High Gas Prices Fuel California Quality of Life Improvement. Come Again?4 min read

Out-of-sight fuel costs are contributing to Californian’s quality of life improvement. Yes, you heard correctly.

The naked truth: Consistent with rising gas prices, people are driving less. This has been evidenced starting with the period of precipitous decline in motor vehicle usage beginning in November, 2007. Meanwhile, public transit has been seeing a sharp rise in patronage numbers. Are the two connected?

According to the Federal Highway Administration, drivers drove some 12.2 billion fewer miles in June this year compared to the same period a year ago and represents a 4.7 percentage-point drop. From November ’07 through this past June, Americans drove 53.2 billion fewer miles compared with the same period a year earlier, the highway agency noted. Meanwhile, according to the American Public Transportation Association, 10.3 billion trips on public transit were taken in 2007, the highest level in half a century.

The fewer miles driven in turn eased traffic congestion and gridlock and that in itself, led to slightly improved air quality as a result of fewer greenhouse gas emissions being spewed into the atmosphere. This, in turn, leads to somewhat improved quality of life for many.

“In addition, public transportation is a key part of the solution to decreasing greenhouse gases and meeting our national goal of energy independence,” said APTA president William W. Millar. “When more people ride public transportation, there are more reductions in carbon emissions and our country is less dependent on foreign oil.”

End of subject? Far from it.

Reaching the tipping point

For quite some time and to a considerable extent in the Los Angeles basin, once productive and fertile ag-land had been replaced by suburban and exurban (residential and commercial) sprawl. This land-use characteristic or process gravitated north, unfortunately. A visit to any good-sized Valley based metropolis from Bakersfield to Modesto reveals an uncanny horizontal growth resemblance to that of L.A.’s, only not on as big a scale. At the time of their commencements, it no doubt made perfect sense for Valley based communities to spread out in this manner. The San Joaquin Valley is flat. Immediately after the railroads reached and traversed California’s central interior, the business and residential communities set up camp with outlying areas devoted to the business of agriculture for providing food and other important crops needed to sustain human life. All these municipalities thus became almost totally self-sufficient, L.A. included.

This pattern of growth for both the Los Angeles and Central Valley regions continues, in spite of gray and brown haze often replacing clear blue skies and the San Gabriel and Sierra Nevada ranges frequently hidden from view. For a time and to a certain degree, the same scenario made a like impact in the South Bay Area.

A letter writer in the 8/15/08 Fresno Bee writes: “Having lived in the Fresno area more than 40 years, I have noted the increasing pollution in our air. To no longer be able to see the glorious Sierra Nevada should be a wake-up call to all of us who reside in the San Joaquin Valley.” What’s more, the writer writes: “As the mother of a young child, I am very concerned about the quality of life he (Fresno’s Patricia Wolf Kincade’s son) and all other children in our world will inherit. We must think of them and make the changes needed to secure their futures.”

And those needed changes?

The implications

A unhealthy environment precludes everything else. Bad air for those who are subjected to it, have no choice but to breathe it. From what I’ve read, lung and heart function are reduced and life itself is shortened as a consequence. On the other hand, an environment free of pollutants should allow for a far superior quality of life for all.

One way to work toward and achieve a healthier environment is through mitigating efforts such as reduced vehicle operation. And one way to achieve reduced vehicle operation is via a greater dependence on public transportation. The higher price of gas was an impetus in fostering this outcome. According to the APTA, “Overall, the rapid increase in fuel prices is clearly having a notable impact on agency operations.”

For our own good?

Here’s the $64 million question: Now that the price of gas has fallen, will people who switched to more environmentally sound methods of getting around when the price of gas was close to $5 per gallon in some locales, revert back to their former ways? After all, old habits die hard, don’t they? For all our sakes and in the name of quality of life improvement, I sure hope not.

Alan Kandel is a concerned California resident advocating for new, improved and expanded freight (and passenger) rail service. He is a retired railroad signalman previously employed by the Union Pacific Railroad in Fremont, California.