Monday, June 23, 2008

Finding Solutions to Higher Gas Prices

I don't regularly check in with former Labor Secretary Robert Reich's blog as part of my regular readings, but peruse it once in a while when reminded that it exists. It was during one of these recent "perusals" that I stumbled upon this entry from a couple of weeks ago regarding his suggestion to address the current rise in gas prices by installing more public transportation. Now, a lot of folks I know would decry this as "more government intervention," and I'm not entirely sure I disagree with that impulse, but I do think that infrastructure is one of the things that government should be involved in building, and that the lack of infrastructure (such as public transportation) is a major impediment to large numbers of people making the sacrifice necessary to drive fewer cars. Also, it should be noted that this kind of intervention takes place best at the local level, as opposed to the federal one.

In any event, Reich's entry represents an attempt to make a suggestion toward action in regard to the situation. Unfortunately, Reich himself seems pretty bleak about the prospects of such action ever taking place, and even in a "best case scenario," it's action that couldn't hope to see a benefit for many years, as it will take that long to put public transportation systems that don't already exist in place. But I actually found the comments to Reich's blog entry at least as interesting as, if not more so than, the entry itself. Some agreed with Reich's sentiments, while others disagreed. But through the thread, a general sentiment arose toward discussing as many options toward dealing with the need to reduce fuel consumption as possible. I hope that this discussion continues. As more people talk about it, the more likely it is that action will take place, whether taken by governmental entities or the private sector.

One person suggested that more people should bike to work. I'm sympathetic to that idea. It's both good for the environment and for the biker. Indeed, I was actually looking into the possibility of purchasing a bike for myself just recently. Ultimately, although I certainly think that biking should be encouraged, I simply can't see biking as a viable alternative to driving for more than a few people. As one person pointed out, not everyone lives in an area conducive to biking, nor is everyone is physically able to bike to work every day (even in those bike-friendly areas). Also, not everyone lives close enough to their place of employment for biking to be an option. I myself live about 6-and-a-half miles from work. Perhaps I could conceivably "work up" to biking that kind of distance twice a day, but I almost certainly couldn't handle it immediately. I'm just not in good enough physical shape.

Another person, essentially agreeing with Reich's basic idea, commented on the bus systems that exist needing considerable expansion before they can be a viable alternative for the masses. I myself have taken to using the bus systems more recently, but it's easy to see problems in the current system. As it stands, buses are pretty inconsistent about maintaining the schedule that the lines have already set in place. If a bus is running late, or has an accident, the whole system is messed up, as you have to wait for another half-an-hour (or longer) in many areas before the next bus arrives. Even for the individual person that simply misses the bus by a few minutes, such a delay can be devastating, but it's a serious deficiency in the way buses are currently run that such problems happen as often as they do, affecting large groups of people at a time. Indeed, it is this kind of difficulty that causes many otherwise-well-meaning people to continue to drive their cars rather than use public transportation. Then there's the matter of the cost of bus fares. One person in the thread did the math for gas consumption at current prices, and noted that it may actually be cheaper to drive than to ride! Although I'm sympathetic to the response that noted that the "math" person was only counting the cost of gas itself, and not things like "car payments, insurance... registration, maintenance or parking fees," I'm not sure that was a fair response, either. Most of us, I expect, won't be getting rid of our cars altogether, so we'll still be dealing with most of those expenses whether we ride the bus or not. At best, I figure we'll cut down on parking expenses and maintenance. Between these expenses, we'll save a bit more than just the cost of gas by riding the bus, but the bus fares ensure that it isn't a "slam dunk" in purely personal economic terms.

My personal desire is to see more light rail trains put into place. The Los Angeles area has such a system, but the line I'd use to get to work stops about half-way between where I work and where I live, rendering it useless for my own purposes. There are plans in place that would extend that line out, and there's a currently-defunct station only a block from where I live that would be renovated if and when the light rail line comes out this far. Unfortunately, these plans are currently unfunded, and although the city of Monrovia (where I live) is gung-ho about seeing the extension happen, the company that runs the trains is more interested in projects focusing on the city of Los Angeles itself for the time being. Moreover, there's some active opposition to the train coming in for various reasons. One that I hear pretty often is that the train won't actually result in all that many fewer cars on the streets, since many of the people who would take the train are people that currently take the bus! That might be true, but I think is too simplistic an excuse. Trains tend to run more frequently (and more efficiently!) than buses, and so a lot of people that are put off of riding the buses because of the scheduling difficulties would not be as inconvenienced by the trains. Trains are also much less prone to mechanical failures than buses, making it less likely that failures will occur that tie up the entire system, although when such failures do occur, they can admittedly be even more difficult to clear up.

I'm a little surprised that carpooling was only given a minor consideration, but perhaps that's because people seem to find the coordinating of personal schedules necessary to make this happen even more off-putting than buses. I know that I've found it difficult to carpool even with my own wife, who also works at Fuller, but who does so part-time and has evening commitments that I do not have. Even still, I should think that encouraging carpools would have to be part of the solution to getting fewer cars on the streets.

Whatever else is true, I'm convinced that the problem of high fuel prices and high fuel consumption requires a multi-faceted solution, rather than some one-size-fits-all idea. I likewise believe that these solutions will need to come from both governmental bodies and people-at-large. Perhaps it's actually a good thing that the prices have gotten so high, since more people are starting to realize that they simply can't go on as they have been. I'll see you on the bus!

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