We Americans are a resourceful lot. Faced with soaring gas prices, we are doing everything we can think of to ease the hit to the household budget.
We're hopping buses, boarding trains, and slipping on our walking shoes. We're looking for houses in walkable and bikeable communities with access to public transit, where our life savings won't be held hostage by each uptick in the cost of gasoline. We're finding innovative and clever ways to limit our fuel consumption on a daily basis, consolidating our errands and carpooling to work.
As we look for ways to reduce our gas bills, though, we are discovering disconcerting truths about our landscape and transportation network. Many of our transit systems, short-changed over the years and facing their own high fuel bills, are having a hard time keeping up with the rising demand. The supply of homes in convenient locations near jobs – whether stand-alone houses, townhouses or condos – is far below the demand. And many of us – the majority, in fact – find ourselves living in a drive-only landscape, where we must burn gas even to reach a transit stop, if one exists.
One other truth has become abundantly clear: We cannot drill our way out of this situation.
The calls from the president and some lawmakers to lift our longstanding ban on new offshore drilling or open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would do nothing to help Americans cope right now with the costs of gas. Many experts estimate it would take up to 10 years to begin producing offshore if we lifted the ban today. Even with that, the amount of crude produced would supply the U.S. for a mere 18 months – not nearly enough oil to affect the price in the international market, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
But what the American public already has discerned is that the only sure-fire way to reduce our vulnerability is to reduce our need to consume oil and gasoline. Unwilling to wait for government action, Americans are taking matters into their own hands.
Seeking a cheaper commute, we are turning to transit. Public transportation ridership is at its highest point in 50 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association. To eliminate those painful visits to the pump, we're trimming our car trips: Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer highway miles in April 2008 than in April 2007, the first drop in nearly 30 years.
Looking to live closer to work, we're searching for homes near urban centers. The Associated Press reported last week that 78 percent of more than 900 Coldwell Banker real estate agents surveyed said that high gas prices were increasing their clients' desires to live in cities. Meanwhile, the McMansion in the partially built subdivision in a distant suburb is the real estate equivalent of the over-sized SUV: They are becoming increasingly difficult to unload.
Responding to constituents' calls for help, the U.S. House Thursday voted overwhelmingly for the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act, authorizing $1.7 billion over two years to help transit agencies stave off fare increases and keep pace with ballooning ridership.
While critically important and timely, this measure is only a minor down-payment on what is required to meet the growing demands on our transportation network. Still needed, urgently, is relief for residents of small cities and rural areas.
Longer term, we have to keep pace with demands for public transit, and give this country a reason to be proud of its high-speed trains, light-rail lines, and both rapid and conventional bus transit. We need to make more of our streets safe and convenient for walking and biking to work, school, shops and transit stops. We have to create incentives for developers to invest in our close-in suburbs and urban centers, to meet the huge demand for affordable homes in convenient locations. Americans are not dumb: We would much rather invest in well-located real estate than in gasoline.
We are tired of feeling like victims – whether of oil companies, poor planning, or a lack of vision. We are ready for innovative change, if only our leaders will follow us.
Parris N. Glendening is President of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute. Prior to his current role, Mr. Glendening spent eight years as Governor of the state of Maryland, where he made the environment, especially smart growth education and inclusiveness, the heart of his agenda. He led the creation of a groundbreaking smart growth initiative that focused on using the entire $23 billion state budget as an incentive for smart growth.