The continuing rise in gas prices has everyone feeling the pinch, and many commuters who formerly drove alone are looking for less costly modes of travel to work, both around the DC region and the US. This was highlighted in a May 27 Washington Post Article by Lena Sun and Jonathan Mummolo. Here in the Washington area, we are relatively well-positioned to find cheaper ways to get around, with many transit systems, HOV lanes, vanpool providers, and carpool ride-matching services. We also have agencies in most jurisdictions, such as Arlington County Commuter Services, which provide expert help to people in finding alternatives to solo driving, or to companies in helping their employees ease their commuting burden. But there is a bigger picture in this than simply a pocketbook incentive to rideshare to save money.
Each year as gas prices rise during the summer vacation driving season, or when gas prices approach new psychological thresholds, such as $3 or $4 per gallon, people grudgingly look for options that can save them a few dollars, such as finding other ways to commute or buying a more fuel efficient car. But typically, the numbers of people have been relatively small who switch to more sustainable travel modes or make permanent lifestyle changes to reduce consumption. And, after the shock of higher prices wears off, many switch back to driving alone.
This time is different
There are many reasons why this is more than a seasonal nuisance, however. It is time to hope that our political leaders will soon recognize they must institute major changes in our energy and transportation policies, and for us, the public, to realize that we must support them with some significant lifestyle changes. Four factors are converging to make it clear that things must change, and soon, whether we do it willingly, or in the midst of a crisis. Otherwise the future will be bleak, especially for our kids and future generations. Indeed, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned on May 28 that the world faced an era-defining oil "shock" that required urgent action…"It is now understood that a global shock on this scale requires global solutions," Brown wrote in The Guardian newspaper.
1. Peak Oil and Rising Global Demand
There has been debate for years about when world oil production will peak, if it hasn’t already, with declining supply and permanent price hikes following. Skeptics say we will always find more oil, or new technologies will produce oil from less oil-rich sources, such as tar sands, so not to worry. However the signs are clear worldwide that older oil fields are playing out, the rate of discovery of new fields has dropped precipitously even with new discovery technologies, and tar sands and similar extractions are more expensive. Worse yet, China, India, and other developing countries are rapidly following the US model of industrialization and transportation usage; and their explosion of demand for oil (and thus higher prices) is coming like a tidal wave. There may be temporary dips, but it will take a miracle to save us from huge and permanent gas price rises. New non-petroleum based energy sources must be found, and fast.
2. Global Political Instability
Exacerbating the situation are global political issues such as the war in Iraq, actions by OPEC, potential terrorist activities, and threats of an attack against Iran. Even minor disruptions in the regular flow of oil can have big impacts on world supply and price. Major disruptions, such as another war, inevitably would bring large increases in gas prices, if not a global recession, or worse. Drilling for more oil at home would simply prolong current usage trends and only briefly postpone our reckoning with the need for major new energy sources and transportation systems. “Draining America first” is not a real strategy for energy security, whether it entails drilling in environmentally sensitive areas or not. Again, it is clear that we need to find new sources of energy and different approaches to transportation in a hurry.
3. Congestion and Transportation Capacity
Ever since the Interstate Highway System was substantially completed some thirty years ago, there has been relatively little investment in transportation system capacity, including mass transit. As a result, travel demand has swamped our systems and traffic congestion has steadily worsened. It has become clear that road building alone is not a solution, as there is not enough money or space for unlimited capacity expansion, and new lanes fill up almost as soon as they are built. Inevitably, future transportation policy must focus on getting more efficiency from our existing transportation networks, moving more people in fewer vehicles, and finding new formulas for funding transportation that are not based on the declining gas tax alone.
4. Global Warming
The fourth major factor is climate change, the disruptive effects of which are now abundantly clear, from polar ice melt, to wildfires, to storm patterns, and crop and forest damage. If projections by the experts are even partially correct, the planet will face disastrous consequences within our lifetimes. We in the US produce many times our share of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming, and drastic collective and individual actions will be necessary to abate the damage.
Change is Needed – what we do matters
These conflicting factors add up to a very complex future in which we need to provide mobility for a growing population, reduce traffic, burn less oil to avoid heating the planet and conserve the supply, while transitioning to other sources of energy and finding transportation funding mechanisms not based on a dwindling gas tax. Whew! This is a huge imperative for changes in public policy at the national, state and local level. All this will take time, and time is not on our side. This also puts a focus on what we all do as individuals, because it is our collective actions that add up to the traffic on our streets and a large percentage of our total energy consumption and pollution output. Fortunately, a common thread in all these issues is transportation, and we all can contribute to the solution, beginning today.
One easy way to assess how much you add to the problems, and how much you can contribute to the solution, is to go to Arlington’s Car-Free Diet website. It has a simple calculator to see how much pollution you cause in your commute, how much money you spend, and how much you can reduce both of these by taking less costly and consumptive transportation options – if you aren’t already.
In a future blog, I’ll talk more about what can be done about policy issues, and share a look at some of the commuting trends in our area that seem to be changing in response to prices and other factors. In the meantime, check out the Car-Free Diet and see what you can do right now.
Howard Jennings is Manager of Research and Development for Arlington Transportation Partners. Depending on the day, he teleworks, or walks or rides the bus to Metrorail to get to work.