letter to the editor, re: gas prices

UPDATE: My letter was published in the Trib, May 25.

The Chicago Tribune editorialized the other day about the positive side of higher gas prices, somehow ignoring all the real reasons expensive gas is good and only mentioning that buying less gas allows us "to stop being held economic hostage to the writhing Middle East". I've been writing to reporters lately and asking why they never include a discussion of how bad car culture is for our society when they write their endless articles about the crisis in gas prices (which are now nearly 1/2 as much as in some European countries. The horror!). I've had a range of replies, from quite hostile to sympathetic, but none of them have explained why they can never mention the terrible social costs of driving.

To the editors:
You are absolutely right that higher gas prices are a blessing in disguise ("The good thing about gas prices", editorial, 2007 May 20). Every day we see the terrible social damage done by cars: deaths and injuries from accidents, dirty air causing asthma attacks in children, global warming slowly building toward catastrophe.

Not to mention the fact that building our lives around cars makes for less livable cities and simply does not make sense financially. Building roads, paying for gas, wasting valuable space on parking lots and gas stations, paying higher health insurance rates to cover the public health damage of driving — all these costs would be eliminated if we relied instead on walking, biking, and public transit. The cost
of building and maintaining a comprehensive public transit system pales in comparison to all the hidden costs of car culture.

The price of gas should reflect the damage caused by driving, which is far greater than $3.50/gallon. We should substantially increase the tax on gasoline and devote the revenues to public transit.


kyle said...

I'm clearly sympathetic to the need to expose the true cost of car culture, and to devote resources to transit systems and cities that are sustainable. However, I'm not sure that high gas prices are "absolutely" a blessing in disguise in the current state of our society.

Rising gas prices place a tremendous burden on the working poor. Lacking of a decent transit system and regularly displaced from the communities in which they can find work, low-wage workers are often dependent on cars for their livelihood. When gas prices shoot up, high-income folks driving SUVs might be annoyed, but they can afford it. Low-income folks often can't afford it, and they aren't getting any help covering the additional costs.

This result doesn't seem like much of a blessing to me, but instead a perpetuation of systemic inequality. Perhaps a higher gas tax must be considered, as you argue, but then transit subsidies for low-income workers might have to be considered as well until a better transit system is actually in place.

I fully believe that a better transit system, and cities where people could afford live and work near their jobs, would be better for everyone. We just need to make sure that the path we take toward those goals does not perpetuate inequality in the process.

I'm curious what ideas you and others have on these contradictions. I've actually gotten into this debate with some people before. I was originally on the same side as you, but was sort of called out for it and decided to reconsider my position.

Jake said...

the first thing to keep in mind is that all drivers - rich and poor alike - are hurting the world's most disadvantaged people. global warming projections indicate that climate change will have its most devastating effects on those least able to cope with it (who are also least responsible for causing it) - impoverished people in tropical regions like sub-saharan africa, egypt, and bangladesh. drivers are also hurting future generations and causing mass extinctions. if we really could only choose between rich and poor drivers on the hand and the world's poorest people, future generations, and other animals on the other, i would choose the latter in a second.

but of course that's not the choice. the point of devoting the revenues from a higher gas tax to transit is to produce a system that will serve everyone, and eliminate the need for cars. we still have to fight, of course, to ensure that any expansion of transit prioritizes those who need it most, which is why i argue against the circle line and block 37.

i'd be fine with transportation subsidies for poor people, altho i'm not sure how workable that would be. stronger union protections and a living wage law would be a better way to address this problem and a lot of others.

Jake said...

one other thing to remember is that the poorest people are also the most heavily reliant on transit, so allowing transit to decay is probably worse for inequality than is raising the gas tax. see this:

A public marketing firm, GfK Custom Research North America, polled 1,000 people earlier this month, asking: "Taking everything into consideration, how much are today's gasoline prices hurting you and others in your household?"

Just under 81 percent replied "somewhat" or "a lot."...

Not surprisingly, as people's household income drops below $50,000 a year, the less likely they are to say they are not affected by higher gas prices. However, those earning less than $20,000 a year are the most likely to say that gasoline prices do not affect them. Crispell said that is because those households likely cannot afford a vehicle.

kyle said...

I completely agree with your analysis of both the impact of cars and the public transit system. The continuation of our reliance on cars, as well as the degradation of the public transit system, are detrimental to the most disadvantaged people in the world and in our country.

The Circle Line and Block 37 are ridiculous projects when so many communities are under-served by the CTA. The $10/ride airport express is particularly astounding to me -- they began construction with no proof that anyone would even ride it, while they had plenty of proof that the MCT line is vitally needed.

I agree that we must have a comprehensive plan to improve transit systems. Perhaps that must include a higher gas tax. I certainly don't agree with the Congressperson quoted at the end of that Chicago Tribune article saying that we "can't afford NOT to repeal" the gas tax.

Still, high gas prices right now are profiting companies, not feeding public transit. They don't seem to be significantly altering behavior either. It even seems as though they make it easier for state governments to argue for the repeal of gas taxes -- clearly not the direction we want to go. Coupled with their harsh impact on certain people in our economy, I just can't say that they are a blessing in disguise.

If we're looking for policy initiatives in the United States, we at least have to be able to counter concerns that some people can't afford higher gas prices. You're probably right that transit subsidies wouldn't work (I wasn't really tied to that idea), and that stronger unions and a living wage would clearly help address the problem. I don't think just hoping for those things without a movement drawing the connections will work, though.

So, I'm convinced there are more equitable approaches toward our common ends. The most interesting work in the country being done around these issues, in my opinion, is through the Bus Riders Union in Los Angeles. The grassroots campaign has kept pressure on the city to improve public transit, get cars off the road, and clean up the air while at the same time mobilizing people from a fairly radical political perspective. Their website is pretty extensive in explaining their victories and various campaigns, so it is worth reading through.

The potential of the Bus Riders Union rhetoric and organizing model -- based on popular participation, racial equity, and environmentalism -- seems to go far beyond that of organizing around an increased gas tax.

jenny said...

jake i just have a comment about the gas tax/car culture issue, unrelated to the poverty discussion, which is that there is no sales tax (at least in illinois) on biodiesel and fuel ethanol. actually there might even be tax credits for their use. if the taxes are directed at reducing oil dependence rather than eliminating car culture, your goal doesn't really get accomplished. i deal with this issue all the time at work since we have a lot of "environmental" research projects aimed at developing fuels to shift the car market from petro-gasoline to something else while meeting current levels of demand.

as for the poverty issue--it's a cultural thing too. there are a lot of relatively poor people who get really nice cars and finance them for a long time. by nice, i mean SUVs/pickups with poor gas mileage.

Jake said...

i definitely like the bus riders union model, and i wonder why poor people organizing in chicago seems so dead. to the extent there is any organizing going on around transit issues, it seems to be coming from professionals. one problem i have with the bru is that it seems to be directing most of its efforts toward blocking any expansion of LA's rail mass transit (see this op-ed). they're right to criticize the diversion of resources away from buses to pay for relatively wealthier rail riders (but not absolutely wealthy by any means - the average subway/light rail rider's income is only $22,000/year). but the contest should not be between bus and rail - it should be between transit and cars. i read quite a bit on the debate over the MTA's fare hikes, and those who criticized them consistently failed to point out that the debate would be unnecessary if california funded transit adequately in the first place.