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One Great Potential Benefit Of Higher Gas Prices - Less Traffic

Published 4/23/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

As gas and oil prices continue to push vigorously into higher unprecedented levels, my wallet lets out a single quivering tear drop. But when I find myself mired in the unmoving water boarding torture that is rush hour traffic - I end up rooting for higher gas prices so that financial natural selection can put a slowdown to the serious problem of traffic jams gone wild.

I hate living, visiting, or even driving near cities with bad traffic. Unfortunately I happen to live near a major metropolitan hub that Forbes Magazine views as the city with the worst overall traffic in the United States - Washington D.C. I was rather taken back when I read that since I had always assumed the smoggy Southern California city of Los Angeles claimed that title, but then the dubious distinction doesn't exactly surprise me. The D.C. Beltway certainly deserves that title as the highway is always filled to the brim with honking drivers.

Why does the local suburban crawl population in our area keep expanding every year? It only adds to the ever growing traffic congestion problem in the region where I live and grew up. Just because the public schools in suburban Maryland and Virginia are some of the best in the nation and the federal government places the vast majority of its jobs in the city doesn't mean everyone have to move here. Why not move to say - neighboring West Virginia or the Appalachian area of Southern Virginia? I hear they have plenty of empty space and farm land that can use some occupying. But in all seriousness, the traffic in our nation's capital is utterly insane and spiraling out of control. It is absolutely abnormal and I refuse to accept this dysfunctional bumper to bumper driving as the price of living in a popular metro region.

The American Love For Driving Is Getting Out Of Control And Needs To Be Reigned In

I have friends who spend hours and hours in traffic everyday and see the routine as perfectly normal - they're simply used to it. When I ask them how they deal with the emotional agony, and wear and tear to their vehicles caused by repetitive stop and go traffic every morning and afternoon, they simply shrug and say they're used to it. Most seem to have accepted this lot in life as simply part of the personal daily sacrifice needed to live in a city that offers great schools, great malls, great culture, and great jobs. Unfortunately I'm not as accepting of this plight as they are. Perhaps it's because I'm a life-long public transportation commuter. Since college, I've only commuted by car to work a few times before. The vast majority of the time I take public transportation through the D.C. Metro - our underground subway train system. D.C. Metro is very convenient and reaches most of the major employment centers in the city. Fare prices are reasonable and the subway cars are generally well maintained. However, many people simply refuse to give up driving.

It's truly a national obsession - Americans are infatuated and in love with their cars. Most refuse to give up their love of driving and insist on clogging up the highways with their one occupant vehicles every morning. They insist on being able to enjoy the convenience of commuting to work on their own and see driving their cars as the ultimate liberating American experience. But how liberating is it really when you are stuck in rush hour traffic for a 2 and a half hour commute each way for a total of 5 hours, when the total back and forth commute should have taken only an hour?

Back when I was a child (I sound like an old guy - but I'm only in my late 20's), my family only owned a single car - a compact red Toyota Corolla, for a family of 4 people. It was occasionally inconvenient to share just one vehicle, but we managed well and relied primarily on public subway transportation. Nowadays, families have multiple cars and even children are now getting their own. With the hyper-consumerism mentality of today's younger generation, it's almost expected that each teen gets to have his or her own ride to drive around in. In some households, the number of vehicles, motorcycles, sport utility vehicles (SUV)'s, trucks, and recreation vehicles even dwarfs the number of individuals that make up the household as people nowadays own accessory vehicles such as fancy sports cars for special driving occasions. Eventually, all of these vehicles end up on the highways at the same time - stretching road handling capacity to the breaking point.

Yesterday I needed to run some errands during the day in an area inaccessible by subway so I decided to take my car - bad mistake. I hopped into my car and proceeded to my destination. On my way back home, I didn't realize it was afternoon rush hour until it was too late. By the time I had winded onto the 495 Beltway there was no turning back - the die had been cast and I had become a member of the afternoon herd. I was only a mere 15 miles from home, but my slow chug through heavy rush hour traffic took 2 hours. The constant tapping of the break pedal was frustrating to no end.

Thankfully, High Gas Prices Will Help Control The Number Of Future Cars On The Road And Thin Out Rampant Traffic Jams

That's why even with today's spiraling and increasing gas prices at the pump, there's a silver lining. With higher oil and gas prices will inevitably come a shift and change in American driving habits. The higher cost of driving will force many to think twice about storming onto the roads, and force solitary drivers who commute every day to work by themselves to buddy up and join a car pool. For those who absolutely must commute by themselves, this will require them to re-evaluate about where they need to go and plan ahead to maximize their gas usage. Higher gas prices will help eliminate traffic congestion and allow those who really need to drive to have a better and more efficient transportation experience. Yes it will financially affect me as well, but the price to pay will be worth the greatly improved driving experience.

In most major national and international metropolitan areas such as New York City, Tokyo, and in most densely populated Asian and European cities, city inhabitants have adapted well to a public transportation lifestyle. Many who live in traffic clogged cities don't even own cars and get around fine on foot or via public subway trains and buses. There really is no reason why we must all be driving around huge clunking vehicles when a smaller vehicle option would do just as well. I'm looking forward to the day when higher gas prices eliminate most of the hulking SUV's from the road and replace them with tiny two-man cars or even personal Segway scooters.

Of course, for such major driving and oil consumption habits to change, gas prices would have to increase and surge even more - double or triple from their current levels to maybe $8.00 or $10.00 a gallon. I'm sorry car lovers and driving enthusiasts - but I'm secretly rooting against the development of alternative fuels and the adoption of electricity, hydrogen, and ethanol powered cars. All they'll do is make it cheaper to drive and substantially increase the number of drivers already on the road. In the alternative, if cheaper fuels are developed, I'm all in favor of some type of driving tax or federal traffic toll. Something needs to be done to reduce the number of cars overflowing our roads, choking up our infrastructure, and creating perpetual bottlenecks.

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8 Responses to “One Great Potential Benefit Of Higher Gas Prices - Less Traffic” 

  1. Chief Family Officer says:

    Out here in LA (where traffic is indeed quite horrible), the big problem is the lack of public transportation. If I wanted to take public transportation to my office without setting foot in my car, I'd have to take at least three buses and one train. I just don't see traffic decreasing appreciably out here unless and until there is a truly viable alternative to driving.

  2. Raymond says:

    CFO,

    LA is one giant traffic mess...the problem with LA is that everything is so spread out and the city hubs are all misplaced and it takes forever to get anywhere. One of the first few times I visited LA I missed my return flight to Maryland because my friend and I got stuck in one of LA's infamous traffic jams.

  3. Liz says:

    I can't think of anyone I know that loves driving. I know I don't. It's just that we have to here. We don't live in a metro area. Public transportation is very limited here. Where I grew up, it's absolutely non-existent. Here, I could probably get to school using the bus, but it would take about an hour and a half each way at least -- despite being about a 15-minute car ride, and I don't have an extra three hours to spare. Oh, and the bus doesn't run in the evenings when my classes get out. I live within walking distance to one grocery store, but I can't carry a lot of groceries and I have to drive to go to pretty much any other stores. If my husband didn't have a separate work vehicle, we'd have to have two vehicles or our own because he works irregular schedules and not necessarily near my classes (time- or space-wise).

    Yes, the price of gas has affected my driving habits. I no longer get to visit friends and family like I used to -- and they can't visit me, either. It hurts to hear my mom say that she can't come to some of my performances because the gas costs too much, but I understand and I'd rather her save her money to pay for essentials like food and meds -- especially now that she has to drive her friend to dialysis every other day and how she'll afford that I don't know because the gas is going to suck up every penny of retirement she gets.

    Even cutting down trips to only the essentials, the rising cost of gas means that my husband and I are still feeling the pinch financially and we've cut back so much that it's hard to find more ways to cut. Nevertheless, if things don't change I may have to take fewer classes next semester -- not just to save in tuition, but rather to spend fewer days driving because that's costing more than the tuition!

    On the plus side, traffic has never been better here, either. Funny, though. I don't feel so chipper seeing our once thriving little city turn into a ghost-town.

  4. Raymond says:

    You know, I think I was just venting a bit about being stuck in rush hour traffic. The fact is...I really do enjoy driving, but only when the experience is pleasant. It's like going to an amusement park when the lines are insanely long. Sure the park itself is great, but the effort you have to put into it just isn't worth it.

    I know most Americans are feeling the gas price pinch. This is starting to become a serious issue all joking aside. Even though I'm not a frequent driver, I have changed my driving habits as well. I live near stores so I can afford to walk and take the subway, but what about those in the mid-west who rely on their vehicles to get around and travel long distances...I feel their pain.

  5. Liz says:

    I understand wanting to vent, but it did come off a bit mean. Empathy is good, though.

    FYI, it's not just the mid-west, it's most of the country. We need better public transportation before people can choose to use it in most places. Even where some exists, the bus routes usually need a major overhaul.

  6. Michele says:

    In many European contries, as much as 75% of the price per liter is taxes. But that pays for better roads, public transportation, etc. We pay on average 17% of the cost per gallon for taxes. Even where there is Pub Trans. the routes are minimal, forget about using it if you don't have a traditional 9-to-5 job.

    I used to live in Silver Spring and had a job opportunity down in Tysons corner, I had to turn down the job because it would have been a more than 2 hour commute each way because of traffic. And that was in 1991.

  7. CollegeSavings.About.com - Ken Clark, CFP says:

    I wish! In SoCal, all the higher prices mean is that it costs me more to sit in the same traffic jam!

  8. Stefanie says:

    Here in the St. Louis metro area, the high gas prices don't mean much beyond higher monthly fuel expenses. I've been to a lot of different cities, and this is one of the least pedestrian-friendly places I can recall. I live less than 1/2 a mile from the grocery store, but there's no way I could safely walk there. Many of the roads are high-speed, high-traffic roads that don't offer any kind of shoulder or sidewalk for pedestrians.

    So yes, even at $8/gallon, I'll just have to suck it up unless someone starts investing heavily in alternatives.

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