I remember when gas prices began their inexorable rise a few years ago, there was a spate of stories asking how high the price of gasoline would have to go before people started changing their behavior. I think we now know the answer: $4 a gallon. As Atrios pointed out earlier today, virtually every newspaper in America is running an article about a flood of commuters flocking to trains or buses.
But for the millions of Americans who work in the suburbs or live in one without trains or inadequate bus service, that's not an option. Clearly, the best way to decrease energy use would be to get more people to live in so-called "livable cities" where stores and entertainment are walkable and where mass transit is also on the table. A place like Pittsburgh, for example. I was thinking about Pittsburgh because of this story I read the other day:
PITTSBURGH — This city has passed a grim demographic milestone: More people are dying here than are being born.
The consequences are widespread:
Hospitals are closing obstetrics wards and converting them to acute care. Local governments and other social service providers are adjusting to the emergence of entire neighborhoods where the average age is soaring, and private foundations are awarding scholarships to retain students and attract new ones.
In Pittsburgh, public school enrollment plummeted from about 70,000 two decades ago to about 30,000 and continues shrinking by about 1,000 a year.
If you've ever spent time in Pittsburgh -- as I did a generation ago as a young journalist for the Washington (Pa.) Observer-Reporter -- you know that it's a city with a number of livable neighborhoods. The mass transit isn't quite as good as here in Philly, and I can't speak so much to the schools there, but I know the crime rate is fairly low for a big city. The New York Times story says a number of neighborhoods are well-kept and dominated now by senior citizens.
So you have to wonder what's the best way to get people out of their gas-guzzling cars and into livable cities like Pittsburgh as the available housing stock rises, and with undercrowded schools. Will the free market solve that problem at $5 gas (or $15 gas), or is their a role for government in encouraging re-population of these shrinking cities, without hurting the folks who live there now.
It's the kind of issue -- tying urban renewal to energy policy -- that nobody was talking about when gas was $1.34 a gallon. But we should be talking about it now, right?