Americans Say They'll Drive Less at $4.90/Gallon, but They're Lying

Last Updated May 13, 2011 1:25 PM EDT

Traffic jams are a legacy of ignoring transit.First thing to remember when reading survey responses: Most people are pretty lousy at forecasting their own behavior. Which helps explain why 63 percent of American drivers polled by infrastructure consultant HNTB going to drive a lot less when gas hits an average of $4.90 a gallon.

In other words, people say they're going to switch to public transit. Uh-huh. Let's file that one away with like-minded poll responses, including "Of course I'll exercise more," "I plan to cut back on sweets" and "I never cheat on my taxes."

Let's face it, U.S. society is incredibly dependent on cars, and expensive gas can only change that at the margins and over fairly long periods of time. Taking public transportation to work, for instance, currently isn't even a real option for more than half of Americans, no matter how expensive gas gets.

Fiddling while petroleum burned... and burned
While Europe was building national train networks and light rail, we were building highways. As long as gas was cheap, we ignored transit in the U.S., and in fact tore up half of the 300,000 miles of transit lines we had in 1910. My favorite Onion headline is "98 Percent of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others." We're paying now for giving short shrift to transit.

Yes, Americans are driving less, but not that much less. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gasoline demand is down 2.4 percent from what it was last year at this time. That's not insignificant, but neither is it indicative of a wholesale shift away from driving. And we saw that result after American gas prices went up for the seventh week in a row, to $3.97 a gallon ($1.06 more than it was last year).

A vicious cycle
High gas prices lower oil demand, depressing the price -- that's what we're seeing now as gasoline futures tumble. Oil may have peaked for a while, and it will probably slip back from the dizzying heights of almost $4 a gallon. But it's a seesaw, because guess what -- when the price goes down Americans start driving again, and then-- well, you get the picture.

The folks who put out these surveys like to see a nice clean arc, as in a huge driving drop at $4.90 a gallon. According to the survey, "A cut-off point may be quickly approaching when millions more Americans will fill up local buses and trains instead of their tanks."

That might be nice if you're a transit advocate (as I am), but unfortunately most Americans don't have an easy train or bus option -- especially for their critical morning commute. From my house in Connecticut a few years ago, I used trains and buses to travel the 20 miles to my office, which was a 20 minute drive away. I sat at bus stops and train stations waiting for connections, and it took three hours to get there.

New Brookings study: we're screwed
I'm not alone. According to a Brookings Institute study released Wednesday, "Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America," 70 percent of commuters could catch some kind of public transportation, but it would take them to only 30 percent of the jobs in metro areas in less than 90 minutes. Even worse, Brookings looked at 34 metropolitan transit systems and discovered that only 23 percent of available jobs were within half a mile of a transit stop. Needless, to say, that's not good enough for most commuters.

High gas prices will increase transit use in regions, like San Francisco or Portland, Ore., that actually have comprehensive public transportation options. That's in line with American Public Transportation Association figures that show trips increasing with rising gas prices. If they're available, people will take trains and buses. They certainly take transit in Europe, where gas is $8 a gallon. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 37 percent of commuters ride bikes to work, but Europe doesn't sprawl as much as the U.S. does.

The HNTB poll addresses this vexing problem. More than half of those polled (51 percent) said they wish they had more access to local transit options, and 33 percent said they want more commuter and high-speed rail. Of course they want it -- but the last time I looked, tax-cut-happy states like Florida were giving back their federal high-speed rail funds for fear it would it would obligate them to Big Brother in some way.

There is definitely a tipping point where Americans get angry about high gas prices and their lack of transit options, and we've already reached it. But relief is a long way away.

Related: Photo: Flickr/Epsos.de
  • jim motavalli

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