Question of the Week: Is Gas Too Cheap?

CurbedLA recently wrote about a UCLA professor’s suggestion that parking meters should be more expensive, using the fundamental argument of capitalism:

“The price is too high if too many spaces are vacant, and too low if no spaces are vacant.”

Taking this one step further along with a sip of Kool-Aid (or whatever it is Starbucks puts in my latte), I’m wondering is the same idea can’t be applied towards controlling local traffic.

In short, the City of Los Angeles could add an extra $1 tax on every gallon of gas in order in order to encourage citizens to find other means of transportation, ie bikes, the MTA, walking, and car pooling.

There’s a number of other arguments for this – including the additional pressure it would put on finding alternative fuel sources – and no doubt some arguments against it.

But as much as some people complain about the current gas prices, I don’t see it having a signifigant effect on most people’s lifestyles – people are still driving and our streets are as packed as ever.

So, the question isn’t if gas is too expensive, but is it too cheap?

…photo by Donnie Millar, used under Creative Commons

26 Replies to “Question of the Week: Is Gas Too Cheap?”

  1. If it was just the City of Los Angeles, then the lines of cars at gas stations in cities outside of LA borders would be overwhelming.

    It would be nice to live in LA if that’s where you worked, but that doesn’t always happen. Married people don’t always work or go to school in the same places–my wife works near USC, and I go to school in Irvine and teach in Fullerton, so Long Beach is a halfway point for us.

    I’d love to be able to take public transportation, but until there’s an option other than a 3+ hour bus ride (trust me, I’ve checked), I unfortunately have to drive.

  2. Er, sort of forgot to answer the question.

    Looking at other industrialized countries, obviously America’s gas is not expensive. I’d be for a tax on gas that would encourage those that should use public transportation to do so, while paying for solutions to move away from a gasoline economy and more public transportation.

    But taxes like that are most likely regressive–the rich that can afford to pay aren’t really impacted, while the poor bear a heavier burden, percentage-wise, of the taxes.

  3. Yup. I have to agree. Of course, it would mean no fewer hummers on the streets, because those tools can afford an extra 60 bucks whenever they fill up, but rather, it would make people like me and my friends (20 somethings making 20-something) think twice about driving a mile to the store.
    I would like to see gas jacked up until it’s considered a luxury, but I’d also like to see that extra tax go to make a decent rail system in LA.

  4. If it was just the City of Los Angeles, then the lines of cars at gas stations in cities outside of LA borders would be overwhelming.

    Yep. This part I like. We’d be adding traffic to the cities that have elected not to be part of the City of Los Angeles.

    On the flip side, a move like this might make the Valley secede…

  5. I think for this to be fair, mass transit would have to be significantly improved. Right now I live in Ventura and travel to LA via mass transit is very difficult and expensive. Likewise, when I lived in Pasadena, it was very nice for getting to downtown but inefficient elsewhere. I realize there will always be inconveniences in using mass transit but it seems much worse here than in other cities I have visited. It was a near impossibility to get from Pasadena to my parents’ house in Torrance using mass transit, for instance, and would have taken at least 3 hours. The drive is 30 minutes. And for social events, the mass transit stops running too early so it does nothing to decrease the highway 101 “social traffic jam” that develops every Saturday night. Mass transit access to bars and clubs would also decrease drunk driving significantly… When I was making my way from LA back to Pasadena at night (with a designated driver if i was drinking) I almost ALWAYS saw at least one or two drunk drivers on the Pasadena Freeway… which is scary enough to drive on sober.

  6. oh yes, I forgot to add that to get from Ventura to Santa Barbara costs less than 2 dollars on the bus and takes only 45 minutes (where driving takes 30). So it isn’t bad everywhere.

  7. Charlie: Living outside of LA, this would be ideal for you. You could still buy gas at home, but then slide into the city much easier with the reduced traffic.

    Allison: Indeed, this would effect the middle and lower class drivers the most, which is also the problem I have with the suggestion parking meters be priced higher. However, I think that if more people, and a broader constituency, used mass transit, there would naturally be more improvements to it.

    Sansan: Congestion tax! Love the sound of it.

  8. I wouldn’t be opposed to a heavily-increased gas tax… but only if it was phased in after five years in order to pay off the massive multibillion dollar bonds we’d just used to build a mass-transit infrastructure to rival any city out east. Until viable transit alternatives exist for a large percentage of Angelenos – and right now, they don’t – we shouldn’t do things like raise gas taxes because they’ll only hurt the poor and middle class.

  9. Don’t screw with the parking meters. Let’s do something that will help us all even more. Do a CO2 tax….the more emitted the more you have to pay. SUV’s would pay the most, cars less and hybrids even less, and total electric or fuelcells not extra at all. We all win fewer major polluters on the road, the worst offenders paying the most to benefit all of us.
    Screw the manufacturers and those piggy SUV’s make them pay dearly so the rest of can breath cleaner air and have more open parking spaces.
    sigh…I live in a dream world sometimes.

  10. Charlie: Living outside of LA, this would be ideal for you. You could still buy gas at home, but then slide into the city much easier with the reduced traffic.

    doesn’t this sort of thing actually encourage people to live outside of LA and drive in? isn’t that what we’re actually trying to work around? making it less necessary for people to drive.

  11. Yeah, I find these types of arguments pretty ridiculous. People live where they can afford to live and work where they can find work. If that’s in a city that has pathetic public transportation, well then the only way to and fro is by car. If cars with alternative fuels were more readily available, people would buy them–I mean look at the success of Prius. Clearly, there is a market for them and people buy them.

    I hate the “tax and it will make them stop doing it” idea because it does not work and just ends up hurting who it always hurts–the hard working middle class!

  12. Artificially jacking up prices to make expensive alternatives more competitive doesn’t make sense.

    For example, isn’t higher prices one of the arguments against biofuels and electric vehicles? If so, then I’d rather my increased spending go towards that technology, instead of into the general tax coffers.

    Rather than thinking of ways to increase the cost of what we have now, why can’t there be a way to decrease the cost of using alternatives like public transportation? Why can’t more streets be designed for foot and bike traffic? How can higher MPG cars be designed and sold without specious cries of “danger! danger!” thwarting the effort?

    As you noted, increasing the price of gas hasn’t really produced a similar decrease in driving. It might just be that we’ve reached our limit.

    We need to make the alternatives better, we don’t need to make our existing way of doing it any worse. It’s bad enough already.

  13. Benjamin: Please quit with the logic. Such a buzzkill.

    Amie and DB: I’m more opposed to any solution for traffic that involves building more roads or making more cars. And public transportation is affordable and more usable than most people give it credit for – but it has stigma attached, so the people who could best argue for improvements won’t use it until they HAVE to.

  14. Taxing the gross polluters won’t affect the lower and middle classes…we already are buying cars and more often than not…fuel efficient ones that emit little CO2. Take a look at who is driving the ‘Slades, Tahoes and tell me its the poor folks who will be hurt if we aim a shot across their bow to benefit the majority.

  15. ps….my thoughts are a statewide tax with the money going back to transportation that works again.

  16. You know, I was bitching about the inflated price of gas to a friend, and he said “Actually, if you take into account the environmental footprint of all the drilling, transportation, refining and emissions, and the human toll taken in countries where the drilling is done, in health expenses as a result of emissions & processing plants, in corporate, government and individual costs as a result of global warming…it’s actually quite cheap. Underpriced, even.”

  17. David, David, David…put down the Kool-Aid — it’s killing your brain cells. That would be one of the most regressive taxes imaginable, and wouldn’t accomplish a damned thing. LA doesn’t have the public transportation infrastructure to support an idea like that. You and I have both done time back east — there public trasportation is everywhere. Easy to use and accessible. Here, it’s a joke.

    And try having a couple of kids and a spouse, two jobs, two schools, t-ball, grocery shopping for a family — and then try public transportation and carpooling and riding your bike. It doesn’t work.

    And here’s another way to look at it: We have our life in a 4-mile radius around Culver City, so we drive much less than most families in greater LA. From home to my wife’s office is 2-3 miles. It’s another mile to my son’s private school (he’ll never set foot in our LAUSD neighborhood school). Even with errands, we rarely drive more than 100 miles a week.

    So why should pay the extra tax for folks who have to/choose to work downtown and live in Riverside? Or Manhattan Beach to Burbank? If anything, we should get a tax break because we chose to minimize our driving.

  18. Gas prices (and Al Gore) have made me start taking the train from S. Pasadena to Hollywood and Vine – and gotta say I’m loving it. But this is the first job I’ve had (i work in the entertainment thing) where I could take public transportation. Driving takes at least 45 minutes, while the train takes just under an hour. Raise them gas prices and force more of us on them trains. There’s plenty of room – I always get a seat. Then I work/read instead of chewing my knuckles as I go 8 miles an hour through downtown.

  19. “And here’s another way to look at it: We have our life in a 4-mile radius around Culver City, so we drive much less than most families in greater LA. From home to my wife’s office is 2-3 miles. It’s another mile to my son’s private school (he’ll never set foot in our LAUSD neighborhood school). Even with errands, we rarely drive more than 100 miles a week.

    So why should pay the extra tax for folks who have to/choose to work downtown and live in Riverside? Or Manhattan Beach to Burbank? If anything, we should get a tax break because we chose to minimize our driving.”

    But since you’re driving less, you would be experiencing less of the tax burden, would you not?

  20. Markland continues to impress me with the most insane logic on any subject at hand. Every time I read one of his posts I visualize an even dumber version of Maynard G. Krebs.

  21. While raising the price of gas may have the desired effect of reducing traffic, it would certainly raise the price off all goods and services. Nothing get anywhere without a transportation component. Bread does not get from the bakery to the store, Subway, bistro, etc without the use of gas. Clothes do not get from the port to stores with the use of gas. Even movies do not get from the studios to the theater without gas.

    Inexpensive Gasoline is a basic component of our economy. A dramatic increase in price would increase inflationary pressures on the entire economy. You just have to look back to the early ’70s to see how that turns out.

  22. “And public transportation is affordable and more usable than most people give it credit for…”

    Okay, so I just checked the Metro web site to see what it would take for me to get to work by public transport.

    I’d have to leave home two hours earlier, and would get home three hours later than I currently do. It would cost $5.75 round trip for the ~60 mile journey and require a total of 5 transfers. Oh, and in the end I wouldn’t have a car, so doing things like laundry and weekly shopping would be very difficult. And heaven help me if the boss suddenly decides that we’re working late.

    The last three times I took public transportation were each a disaster, including one screaming match with a driver who insisted the bus wasn’t going where I knew it was going. I really want it to work. I hate driving. But there’s a long, long way to go, and raising taxes to drive down usage just doesn’t seem to be the answer.

  23. Crap. Now I’m just depressed. This is worse than when I saw the Magical Subway Map of Dreams and the hangover that followed.

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