Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Car Talk and Gas Taxes

In this world of contradictions, I remain a Car Talk junky. I was surprised to hear the call for a graduated $3.00 gas tax coming from Car Talk's Ray Magliozzi. Today, I was pointed toward the mail received from listeners about the proposal. The responses are perhaps not surprising, but I find them engaging reading anyway.

A common response to an increased gas tax (or any increase in the price of driving) is that it is unfair to those who have to drive. "Have to drive" usually doesn't mean either "I use my vehicle for work" or "I am physically unable to get around any other way." It usually means the person commutes a long distance or lives in a rural area. "What am I supposed to do?" In a recent survey by a student of mine, a respondent noted that he had to commute 30 miles each way to his job. How is he supposed to use less fuel?

Don't I remember from middle school geography that the U.S. is really mobile? Well, what happened? Why is it that moving closer to jobs/schools/grocery stores is out of the question? Too expensive? Maybe in some cities, but expensive cities are usually the ones with decent mass transit. Not to mention, saving 60 commuting miles per day would give a family a couple hundred dollars more each month for mortgage or rent. Unfair? Smokers pay more taxes than the rest of us, but no one seems to ask "What are they supposed to do?"

Comments welcome.


Anonymous Jim said...

I enjoy Car Talk, also.

I hadn't thought about this explicitly in terms of Americans' mobility. But that's an interesting angle. In the 1940s through the 1970s, at least in the industrial midwest where I'm from, lots of white people showed their mobility by leaving Detroit, Cleveland and other big cities for the suburbs. The reason they did it was obvious enough to have a name: white flight. Now, the reason why people continue to move outward from central business districts is more subtle, but it has something to do with the perception of low real estate prices in the exurbs, and probably a certain amount of avoidance of crime in the inner city. In rural areas, like where I grew up, driving sixty miles to get anywhere is considered a fact of life. Nobody walks as far as a quarter-mile for any reason. The "brain drain" in these places is evident, and has been the focus of many government sponsored incentives to keep young people from leaving. Even among low-income people of minority groups, I constantly hear about people moving here or there in search of greener pastures.

All of these examples demonstrate that mobility is alive and well in this country. Middle class people continue to expand the limits of suburbia, rural youth who manage to get educated are out seeking better local economies and richer local cultures, and even low income folks can find the motivation and means to move around. Obviously, some people who are entrenched in a particular location don't enjoy the prospect of moving their lives. But refusal to acknowledge realities, and staying in an isolated area, is going to become less and less feasible in the near future, regardless of whether any new gas taxes are imposed.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Osman said...

If you define mobility as relocating to greener pastures, not a willingness to stomach longer commutes, I doubt mobility will be impacted substantially by higher gas prices. It's deeply embedded in the American psyche.

For the past 25 years or so, the automotive industry has done little to improve fuel efficiency. Gas has been extraordinarily cheap and consequently, the industry has been entirely focused on developing more powerful/larger vehicles.

My primary car is a 18 year old mercedes 300E. The new entry level C class is about the same size as my midlevel E class and the new E class is about the same size as the older S class. Mercedes is hardly the only example. Look across the board at all manufacturers and you'll find larger, more powerful vehicles have replaced older, smaller, less powerful cars.

It doesn't have to be this way. The market will respond to price increases by producing more fuel efficient vehicles. When fuel prices rise to 5-6/gal, consumers and industry will respond. If the peak oil people are right, this is inevitable. If it's caused by taxation, I just hope the receipts are used wisely (subsidized mass transit, reducing greenhouse emissions, etc).

p.s. I also love car talk, all manner of vehicles AND of course cycling too. Always thought it was a strange combo of interests, but maybe not.

10:59 AM  
Blogger Kent Peterson said...

I'm another car-free Car Talk fan. First off, it's just plain funny. Second, those guys are about solving problems and I like problem-solvers. And finally, hearing about all the woes people have with their cars just reminds me of the many reasons I feel I'm better off being car-free.

And where else can you yell "it's vapor lock!" at your radio? (Yeah, I try to beat Tom and Ray to the diagnosis, doesn't everyone?)

Don't ride like my brother...


9:22 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I've had similar discussions with co-workers about distance to work, but it had to do with snow storms. "Why should I have to give up a vacation day because of the weather?" Move closer, and the snow would be less of a problem.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

Motorcycles get a lot better mileage than cars. If its too far to bike, ride a motorcycle.

9:51 AM  

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