As pump prices break record, Americans are driving less

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Gas prices are posted at a USA gas station in Milpitas, Calif., Tuesday.

Gas prices hit $3.73 a gallon Tuesday, prompting American roads to become less traveled, at least by car.

Americans are cutting back in a variety of ways. Kicking off Bike-to-Work Week, the Associated Press reported on Monday that bicycle dealers and repair shops are seeing brisk business. Last week, The New York Times reported that mass transit ridership is up, particularly in cities in the South and West. Earlier this month, the Times reported that April auto sales indicate a shift to smaller cars, with sales of minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks plummeting by almost one-third at GM and Chrysler. And Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that sales of motor scooters are up 24 percent nationwide over last year.

For those concerned about climate change, these reports look like good news. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, cars account for almost one-quarter of America's annual CO2 emissions. That's more carbon dioxide than all but three other countries' total emissions from all sources combined.

But as encouraging as these figures may seem, they're still only a drop in the bucket. According to the AP story on cycling, only one half of one percent of Americans bike to work. And, as the Times's Paul Krugman pointed out, only 4.7 percent of Americans take mass transit, which means that a 10 percent increase would take only about half a percent of cars off the road. What's more, many mass-transit systems are at or near capacity, and decreased tax revenue and high steel prices mean that riders won't be seeing expansions anytime soon. As for figures on American scooter ownership, that's anybody's guess, but it's safe to say that we've got nothing on the Italians.

In America, where the auto rules the road, these non-car numbers have nowhere to go but up.

But most Americans would like them to go up. A survey by Rodale Press found that 40 percent of Americans say they would bike to work if they felt it was safer. And a 2008 Zogby poll found that 53 percent of Americans would take mass transit if it were close to their home and work.

The problem, then, is not so much American laziness, but how our cities and towns are laid out. More bike lanes – in particular physically separated bike lanes – would mean more cyclists. More mass-transit facilities would mean more riders. More mixed-use development would mean fewer people having to cross an interstate just to go grocery shopping. Sure, Americans love the open road, but we also like fresh air and exercise, reading on the train, and having a vibrant Main Street.

During the era of cheap gas, our car culture was deeply egalitarian. Almost anybody, from a CEO to an office temp, could hop in a car and hit the road. But as gasoline prices continue to rise, driving will become more and more an activity of the elite. As more us are forced to ditch our cars for bikes and mass transit, will the roads slicing through our communities become a source of resentment? And if so, how will that resentment play out?

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