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Making High Gas Prices Less Painful

Learn more about three long-term, sustainable policy solutions that would help ease the pain of high gas prices.

With gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, many Americans are feeling uneasy about the future. And for good reason. Higher prices at the pump channel money away from things that improve our quality of life, like health care, education, and leisure activities.

So far, the response from politicians on Capitol Hill has been anything but inspiring. Many politicians have disingenuously claimed that we don’t need to change our behavior and can “drill our way out of this problem.” Or that we can apply enough pressure on oil-rich countries, who will then turn against their own self-interests and ramp up production. Or that high fuel standards and alternative fuels like ethanol, which just suffered a huge setback with the Iowa floods, will make all our problems go away.

But there is a segment in Washington that gets it. Rep. Earl Blumenauer recently spoke out because he couldn’t find a parking spot in the garage of the Rayburn House of Representatives office building. So many Hill staffers now cycle to work that Mr. Blumenauer, for the first time ever, couldn’t find a space on the bike rack to lock his road bike.

Cycling to work is the type of small behavioral change that can shelter Americans from high fuel prices. But in addition to personal changes, we need a prescription of policies that have a large-scale, structural impacts that make American’s less vulnerable to the whims of OPEC and the global oil market.

The following three ideas, if implemented, will have the added value of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, improving public health, curtailing over-consumption, and providing a structural change that can be sustained over the long term.

  1. Build high-density, mixed-use cities: The vast majority of American cities are built for cars, which creates a sprawling, low-density landscape where people spend too much time and money driving to conduct their daily activities. Cities built around people and walking as opposed to cars and driving have single-family housing, apartments, grocery stores, office space and shops all within walking distance, eliminating the daily need to get behind the wheel. The rise of “New Urbanism” in places like Kentlands, Maryland, and the revitalization of American inner cities in places like Chicago, New York, and Washington DC suggests that more and more Americans want a lifestyle that favors short walking trips over long car commutes.

  2. Invest in Mass Transit: Americans are flocking to mass transit in ever greater numbers. At 10.3 billion trips last year, mass-transit ridership in the United States is at its highest level since 1957. To match this growing demand, cities should invest money to maintain and expand their mass-transit systems. One practical way to do this is to charge car drivers for using the most congested roads and use this revenue to fund mass-transit projects and operations. London, Singapore, and Stockholm all have wildly successful congestion-pricing programs that are, counter to conventional wisdom, popular among residents. Mass transit does not necessarily mean rail. Cities can also thrive with low-cost, fast implementation systems like bus rapid transit, which has been done in Los Angeles, Ottawa, Sidney, Mexico City, Curitiba, and Bogotá.

  3. Invest in Cycling Facilities: Increasingly, cycling is becoming popular among commuters making short trips around cities. But the spike in the number of city cyclists has yet to be followed by a supply of cycling facilities like bike lanes and bike parking. In many cities, cyclists have to compete with cars for road space, a dangerous proposition that drives potential cyclists off their bikes and back into cars. By building special cycle lanes that are physically separated from traffic, cities can make cycling a viable, low-cost form of transit. Cycling can also be instrumental in countering chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity, which are now afflicting large swaths of the sedentary American population. Paris, among other cities, has taken cycling a step above the rest, creating a bike-sharing program with 15,000 bicycles available at a moments notice for anyone with a credit card. Cyclists and politicians in American cities should take note.

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