Monday, June 09, 2008

Could $4 per gallon gas cause new interest in public transportation?

The NYT reports from rural Mississippi, where the cost of gasoline has begun to take a double-digit hit out of people's paychecks.

People are giving up meat so they can buy fuel. Gasoline theft is rising. And drivers are running out of gas more often, leaving their cars by the side of the road until they can scrape together gas money.

The disparity between rural America and the rest of the country is a matter of simple home economics. Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.

As a result, gasoline expenses are rivaling what families spend on food and housing.
And why is there such a disparity? In part, it is because of differences in the distribution of the population; and in part, it is because of different public attitudes toward transportation.

With the exception of rural Maine, the Northeast appears least affected by gasoline prices because people there make more money and drive shorter distances, or they take a bus or train to work.

But across Mississippi and the rural South, little public transit is available and people have no choice but to drive to work. Since jobs are scarce, commutes are frequently 20 miles or more. Many of the vehicles on the roads here are old rundown trucks, some getting 10 or fewer miles to the gallon.
I have lived in the deep south most of my life. In the places I have called home, there has been a stigma attached to public transporation, when it has even been available. Riding the bus is considered something that poor people do. That stigma means that local policy makers do not consider the public transportation system a priority. The bus system is a local service that stops at the city limits, rather than a regional service that can provide people in spread-out populations with an affordable way of getting to work. And there is no light rail.

With the price of gas averaging four dollars (!) a gallon now, and no end in sight to the increase, perhaps people will begin to demand alternatives. It will require the political will to make the necessary infrastructure investments, but this is where congress could provide some leadership with funding and other incentives for local governments.

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