by Rick Pruetz, Vice President, Ecocity Builders
People are spending a lot of energy these days complaining about the high cost of gasoline. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we instead responded to high gas prices by getting serious about transforming our car-dependent cities and adjusting our gas-addicted travel behavior? Rather than looking for ways to keep the cheap gas flowing, why not accelerate the installation of walkways and bikeways and use them?
The energy crisis of the 1970s was a similar pivotal moment. The Netherlands responded by tapping the brakes on car-dominated roadways and accelerating reliance on walking, bicycling, and public transportation. Consequently, the Dutch now have more money to spend on locally-produced goods and services while making it possible for people of all ages and incomes to reach jobs, schools, shopping and other everyday activities without the expense of owning and fueling a car. Other benefits of this U-turn include reduced greenhouse gas emissions and improved health. If everyone biked as much as they do in the Netherlands, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions would be cut by 700 million metric tons, (almost the total generated by Germany annually), and obesity-related deaths would fall by 780,000 per year (Timmer 2022).
Jimmy Carter, the US President during the 1970s energy crisis, proposed the “moral equivalent of war”, a ten-point plan that included waste reduction and energy conservation as well as increased domestic oil production. His political opponents succeeded in making Carter look weak for suggesting that Americans make any changes to business as usual. And the U.S. doubled down on car culture, spreading low-density suburbs across the landscape assuming everyone would have a car and abundant, cheap gas forever. The poor are the most obvious victims of those flawed assumptions since car ownership and operation are not realistic for households trying to live on minimum wage incomes even when gas prices are low.
But now that gas prices are again at record levels, many middle class households realize that they too have been victimized by decades of misguided development. Today, an unsustainable portion of family budgets are required to fuel car-dependent travel in our sprawling metro areas. Counting on our unshakeable oil addiction, OPEC and Russia recently announced oil production cutbacks to generate even higher prices at the pump and also help Putin finance his war on Ukraine.
Today’s oil prices are giving us another chance to get this right. Many communities have adopted active transportation plans with long wish lists for pedestrian-friendly streets, protected bike lanes, and multi-use trails. President Biden has signed into law two acts with $4 billion for grants that can go a long way toward making these plans a reality for communities that pursue this funding. And while putting these improvements in place, many of us could already find more opportunities to walk or pedal our way past those gas stations that seem to be stressing out so many people.
Notes Timmer. 2022. Here’s What Happens When Countries Use Bikes to Fight Emissions. Accessed 10-20-22 at https://www.wired.com/story/bike-more-curb-global-emissions/#:~:text=9%3A00%20AM-,Here’s%20What%20Happens%20When%20Countries%20Use%20Bikes%20to%20Fight%20Emissions,of%20most%20of%20Germany’s%20emissions