Monday, March 11, 2013

The Transportation Bubble

Referring to something as a "bubble" seems to be the trendy alarmist thing to do nowadays.  "Debt" Bubble.  "Fed" Bubble.  "Second Housing" Bubble.  The description implicitly puts the listener on the brink of collapse; one in which they have very little control, but a lot to lose.

I'm going to use the term all the same.

Slate recently put out an interactive map (H/T: JT) that allows users to look at their commute time compared against surrounding zip codes.  The average commute time for Ellicott City is between 30 and 35 minutes.  The same is true for the heart of Columbia.  If you live out in Dayton, your average commute time is closer to 40 minutes.  If you focus out from your individual zip code, you'll notice that Howard County has a port-wine-stain-esque mark across the Western flank, as you move west from Baltimore and north from D.C.  I presume that some of these folks would fit the definition of megacommuters with over 90 minutes driving time per way.

The national average is 25.4.  "Howard County, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all of our commute times are above average."

The average Marylander pays about $4,200 per year on gasoline alone, and that is at an average price of about $3.50/gallon.

But how about this - the United States spends approximately $30 to $60 billion a year on oil and gas subsidies and tax breaks.  Environmental interests have argued that the removal of these subsidies would not affect the price at the tank, but more conservative thinkers have projected that removed of all federal support, gas would go up to as much as $12 gallon (the cost of gasoline is dependent on so many different factors, including what price the market can tolerate, that it is near impossible to project this out competently).  For all intents and purposes, these subsidies are most likely permanent, but in an age of sequester, who can say?

So this leads to the question of - what happens when people can't afford to drive to work anymore?  This isn't necessarily that much of an extreme question.  I specifically recall during the summer of 2008 having to cut back on planned travel because the $100+ implicit in a trip up and back from New Jersey just wasn't in the budget.  But what happens when the cut-backs encroach on necessary travel?

The Maryland legislature is about to pass a transportation funding package that, most likely, will be very heavy on road construction and expansion.  Mass transportation will get scraps, the red line with get "study", and there will be no fundamental changes to the way we get to work.

We can talk about the benefits of telecommuting as the future of the 9-5 (or for my generation: the whenever-you-get-started to the whenever-you-get-done).  That is the new normal, but it has had little effect on the escalating commute times for you and your neighbors.  Transportation infrastructure takes so long to develop that whenever gas prices become too high and we need an alternative way to get to work and produce, it will most likely be too late.  We will have acres of empty roads.

And the alternative is not much better.  Let's say innovations in renewable energy and fossil fuel production make gas cheaper.  More people can drive bigger vehicles to work!  By themselves!  How much space are we willing to dedicate to idling cars cursing out a reckless motorist?

There will come a time, hopefully soon, when our leaders stop trying to implement yesterday's solutions to the problems of tomorrow.  That is such a trite phrase, but it has no better application than the subject of transportation.  "Well when people need to get sum-err we just build a road, ya see.  And den dey use dat road to get to the udder place.  And when dey need to get sum-err else we just build another road.  It's really pretty simple."  Yes.  Yes it is.

Announcement: This Friday, Mach 15, from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm, there will be an Open House at Children's Time Preschool in King's Contrivance.  You all know that I don't normally post in text advertisements, but I was intrigued by the Children's Time model: "Children's Time is a non-profit, private co-operative preschool, which means the parents are the owners and operators."  Neat!

That's all for today.  Please be careful on the roads.  As you have undoubtedly heard, daylight savings has been correlated to increased traffic accidents...probably by people trying to reset their daggone car radio clock.

Have a great Monday doing what you love!