Chicago Sun-Times

Can you love traffic? High gas prices?

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Yesterday, I wrote a story about how Chicago is the third-worst congested city in the United States. In the story, Northwestern University Adjunct Professor David Boyce suggested that a "little congestion" is good for you, since it keeps people from moving too far from their jobs. A reader became irate at this suggestion, and told me to give Professor Boyce a stern telling off (the reader's language was a lot more colorful). We all hate congestion, but let's consider Boyce's point...


One way to cure congestion in a city like Chicago would be to build more highways and make them all 14 lanes wide. We could get rid of all the forest preserves and the parks and any houses unlucky enough to be in the path of the new highway project. We could bulldoze scores of neighborhoods, leaving only enough room for roadside fast-food chains and gas stations. Then everyone could drive everywhere, and people could live out on a farm in Galena and still work in Chicago.

What would happen then? Under Boyce's reasoning, we'd have a lot more pollution and a lot less green space. And no one would want to live here.

You could apply the same speculation to gas prices. If gas was 50 cents a gallon, no one would take public transit. Then everyone would drive to work, and we'd have to build more garages, and have less parks, and urban areas would be a smoky, ugly mess.

There's no question that $4.50 gas prices are hard on people, especially people who have to drive to make their living. But it's also clear that high gas prices have driven more people onto public transit and onto bicycles, which has a net positive effect on our quality of life.

The question is what is the right amount of congestion and the right price for gas? You need enough pain from congestion and gas prices to discourage some discretionary driving and discourage suburban sprawl. But you need enough open road to make life in an urban area bearable, and cheap enough gas to make necessary driving possible. There are also other solutions floating around -- higher tolls for SUVs, premiums for driving into downtown, higher vehicle taxes, etc.


What do Ride readers think? If the price of gas goes to $5, should the government artificially keep it there through taxes, even if the price of crude goes down, and use the extra revenue for transit? How about paying a toll for driving into the Loop?

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8 Comments

I'd be happy to see less people driving 2 hours each way to work each day, especially when those people have kids at home. Gas prices have only affected me in that I can't get a seat on the Metra any more, I'm only paying maybe a dollar or two more a week for the little amount of gas I use to go to and from the train.
When I couldn't drive (in Europe there's often little reason to learn and it's considerably harder and more expensive than here) I would look for jobs and homes that were easily accessible by public transport. If I couldn't take a bus or a train to work then I wouldn't take that job or that home. I would plan my errands to make maximum use of the bus or train ride necessary because it may not be practical/possible to go out again later.
Here I see people getting in their cars to go to Starbucks. They drive to the supermarket three times in one day to get things they forgot, or even drive around to shop at 3 or 5 different supermarkets in some kind of effort to save money, all the while wasting gas to do so. I've been to malls where you can't access one part without driving to it!
I think this whole gas thing has been the wake-up call a lot of Americans needed to start reining in the amount of driving they do and how they do it. People are now driving slower, and less. Not only will their wallets benefit, their kids will also see them more, and we'll all breathe a bit better.

There are two competing basic philosophies in the US - one says that the American birthright includes the ability to move out of the city to where the air is cleaner and the yard is bigger, even though it means going further to work, shopping, etc, the other being that humans are supposed to live like ants one on top of the other in extreme crowded conditios where you are lucky to have your own three square feet of space. For 100 years, since the invention of the automobile the former has been the accepted model for America. However, it resulted in us having to do business with various unpleasant nations that really despise us and only deal with us because we are making them very rich. Now many of these unpleasant folks have become so unpleasant and unstable that we can no longer successfully deal with them. So the day of the Dickensian slum is coming back, when especially the lower classes will be forced to live within walking distance of where they work regardless of living conditions, and grass will be an urban fable, handed down from the ancients to kids, "we used to have this green stuff on the ground".

You get kudos for taking on this question objectively, Mary, but you pose the wrong question. Congestion and painful gas prices are not inevitable solutions to sprawl. Nor is the market, as BenDoubleCrossed suggests, partly because markets don't provide today's supply at today's demand. They provide yesterday's supply at tomorrow's demand. Markets also fail to value natural resources, like the future of life on this planet for example. We're presently causing the greatest extinction of the world's species since the dinosaurs, and, as humanity has proved over and over, we won't place any "market" value on other species, like trees for instance, until its way too late. (Easter Island.)

The remedy to costly consequences of poor planning is good planning. More efficient, more compact communities, with convenient employment, shopping, and mass transit, complimented by open space - can be immune to both congestion and gas prices. We have well educated planners eager to provide good options for better development patterns, and it's not too late to use our democracy to help suit them to our preferences. But we can't expect to get out of this prodicament by making one bad choice: living dozens of miles from everything and driving to all of it; and then expecting our government, or the market, to make it possible and affordable.

If the price of gas ever goes back down, it will only be because we have passed on the cost of a $trillion war to maintain our supply of it on to the next generation.

As much as I hate to say it, I agree. I feel that my life has improved since gas prices have shot up. I now am a devoted metra rider because of that I save a lot of money in gas. I shop closer to home now, which helps the community in the larger sense, I am putting less pollution into the air, less of my hard earned money into the oil company coffers, etc. etc. I think this is just what the country needs right now.

I guess my default feeling whether based on lack of knowledge or environmental programming (Econ Major in School) is that the market systems are better at resolving these issues than government control. I agree with the first poster for that reason. I also hope that this is done at a lower additional cost than forming and paying a committee to determine the "perfect price" etc.

The kicker though is that the price of gas is already an imperfect market. OPEC currently dictates the levels of production not based on demand but their best interests. So was it Carter's politics only or a decrease in production by OPEC and an imperfect system trying to deal with this reduction that caused the issues previously?

Governments, like the humans that make them up, are flawed. They do not have the ability to control all the factors. If they could then who is to say what the ideal outcome looks like? Who's ideal world should we live in? One with parks on every block, or one which allows me to travel 6 miles in under an hour? The issues are convoluted enough without adding another set of variables- human beings susceptibility to their own personal interests or simple mistakes.

I think the one guaranteed outcome from government interference within any economic system (price of gas, pollution, parking, fees, etc.) is that there will be problems. There will be people that find a way to make money off of the situation and there will be those who are adversely affected. It will alleviate the need for us to be environmentally responsible consumers. In my opinion, our check books speak louder than any ballot or blog. Finally, and unfortunately most importantly for some of us, it will give us the one thing we need above all else- someone to blame for our problems. It will either be the governments fault for doing too much or too little.

That being said, I will still drive to work because I am lazy and the 10 minutes of extra sleep are more important to me in the morning than the economic impact gas prices and parking has on me. Time is much more valuable than money at the current rate. So for me it is more congestion's effect on my personal comfort(sleep time) that will cause me to switch to a more environmentally friendly means of commuting. Do I think congestion is good or bad? Neither. Do I feel congestion will provide more parks for my kids to play in? No.

As far as keeping the cities 'better' by keeping people from moving too far out, or that suburban sprawl is a bad thing... These are too sweeping of generalizations for me to automatically agree that they are bad things. Maybe I am happy there is a difference between city and suburban life/people.

So I do not think traffic, prices, etc. are a good or a bad thing. I think they are a fact. They are 2 of many factors that go into the decisions I make. Is my view narrow minded, self-centered, near sighted, etc. Yes. Which is exactly why I do not want someone like me deciding what a gallon of gas should cost and how long it should take to go 5 miles on an expressway.

Interesting quote- "If the price of gas goes over $5 a gallon they are going to start killing people..." A NYC cab driver this week told me they are already catching people stealing gas at their "shop." He says the more this happens the more people will be killed over it. Maybe that is a bigger issue than how many lanes my highway has.

Another Solution Floating Around : Cap & Trade

The Concept of CO2 Cap and Trade is Absurd

The real reason Cap & Trade is being foisted on the world is it creates a 3 trillion dollar commodity market for you guessed it: hot air. Finally politicians have found a way to put a price on their most abundant resource! And for politicians there is no downside as nothing has to be actually produced. The real beneficiaries are the rich special interest who will get wealthier setting up and trading in this new commodities market.

The cost will be past to citizens who will pay more taxes to operate new regulatory bureaucracies and more for goods as business passes the cost along to them.

All this based on the premise that operating automobiles is resulting in global warming. Question: did Fred Flintstones truck fleet cause the last period of global warming or is global warming a cyclical event that is more affected by sun spot cycles. The Earth has had multiple tropical and glacial ages over the millennia. The most recent news is that the oceans of the world will be cooling for the next 25-30 years.

Furthermore, it is my understanding that the most prevalent hot house gas is water vapor. Should citizens of earth try to stop the rain cycle?

And if we are going to implement Cap and Trade who will decide what the optimal CO2 carrying capacity of Earth is?

And there are questions about how to implement financial controls and reliably audit such a system. Will every person and business on the planet be issued C02 permits? Is the permit an asset a business can liquidate when it goes out of business? If a business in California goes out of business and sells its CO2 permit to a company in England, will a new company in California have to find another seller to open his business and replace lost jobs? After all, if there is an optimal CO2 carrying capacity then an increasing population of people and businesses means a lower standard of living and reduced CO2 allotment for each new person or business.

Upon their death can Mom and Dad leave their CO2 permits to their children? Should Mom and Dad be limited to having two children?

What about the countries that do not subscribe to Cap & Trade. Will multi-national companies export new construction and jobs to 3rd world non-subscribing countries? And the flipside, will the people of the Amazon miss out on new opportunities because an American company bought 1000s of acres to be left unused to acquire carbon sequestration credits.

You make a joke about living on a farm in Galena and working in Chicago but i actually stayed at a B&B in Galena where one of the owners did just that! I wonder if he still is ok with that decision.

I have driven in Los Angeles where i was told people refuse to use public transit, one) because it's not great but mainly because only "servants" take it. I was appalled but not as appalled as i was to see traffic clogging the expressways on a Sunday morning.

I agree that prices likely will drop when demand drops and demand will drop when people feel the pinch over whether to gas up the car or pay rent or buy food. It sounds like a campaign rant but in my own personal case, these are budgets i have to make and keep. I know i am by no means the only person in this situation.

And why do commuters simply refuse to carpool????

I do not believe that the price of gasoline should ever be artificially controlled.

To me that's the same concept as Obama's "Windfall Profit's Tax" idea. Taxation never effectively sets market price. Look at Carter's debacle the last time there was an effort to artificially control prices...gas rationing, long lines, inflation beyond control.

The government cannot effectively mandate the price of gasoline or the amount of roadway congestion any more than they can mandate an end to discrimination.

One thing that gets lost in a lot of debates like this is that the profit margins of the oil companies stay relatively flat regardless of whether gas is $2.00 a gallon or $4.00 a gallon. Yes, the profits themselves may change, but the margins do not tend to.

The prices themselves are set by the market. If we drive more, there is less gas available, and therefore we pay more per gallon. If we drive less, supply increases and therefore price decreases.

So I wouldn't say that congestion itself is either bad or good, it's nothing more than a byproduct of modern living.

If the rising cost of gas couples with the credit crunch and becomes the perfect storm then congestion will take care of itself. People will drive less as a matter of course and congestion (on the roadways anyways) will decrease.

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This page contains a single entry by Mary Wisniewski published on June 18, 2008 1:15 PM.

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