In Europe, cities are dense and compact, public transportation is plentiful and convenient, and gasoline prices are high. In the United States, cities sprawl, public transit is, on average, difficult to come by, and gas is cheap.
Digression: Whoa! Since when is $4 per gallon cheap, you say? Sure, it’s the price of gold compared to Venezuela’s 12 cents or Libya’s 52 cents per gallon. And admittedly it is almost 15% higher than last year. But U.S. gas is still about half the price of gas in other industrialized countries.
So, getting back to urban form, transit, and gas. Is there a relationship? And if there is, what is it?
Does expensive gas lead to transit-oriented, compact urbanism?
- A study by the American Public Transportation Association predicts that as U.S. gas prices increase, so will U.S. use of public transit;
- Glenn Setzer of Mortgage News Daily sees evidence that higher pump prices could result in revitalized urban centers and increased transportation options;
- CNNMoney reports that Lee Schipper, of the World Resources Institute’s Center for Sustainable Transport, believes that high European gas taxes (which constitute about half of the price of European gas) have discouraged automobiles and encouraged denser European cities. On the other hand, Danny Ellerman of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, counters that Europe’s public transportation infrastructure was already built before the gas tax was implemented in the 1920s.
Perhaps it is a case of more than one chicken and more than one egg. In the first two decades of the 20th century, the United States had extensive train and urban street-car networks. The difference arose in the inter-war years, when the United States government chose not to tax gasoline, and simultaneously began subsidizing road building and housing. At the same point in history, European governments chose high gasoline taxes and subsidies for public transportation.
So, if that is where we are coming from, the question now is: where do you think we are going??