Monday, May 27, 2024

What Happens When Gasoline Costs $10 a gallon?

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Talking Transportation

By Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron is still on a break, but here’s a column he wrote in 2008.

For decades we’ve lived (and driven) in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gas, and therefore, low-cost transportation. Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when (not if) gasoline hits $10 a gallon.

The following are my hypotheses. (Follow the embedded links for recent news coverage that contribute to my theories.) These things haven’t happened… but might:

AIR TRANSPORT: Following the demise of a dozen airlines and the shrinking of the remaining carriers, air fares soar and service is cut. Air travel becomes affordable to few. Airport congestion fades as business trips are replaced with tele-conferencing. Hotels are shuttered as “leisure travel” becomes unaffordable.

HIGHWAYS: Rush-hour on I-95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive. But the highways are a mess of potholes as the price of asphalt, made from petroleum, quintuples making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales. With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past. But with home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves which are also in short supply. Office buildings, by law, can heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months.

MASS TRANSIT:   Seats are pulled out of railcars to create standing room capacity and Metro-North offers cheaper fares to those who can’t get a seat. As in Tokyo, “pushers” are assigned at Grand Central to squeeze passengers into trains. Few can afford to drive and park at rail stations, so most spaces there are turned over to bike racks. Despite fare increases, ridership soars.

AROUND TOWN: Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips. Because they are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices soar. Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat. Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages. Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace the SUV. Kids finally take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by Mom. Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit. Local taxes rise, encouraging further migration. Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

THE ENVIRONMENT: Oil drilling begins in the Alaskan wilderness, but no supply of oil will reach the lower-48 for three years. In a panic, Congress weakens clean air laws to permit increased use of coal in power plants. Air pollution worsens and acid rain decimates much of the Northeast. Increased CO2 emissions hasten global warming. The sea level rises and coastal communities risk greater flooding as more numerous and powerful hurricanes ravage the US.

THE ECONOMY: The recession becomes a Depression as the impact of decreased mobility and soaring energy costs hit home. China decides to stop buying US Treasury notes and the US dollar hits new lows, making imported oil even more expensive.

Will any of these predictions come true? Time will tell. What can we do to prevent this Doomsday scenario? Not much.  So enjoy what’s left of the era of cheap oil. We’ll all have a lot of explaining to do to our grandchildren.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. His weekly column “Talking Transportation” is archived here.  You can contact Jim at CommuterActionGroup@gmail.com.

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