Sunday, September 10, 2017

From the Archives: Higher gas prices won’t change American car culture, says transportation expert

Editor's note: One of the repercussions of Hurricane Harvey (and, to a lesser extent, Hurricane Irma) has been a spike in gasoline prices, by about 50 cents per gallon across the country (30 to 45 cents higher in the Charlottesville area). This seems like a good time to revisit the topic of fuel's price elasticity. This article from 2011 sheds light on the issue.

Higher gas prices won’t change American car culture, says transportation expert
May 25, 2011 4:42 PM MST

Higher gasoline prices will not fundamentally affect the travel habits of Americans, asserts transportation expert Alan E. Pisarski, author of the “Commuting in America” series for the National Academy of Sciences.

Pisarski spoke to the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner immediately after giving a presentation on livability and transportation issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on May 20.

$4 a gallon ‘sounds scary’

While four dollars a gallon “sounds scary,” Pisarski explained, that “is actually about the same as we were paying in 1980 -- even less if you take into [account] things like wealth and fuel efficiency.”

Even if gas prices move higher than that, “the benefits that people gain from the automobile are not really going to change,” he said. People will make minor accommodations to account for the higher prices, “but the fundamental change in the society will be trivial.”

As an example, Pisarski pointed out that the “last time we almost doubled the price of gasoline, in 2009, we had a three-and-a-half percent decline in travel.”

Virginia commutes

In his presentation, Pisarski had noted that Virginians commute to work outside of their home counties at a rate double that of the national average – about 52.1 percent travel outside their counties, compared to 27.4 percent nationwide. What accounts for that?

gas prices transportation Alan Pisarski
“One of the things that really matters,” he said, “is the fact that because of government, there’s a tremendous integration of activity, so people traverse long distances from their homes to their work sites. You see much more interaction between counties, in an economic sense, than you do in most other areas of the country.”

Arlington County, for instance, "exports" 80,000 workers each day and "imports" 130,000. In other words, only 33 percent of its workers stay in the county even though Arlington has 1.4 jobs per worker. In Fairfax County, to give another example, 50 percent of workers stay in the county for their jobs while 50 percent leave.

While it may seem like Northern Virginia – the suburbs around Washington, D.C. – skew the rate upward, the phenomenon is statewide. There are only two or three counties in the whole state, Pisarski explained, “that don’t send the majority of their people to another county to work.”

In fact, he added, “it’s more extensive in the rural counties” and exurban counties that are “two and three counties out from the metropolitan area,” and from those places, Virginians commute to metropolitan Richmond or metropolitan Washington.

Pisarski noted that the state that comes in second in this category is Maryland, which is also affected by the government jobs and economic activity generated by Washington, followed closely by Pennsylvania.

Livability and local budgets

Alan Pisarski transportation gasoline prices
Alan Pisarski
The theme of Pisarski’s presentation at the Heritage Foundation was the new emphasis on “livability” in the housing and transportation policies of the Obama administration. He said that “livability” is a “nonce word,” which has different meanings – and sometimes no meaning at all – depending upon who is using it and in what context.

“Those words come in and out of favor,” he explained, but the emphasis on livability comes from “the pressure on local governments to come up with money. This is another way for them to argue for what they see is their share, whether its of state money or federal money” to supplement their budgets to pay for community concerns, whether to solve traffic problems, improve neighborhoods, or build bike paths.

“These things” that local governments desire, Pisarski said, “are not unattractive or undesirable or even inappropriate.”

The problem, he explained, is that they do not “belong in discussions at the federal level,” because they are local concerns that should be dealt with on the local or state level.

Publisher's note: This article was originally published on on May 25, 2011. The publishing platform was discontinued July 1, 2016, and its web site went dark on or about July 10, 2016.  I am republishing this piece in an effort to preserve it and all my other contributions to since April 6, 2010. It is reposted here without most of the internal links that were in the original.

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