Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Best Gas Price Medicine? Build Public Transportation

Americans need to get something through their heads. The price of gas is not going to go down to $2 a gallon again. Ever. Period.

The emergence of China as a global power has and will fundamentally change our world, and we need to adjust to it. And part of that adjustment will be paying real prices for oil.

Congress is getting all in a tizzy about these gas prices, pointing their fingers this way and that. But Republicans seem to be forgetting about the enormous gift they gave the oil industry last year, an energy bill that gave huge subsidies and tax breaks to big oil. Last year the five largest oil companies, Exxon Mobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron Corp. and ConocoPhillips took home more than $111 billion in profits. As CNN’s John Roberts noted recently, that's greater than the GDP of 174 of the world's countries

To a large degree the US has brought this upon itself by not investing in an even rudimentary public transporation system. We are a nation obsessed with the car. So much so that in all the recent news reports asking how high gas would have to go before Americans stopped driving, noone’s thought to point out the obvious: They can’t stop driving no matter how much you charge for gas, because they have no other way to get around. Gas could go up to $20 and they’d still have to pay it.

Only nine percent of Americans use public transportation. The official statistic is that it is available to 40 percent of them, but this is counting municipal buses and other forms of transportation that are simply not adequate. So I would venture to guess the percentage of Americans who have adequate public transportation available to them is closer to 15 percent. Really the US has only three cities with adequate public transportation systems: New York, Boston and Chicago.

Compare this with Europe. Europe has an enormous train system that spreads from Portugal to the Ural Mountains in Russia, from Scandinavia to Sicily. In the US, passenger rail service (Amtrak) hobbles along with virtually empty trains and outrageous prices, and the Bush Administration wants to do away with the system altogether. Train travel has been left to crumble in this country, while in Europe it’s been fostered and revered. The innovations like the chunnel and France’s TGV, moving at an incredible 360 km/hr, have made train travel an efficient and fast way to get from one point to the other.

Why is this? It’s probably partly cultural. Europeans love their trains, Americans love their automobiles. But it’s also the result of long-running government policy. While the US government has been subsidizing oil companies to keep the price of gas low for decades, Europe has been subsidizing their public transportation and rail networks. And because we’ve ignored our rail system for so long, it would probably take at least 20 years to get it to the level of Europe. So it sits decayed, leading immense frustration for those of us in the Northeast, who are forced to take planes between cities so close, because the trains are outrageously slow and overpriced.

In terms of public transport within cities we fare even worse. Only New York has a comprehensive train subway system that even compares to the standard for most large European cities. And why is the number of European public transport users so drastically higher than in the US? Their gas prices are, and have been, outrageous (at least by our standards). In many European countries gas is around $6.00 per gallon. Why aren’t they outraged? Because that’s the way it’s always been. Petrol is expensive. We just didn’t realize it because our country has manipulated the market for so long.

But now with the emergence of China as a global superpower and the exploding need for fuel that is accompanying that, our monopoly on world oil is over. People need to get used to the fact that gas will be $3.00 a gallon, possibly more, from hereon out. It’s not the oil companies fault. They, for the most part, do not set the price.

But when the gas becomes more expensive than we can afford, when Americans will begin to have to drastically alter their lifestyles because of their reliance on driving, they will have no one to blame but themselves. We’ve put ourselves in this situation by worshiping the automobile and neglecting transportation. Soon, driving may become something the poor can no longer afford, and then how will we get them to their jobs? I think it’s a disaster waiting to happen, and the best thing the government can do is skip all this ridiculous posturing against oil companies and foreign oil producers and start solving the problem now, by developing a real, comprehensive system of public transportation.

No comments: