In an era of higher gas prices, should we rethink driving?

During this time when gas prices are through the roof – and perhaps the highest they’ve ever been in history – this could be the time to think not only about what but how much or how far Americans are driving. A driving rethink, call it.

All of this brings to mind the California high-speed rail endeavor and how this was approved by the majority of state voters in November 2008.

The statewide high-speed rail (HSR) plan as then proposed, listed estimated construction costs at around $33 billion with the Phase 1 section connecting the state’s major metropolitan centers in the north, central and south state pegged at 520 miles in length. (Today’s estimated price tag: $80 billion). At the same time, it’s important to point out the HSR proposition was put before the voters at a time when driving miles were in retreat (not just in the Golden State but throughout the country) and when fallout from the Great Recession between 2008 and 2011 reached its zenith.

So, we know where we currently are gas-price wise, but how exactly did we arrive at this destination, intersection, juxtaposition?

Based on personal experience, in 1971-‘72, the price for a gallon of gasoline was around 34 cents. You read right: 34 cents.

Of course, motor vehicle fuel economy way back then had much to be desired. But, hardly anybody seemed to mind as I would imagine few were paying close attention. It was a whole other matter entirely in 1973 and 1978-‘79 what with the oil embargoes going into effect. Long lines into gas stations were common.

If there was anything positive to come out of this in my view it was that matters of motor vehicle fuel efficiency became front and center. At the same time, domestic sales of imports soared.

Even before concepts such as gas shortages became household terms, cities like San Francisco were seriously exploring another viable but different mobility option: transit. That option came to life, branded in Sept. 1972 as the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, an electrified heavy-rail, commuter-rail network, at first opening with 72 route-miles of track initially connecting the end-points of Daly City, Pittsburg, Richmond and Fremont with San Francisco, also known as the City by the Bay. Subsequent extensions now carry passengers to and from the terminating stations of Berryessa (San Jose), Dublin/Pleasanton, Millbrae and now Antioch courtesy of the non-electrified eBart service. A number of light-rail networks have since been added on the peninsula side, as well as the one heavy-rail commuter-rail operation located to the bay’s south and east linking San Jose and Stockton, a handful of illustrative examples of the many similar systems built and operating throughout the western U.S., and helping to make a dent in automotive congestion and gridlock in the cities affected.

All that said, Americans, 16-years-old on up overwhelmingly prefer driving. Contrastingly, transit, at best, on average, accounts for just five percent of all work-commute trips. (Transit here refers to bus, train, ferry services).

While it’s true that transit – and high-speed rail – systems are costly to build, driving, too, nowadays is becoming an expensive proposition. Besides motor vehicle and fuel purchase costs, there are connected insurance-, maintenance-, parking-, registration-, smog-testing-, etc.- related expenses.

Meanwhile, average vehicle fuel economy in the U.S. is around 25 miles per gallon, though, in time, that’s expected to markedly improve.

Speaking of smog-testing, over the years, cars have become cleaner-burning, which is good. But, as far as fuel efficiency and exhaust condition has come, there is way more that can be done.

There could be more reliance on electricity to power our rides, be these automobility or transit related. What we are talking about here are electric, hybrid and fuel-cell technologies.

Moreover, for those who drive internal-combustion-engine-powered motorcars, vans, SUVs and trucks, and when, in this era of higher gas prices, the opportunity presents itself, there is the option to drive less. Biking, carpooling, public transit use, ridesharing, scootering and walking, are all mode methods that can enable this.

The presumption is one day we’ll see relief at the pump. The question, however, is will the relief be a flash in the pan or long-lasting and profound? At this very moment according to what I’ve learned, in Washington, D.C., President Biden is tossing around the idea of a gas-tax holiday.

From what I understand about this, the idea here is to relax the 18-cents-per-gallon surcharge on gasoline and, if I recall correctly, 24-cents-per-gallon tax on diesel, if only temporarily. Should this happen, the presumption is this would result in more of the revenue going to big oil from the sale of the fuels in question, thus facilitating a higher profit margin, the hope here being that prices at the pump fall and thus allow for savings for consumers. This is my understanding.

In the final analysis, anything that can relieve pressure on the American driving public what with the way inflation is currently, should be pursued. If the solution is a driving reprieve, at least for the time being, fewer miles driven will result in our lungs especially, among other organs, getting a breather, as in our having healthier air to breathe. A good move if I do say so myself.

– Alan Kandel

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This article was last updated on Jun. 24, 2022 at 6:58 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.