Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Yes, the sky-high gasoline prices are getting me down just as much as the next person. I try to be an environmentally conscious individual and erase my "carbon footprint" as much as possible, but I just can't get around that pesky need to have a car. I live in downtown Madison, a calculated move on my part because it puts me close to pretty much everything. I walk to get groceries, to go to the bank, to go to the library, to go to coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc. But I can't walk to work. I can't even take the damn, complicated bus to work. And even if I could take the bus, I need a car once I get to work. I'm a nanny, so I spend a large portion of the day driving children around. And no matter what I do -- even though I rarely ever use my car outside of work -- I have to fill up once a week. And it sucks. A lot. Not just because it costs me a lot of my hard earned money that I could be putting towards graduate school, but because I know the environmental impact of so much driving.

But yet, even with the ridiculously high gas prices, for me driving is still cheaper than taking mass transit. To that I say, what the hell?! This past weekend I went to the Twin Cities to visit my former roommate/best friend. I took the Greyhound because I was sick of driving. From Madison to St. Paul, a trip on the Greyhound takes about 5 hours and 20 minutes and costs $95 for a round-trip ticket. Driving myself, the trip is pretty much exactly four hours and uses up about a full tank of gas on my Jetta (with current gas prices, that means it costs me a little under $80). And it isn't just the Greyhound that costs more than driving ...

This coming weekend I am planning a trip to my parents' house right outside of Milwaukee. Before I had a car, I always took the Badger Bus between Milwaukee and Madison. Let's compare the cost efficiency of taking the Badger Bus. A ride on the BB takes an hour and a half (not including the extra fifteen minutes required on each side of the journey to get to/from the bus stops) and costs $34 round-trip. Driving from right outside my apartment to right outside my parents' house takes an hour and fifteen minutes and uses a little under a quarter a tank of gas (so round-trip we'll figure about $20). Once more, it is noticeably cheaper and more efficient to just drive myself.

Here is my point: Many of the politicians (ahem, Hillary Clinton and John McCain) are talking about this gas tax vacation as a way of relieving the gas costs. Here's an idea: why don't we actually look at some ways that we can lower gas prices as well as gas usage. I don't know, maybe we could encourage mass transportation? In a country as developed as the U.S., our overall public transportation sucks and is really expensive. Some cities are much better than others. The D.C. area has the Metro System, Chicago has the El, New York has the subways, but there are so many huge cities that have nothing close to good public transportation. And intra-city travel is horrendously expensive, as I have just pointed out. Instead of easing the gas tax, thereby encouraging folks to just go on using as much gas as ever, how about subsidizing public transportation? How about making it so that it is cheaper to take the bus from Madison to St. Paul than it is to drive just yourself?

If it suddenly becomes much less expensive to take the bus or the train or whatnot, more people would want to do it and the bus companies might add more routes and more daily departures. Of course taking the bus or the train still uses gasoline, so we definitely still need to look towards using alternative fuel sources. And granted, a large Greyhound bus is less fuel-efficient than other vehicles. But even so, think how much gas is saved when you load fifty people onto one bus versus those fifty people each driving him or herself.

Naturally, there are many other things that can be done as well. But I find it absurd that in all this talk, the government hasn't tried creating incentives for people to use public transportation more often. No, instead the government talks about how to let people use just as much gas as normal. As Sen. Obama said on the issue, cutting the gas tax would save consumers little, while taking money away from needed things like road improvements. For those who don't know, the gas tax goes into the Highway Trust Fund. As with all tax money, those funds don't just magically disappear. They go towards things that we actually need. I have several friends who live in the Twin Cities and I will never forget that night last summer when the I-35W bridge collapsed during rush hour. We have already diverted enough money away from our basic infrastructure, and I am happy to pay my outrageously high gas tax if that means I will never have to live through a night of worry like that again. Temporarily cutting the gas tax will give short-term gains to consumers in terms of how much money they actually spend on gas, but we need to realize that the $30 we save is going to equal millions of dollars taken away from our infrastructure.

As Sen. Obama also said, a summer gas-tax holiday ignores the long-term issues. We need to move out of the current frame of thinking -- i.e., how to lower gas prices. That line of thinking will not sustain us. We need to start thinking about how we can make fundamental changes in the way that we live our lives. Few people want to do that because it requires energy and sacrifices on the individual level. I know that it just sucks to give up that big SUV in favor of a fuel-efficient car and it is probably a HUGE hassle to walk four blocks to get your morning latte rather than drive and an extra hour tacked onto a long trip is downright annoying, but these are sacrifices that we can live through. These are sacrifices that the government should start asking people to make. If Bush can stand up and say that it is patriotic to support an unjust and horrible war, then government officials can stand up and say that it is patriotic to support the survival of the planet.

So that was a sort of random, stream of consciousness on the issue (dammit, I said I wasn't going to do those!) I apologize and promise that I will try to be more coherent the next time I write. Maybe I'll stay away from political issues for a while, they bring out the "ranter" in me :)

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