You’re Not Paying Enough for Gas

What if prices at the pump were determined by your salary?

Gas prices are getting higher in the United States these days. But it’s a slow crawl, and they’re nowhere near high enough. It’s time to tax gas, and raise costs to European levels. It’s time to make driving expensive, because the car is killing America.

It wasn’t always this way. When U.S. cities began to grow in the early 19th century, they were based around urban centers. They had to be, since commuting long distances each day was unfeasible. So cities and towns grew, often around a shared industry, and people worked close to where they lived. Then, everything changed.

In 1901, Oldsmobile implemented an assembly line into its automotive factory, and came out with the first mass-produced car. They were followed closely by Thomas B. Jeffries and Henry Ford, and by 1903, cheap, mass-produced cars were being sold by the thousands. This effectively changed the trajectory of American history. Suddenly, our vast landscapes were eminently accessible. Highways snaked everywhere, people began to move out of cities, and the modern suburb was born. More than that, the suburb became an indelible part of the American Dream. Life goals began to be shaped around a house you could walk around, a yard, and a two-car garage.

The problem is that current American dream is simply unsustainable. Not only that, it’s downright harmful. Living spread out in single-family homes is a misuse of our countryside, and it’s detrimental to the land itself. In fact, cities are more ecologically and environmentally sound; Harvard economics professor Edward L. Glaeser has said,  “In almost every metropolitan area, carbon emissions are significantly lower for people who live in central cities than for people who live in suburbs.” Cities allow for all sorts of wonderful things like shorter commutes, close-knit neighborhoods, daily walking exercise, and culture, all while freeing outskirts for local food farming. But instead of living in urban areas, we spread out into strip malls, which are the death of neighborhoods, architecture, small businesses, and our health. All because we can drive there.

Of course the only culprit isn’t the car, though cars are what sparked and sustained the move to the suburbs. There are other catalysts, like Federal Housing Administration-insured loans that made it possible for people to buy single-family homes during the depression, new zoning laws, redlining, as well as a host of cultural, personal, and socioeconomic reasons. But without a doubt, without the car, suburbs would have remained around transit lines, and cities would have remained a vibrant, integral part of Americans’ lives.

Let’s imagine we never developed the car. What would the effect have been on our environment and our lives?

1. Global warming wouldn’t be nearly as much of a threat: The average American passenger car emits about 11,450 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year, contributing extensively to greenhouse gas effects. Without cars, we wouldn’t need parking lots, and so the polluted run off and heated water entering the water stream and killing aquatic life would disappear. Cities would be cooler in the summer, the air would be far less smoggy, and the health hazards from particulate matter would be vastly diminished.

2. Cities would once again be the center of life. Education would become more equal, especially in Philadelphia, where funding for schools is based on local property taxes. Communities might even be more racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse, because the poor wouldn’t be left to the city while the rich moved to greener pastures.

3. Imagine no traffic jams, no car crashes, no drunk drivers. No parking tickets, no car payments, no insurance payments. And imagine the health benefits of just a little more exercise each day—simple things like walking to the store or the train station. Driving everywhere instead of walking has been linked to obesity in study after study. One Georgia-based report even goes so far as to say that “tripling the number of shops and other businesses near homes could have the same effect on obesity levels as magically making everyone in Atlanta five years younger.” In other words, turn the suburbs into a city, and suddenly everyone’s a lot healthier.

Of course I’m not advocating the total annihilation of cars. But two cars per family is excessive. Driving every day is untenable. By contrast, public transit is a far better alternative, and living in cities or towns close to train lines is sustainable, feasible and even more desirable. So, if we tax gas prices the way they do in Europe, or even by income bracket, then we discourage driving, encourage city living, and even out price fluctuations in the market. We could even use the revenue to create jobs for those put out of work by the downsizing of the auto industry. So let’s hope that gas prices keep going up, so that people reconsider the American dream and come back home to the cities, where they belong.