Wednesday, December 10, 2008

$1.89

Monday night... trying to get to the Low-Key awards.

I'd run from my office to Stanford to meet Cara at Page Mill and Foothill. It seems that run was the most rapid segment of the trip from there. Cara picked me up at the corner, after a very involved 15 minute exercise in switching from east bound to west bound on Page Mill amidst the brutal evening commute traffic out of Stanford, and we were off for Sunnyvale Sports Basement via 280, 85, 237, and Lawrence Expressway. It's 23 minutes as the Google flies, but it took us almost exactly 60. After somehow missing the exit for 101 on 85, it was at best slow walking pace down 237 until we somehow managed to escape with what shreds of our sanity we could salvage at the Lawrence Expressway exit.

Ah, for the good old days of $4.50/gallon gasoline....

It's a fundamental principle of economics that you tax things you want people to do less of, avoid taxing things you want people to do more of. For example, I think we all agree it's better in every way: congestion, pollution, public safety, noise, and, heck, postponing the destruction of the planet that we drive less, drive smaller vehicles when we must drive, and just generally be more efficient in how we get around. The use of public transit boomed in the summer of soaring gas prices. This is great, right? Short term, sure, crowded buses and trains. But longer term: demand drives supply. More trains, more buses, the shorter waiting times, better service. And with fewer cars on the roads, buses run faster, stay closer to schedule.

But that was then.... Now gas is back well under $2/gallon, a level I never thought I'd see again. Sure, when I do drive, it's nice in a guilty pleasure sense to get off so cheaply. But we pay one way or another. In this case, the price paid was in the traffic. Time lost I could be doing other things. Like actual work which, in theory, contributes to the economy. Or maybe buying stuff at Sports Basement. Or spending time with friends.

We've really got to suck up to the reality that gas taxes are a good thing. It's simply not in anyone's best interest for driving to be cheap, or for driving the farcical behemoths of steel and plastic people consider "transportation" to be even remotely affordable. Really, as a society, we need to ask ourselves where we want to invest our resources. Time is a valuable resource, squandered in so many ways sitting in traffic. Money is another, and if driving is cheap, we need to spend more of it on roads and bridges. And lives are another, in Kuwait and Iraq and... where next?

Tax what you want people to do less of. It's time for this country to have a gas tax which really reflects the externalized costs of driving. A gas tax which takes pressure off other revenue sources, like income and debt. And we're not even remotely close to that right now.

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