Do higher gas prices mean better air quality? Potentially

If you drive a car, SUV or pickup truck, how do higher gas prices affect your driving habits – if at all?

In America right now, gas prices are some of the highest they’ve been in recent history, if not the highest they’ve ever been. Across the country, according to one source, the price for regular is an average $3.78 per gallon. In California, meanwhile, for premium unleaded, depending upon where in state sold, price per gallon can exceed $6.00. Will prices at these levels change travel habits over the upcoming Labor Day weekend? Will prices this high have a more lasting impact in terms of how much, how often and where American motorists drive? This is what remains to be determined.

What I can tell you is post-pandemic, driving activity hasn’t quite rebounded to what it was just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, but, it’s close. Domestically, at the aggregate level we’re talking close to 3.2 trillion miles driven annually in 2022. And, upwards of 10,000 miles per year per capita. Twenty-nineteen’s high was 3.262 trillion miles driven, a record. (For more, see: “U.S. driving miles up. VMT still lag pre-pandemic totals: Report”).

Now that prices at the pump are as high as they are, once that reality sinks in, is this going to affect mode distribution; mode distribution referring to the relationship that exists among modes? Is this going to markedly change? Well, I suppose a lot of what happens depends on how high gas prices go. It should be noted that as it stands, about 75 percent of all vehicle commute trips are made alone – solo, sans any onboard passengers, in other words.

In context

Of course, transit use and active transportation methods like walking and biking, all could all of a sudden play a bigger role. And, that could mean fewer emissions from motor vehicle exhaust due to the fewer miles being driven.

And, being transit use in the United States is what it is (on average, approximately two percent of all work trips in the U.S. are taken on public transit), this plus upticks in both biking and walking, if this pans out, these actions could mean considerable improvements in the quality of the air Americans are breathing.

But, let’s be clear. What I have come to understand as the reason for the gas-price increases is due to production by OPEC – the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – has been scaled back. There are no doubt other contributing factors as well, but the above-mentioned reason is no doubt a leading one.

It will be interesting to learn just how many Americans will hit the roads, rails and footpaths, yes, footpaths, this upcoming holiday weekend.

⁃ Alan Kandel

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