike-cart, and to get places in the country not served by public transit and beyond biking range. A friend of mine who is a reformed driver put her finger on the problem: before she started riding her bike and realized it was possible to get around without her car, she just never thought about driving. She would just hop in the car to go where she was going — that was how one got from place to place.

Hopefully, higher gas prices and maybe some other increasing inconvenience associated with car use will make more people think about it. In Europe where gas prices have been much higher for years, people walk, bike and take transit a lot more often. Alternatives to a car-dependent world will require redesigning the cities to make housing closer to workplaces, schools and stores. It will require targeting social resources away from subsidizing driving and towards public transit. It will require some changed priorities — valuing health, an enjoyable trip and a healthy environment over speed and instant gratification. Car dependence is causing more problems every day, and higher gas prices is just the chickens coming home to roost — or maybe part of the solution.