12 May, 2008

Krugman on Transit

Ryan Avent (who is starting to annoy me) points out that Paul Krugman is starting to blog quite a bit about transit, and it sounds like a column on this topic may be in the works.

Krugman notes that the number of people who use public transit to commute to work is a shamefully low 4.7%. The implication of this is that as gas prices rise, either because oil is becoming more scarce, or because of some sort of pollution/gas/carbon tax, people will find it very expensive to drive to work and in daily life more generally. Imagine creating a society that is compatible with paying $10 for a gallon of gasoline. Now imagine getting to that point from where we are now.

If the price went up tomorrow, most people would be stuck driving to work very expensively. They could cut out some trips on the margins, but it would basically be a pay cut. What makes the transition easier is plentiful substitutes to driving gas-powered cars. Electric and hybrid cars are available, but new cars are large investments for most families. One way for the government to make this investment is improved public transit. As Krugman points out, people in Toronto and other cities with good public transit have a much easier time with high gas prices. There's this other transportation system ready and waiting when prices skyrocket.

What has gone unsaid in this debate--I hesitate to call this a debate since one "side" of the debate basically ignores all discussion of transit issues--is that there are pretty significant distributional consequences to permanently higher gas prices. In particular, people in suburbs and small towns will be hit harder than people who live in cities with dense public transit systems. Living in suburbs will be more expensive and we'll start to see suburbs decline and cities grow. A whole new set of problems that we haven't even thought about will arise. What do we do with ghost towns? Should we try to save them? What can we do for people who aren't able to leave?

UPDATE: Krugman explains what I just said:

This is really our big problem: we’ve made long-lasting investments — in infrastructure, in housing, and to some extent in our auto fleet — based on low oil prices. Those past decisions are what make today’s high prices such a big problem. In the long run we can adjust, but in the long run …


Guadalupe said...

I was just having a conversation about the public transport in our beloved hometown. The buses run only so far into the neighboring town (to the McDonalds coincidentally) making legs the only option for those without the luxury of a car, which we've sadly lost as a group of people with voices.

WAFER and the many other food pantries that our amazing community have established are accessible by bus, but for someone who lives in Onalaska, the only choice is to walk from their house to the McDonalds and get on the bus to go get food for the week. It's not such a bad option on the way there. However having to walk the 8 miles from McDonald's back home with a heavy box of canned food can become quite the task. This is without adding in rainy or windy days, or the extreme winters we have.

Let's hope it doesn't take high-priced oil to make changes.

spencer said...

Excellent point, Guadalupe. The poor in suburbs and small towns already have a really hard time getting around and high oil prices will make it even worse.