Today I was on the road. I had to gas up, and the station where I stopped was selling regular unleaded for $3.85 and premium unleaded for $4.15 a gallon. Filling up cost me almost $60. Ouch! And I drive a pretty fuel-efficient sedan, not a truck, or van, or SUV. In short, we are well past the fifty-buck fill-up and are rapidly moving into uncharted territory. I don’t even want to think about what gas prices will be when the typically heavy driving summer months arrive.
I don’t sense that gas prices are really on the radar screen in Washington, D.C., and I find myself wondering whether that seeming lack of interest has a geographic basis. Most East Coast cities have established, easily accessible, and often subsidized mass transit systems; they also have other qualities that discourage car use — like limited, hyper-expensive parking and constant gridlock. As a result, Eastern city-dwellers don’t drive much. When Kish and I lived in D.C. in the ’80s, we never drove anywhere. It was too easy to take the Metro, or walk. We could go weeks without filling up our one car. As a result, gas prices didn’t make much of an impression on us.
In the Midwest, it’s different. Outside of Chicago, few cities have any kind of meaningful mass transit. A few green, economy-minded folks — like my friend The Conservative — take the bus, but most people don’t see that as a viable alternative. (And I doubt that even the most green D.C. policymakers would take a city bus, either, if the Metro weren’t around.) In the Midwest, the car is the primary mode of transportation, and because the cities are spread out, people tend to drive farther and need to fill up more frequently. If you are someone who lives in one of the outer suburbs, or commutes from a neighboring town like Springfield, the impact of steadily increasing fuel prices is even more profound.
I think there is a reasonable chance that many bureaucrats and politicians simply don’t comprehend the true effect of $4 a gallon gas on those of us who live in the heartland. They see gas prices as a kind of manipulable commodity that can be hiked up to encourage stubborn people to use mass transit or buy a new, more fuel-efficient car. But in the depressed Midwest, often those aren’t realistic options. We have to drive our current cars to get to work, and higher gas prices inflict real economic pain. And, incidentally, when gas prices increase we need to cut our spending somewhere else — so if gas prices stay high, or get even higher, don’t look to us to engage in the kind of consumer spending that some are hoping will pull the economy out of the lingering recession.