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?