Would you like to stop worrying about gas prices?
Updated: Oct 21
Gas prices are back in the news and things don’t look good, just when they were getting back to normal. In a few days or weeks we’ll once again be outraged, even though gas doesn’t make up a huge share of our spending and virtually everything we buy has increased in price more than gas. Some of the anxiety over fuel prices comes from seeing the rising price at every intersection. But a lot of it comes from the powerlessness we feel.
We’ve become addicted to driving, and our federal, state and local governments enabled us. America in general, and Oklahoma in particular, spends too much on convenience and capacity for cars and too little on other modes of transportation that are cheaper, safer, and healthier. We’ve also encouraged urban sprawl, enticing us to live further and further from where we work, go to school, or shop. Sometimes it feels as if our second home is our car.
What if we changed all that? The benefits of driving less would be felt in the wallet, the doctor’s office, and our quality of life. We wouldn’t just save money on gas. Less driving means fewer accidents, which means lower insurance costs. We’d also save on tires and maintenance and our cars would last longer. Less driving would improve our health, reduce air pollution in our neighborhoods, and reduce greenhouse gasses worldwide. More than a quarter of US greenhouse gasses comes from transportation and more than half of that is from personal vehicles. We'd also save time. the one thing we know we don't have enough of. A ten-minute increase in commute time cuts your social connections by 10 percent. It will take both individual action and collaboration to get started on recovery.
Break the cycle of road construction and traffic
As is so often the case, the first and easiest step will be to stop doing harm. We need to stop building roads. Oklahoma has way, way more roads and highways than we need. A state’s population and land area determine how much road capacity it needs. Comparing all 50 states, it turns out Oklahoma has about 90,000 (61 percent) more lane-miles of road than its population and area justify. Lane-miles is a little obtuse, so let’s look at this in practical terms: the roads we’ve built in excess of our needs take up the same space as 3 million 1,900 square foot houses!
Here's an example of unneeded street capacity. Classen Boulevard in Oklahoma City has six lanes but only two have cars on them at 8 am on a recent weekday morning. In the distance you can see the only congested area is caused by a traffic signal, which is usually the case in our cities.
What’s done is done, but we don’t need to keep doing it. We should stop expanding our traffic network in any way–no more lanes, no new highways, no new exits, and definitely no more toll roads or lanes! We’ll start limiting the damage we do to our environment and our lives. We’ll also save a ton of money; Oklahoma spends about $1.6 billion per year on road construction, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. We can use the savings to maintain the roads we have and to build better transportation alternatives.
Wait, what? Won’t traffic get unbearable if we don’t keep expanding roads? Well, actually it will get worse if we keep building them, as it has for decades. That’s because of induced demand. If we increase our road capacity by ten percent, driving will increase by the same amount!
Oklahomans deserve real choices in how we get around
Oklahoma has to start providing realistic alternatives to driving. According to state and local government financial information that all states send to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma spends just $26 per person per year on public transit services, compared to the national average of $242. We spend 26 times as much on highways and streets as on transit. So it’s no wonder those of us who have a choice usually drive. We’re making bad choices by not funding transit systems. Public transit saves energy and reduces traffic congestion. Transit also makes us healthier, by reducing air pollution and giving us a bit more exercise.
We need to make the same statewide commitment to transit as we do to roads. Tulsa and Oklahoma City and some suburbs have made real progress in the last few years, making service more frequent, faster, and easier to understand. But all our transit systems lack a reliable funding source. We must build and operate transit systems in every community and start connecting large cities with frequent passenger bus and rail service. We also need to eliminate fares to make transit service faster and less intimidating, increase ridership, and reduce administrative costs. The loss of revenue would be minimal.
In the same vein, it’s time to restore full school bus service to every student in every community across the state. If you ever go by an elementary school at starting or ending time, you’ve seen the crawling line of parents wasting their time and gas budget; let’s give them a more convenient and efficient option.
Here's the afternoon backup at an elementary school near my house. So far I haven't been pitiful enough to count cars or time, but a wild guess is that 100 cars wait here for ten minutes twice a day. That's 60 hours of idling that wouldn't happen if we had school bus service to every neighborhood.
We can also provide much better support for those who would like to walk or bicycle to get around. There is no excuse for streets without sidewalks, yet we don’t build enough sidewalks or bike lanes and we don’t maintain the ones we do build. We’re making progress on bicycle trails for recreation but falling short on bicycle lanes and other safe ways to get to work, school, and shopping. Tulsa’s doing a good job of converting some of their nearly always empty downtown streets into safe bikeways, but there’s a lot left to do! We can continue to convert lanes into safe bikeways and we can lower speed limits to the point that cyclists have a fair chance of getting there without being hit.
Oklahoma is designed to make you drive more
We also have to throw out the way we’ve been designing our cities and towns. Urban sprawl forces us to drive more, and that means longer commutes, more traffic jams, higher greenhouse gas emissions, and more air pollution. It drives up a lot of other costs than just for transportation, by requiring more and longer water, sewer, electric, and broadband lines. We pay extra for sprawl every time we jump in a car or pay a utility bill!
American cities lead the world in sprawl. Have a look at the population density (how many people live in an average square mile) for us and the rest of the world. And Oklahoma is a sprawl leader in our own country. Of the 55 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., only 6 are less densely populated than Oklahoma City (and naturally, Tulsa is one of them).
As with transportation policy, the first step in land use policy should be to quit doing harm. While land use is generally governed by local governments, it’s too easy for local officials to be railroaded by home builders, road contractors, and land speculators. So state legislators will have to be the bad guys here. An easy place to start is to ban minimum parking (and driveway and garage) mandates for houses and businesses. That will make cities more livable and cooler, reduce rents, and increase transit use. Another tough but necessary step is drawing the line (literally) on sprawl. The state should put a five- or ten-year ban on extending or expanding roads and water and sewer utilities (including new septic tanks and wells). We also should keep cities from annexing rural areas and not allow any new cities to incorporate in those areas.
Here's what minimum parking mandates give us: empty pavement. I've never seen this Lowe's lot even half full. There's enough extra room for a few dozen homes or for every other business on this block. Or, god forbid, green space.
We have long-term options to reduce our gasoline addiction
Over time, smart transportation policy will help us use less gas. We should reduce idling, which wastes at least $11 billion in gas every year and increases both air pollution and wear and tear on our cars. We should not allow any additional drive-throughs or traffic signals and stop signs. We should adopt California’s higher fuel efficiency standard for new cars. Nationally, we’ve saved $5 trillion on gas in the 40 years of federal fuel efficiency standards. Imagine filling up last June if your car got the 12 miles per gallon that was common in the 1960s!
We should also reduce and enforce speed limits. Driving 80 instead of 50 mph is the equivalent of paying $1.20 more for every gallon of gas. And while we all have the choice of driving 50, that will not be a good experience when everyone around us is buzzing by at 80. We can also encourage conservation with higher gas taxes (which could fund alternative transportation and/or reduce other taxes) and higher tolls (which can generate huge amounts of money to supplement and perhaps even replace turnpikes with rail service).
There are also long-term land use policy changes that will reduce fuel use, but they will seem pretty drastic to some. First, we’ll need to eliminate single-family housing zoning or allow at least two dwellings on every residential lot. Then more of us can live closer to school, work and shopping. That makes transit more feasible in your neighborhood. For the same reason, we’ll need to encourage denser housing by making it easier to live in nonresidential buildings and re-use commercial and industrial buildings for housing. We should also require neighborhood design that reduces driving and encourages other options by banning cul-de-sacs and dead ends and requiring each subdivision have exits in at least four directions. We should also increase property taxes on vacant land and large lots in cities to encourage more building in established neighborhoods.
Government helped make us gas addicts; it can help treat us, too
We didn’t become gas addicts by accident. We got sold a way of life that revolves around sprawling cities and constant driving, and now we’re hooked. We don’t have to be, though. It’s as easy or easier to get out of this mess as it was to get into it, but it will take people who demand that cities and transportation systems serve our needs, not the “needs” of builders, contractors, real estate agents, and oil companies and the politicians who depend on them. If we really want to spend less on gas and live in cleaner, healthier, safer, and more pleasant places, we have to be those people.
An earlier version of this article was published in The Oklahoma Observer. You can check it out , subscribe, or donate here.