THINK $4.30 A GALLON IS TOO MUCH to pay for gasoline? Try $9.04 a gallon, the going rate in the United Kingdom, or $10.15, the price in the Netherlands. Why the difference? Europeans pay far higher fuel taxes than Americans, and not strictly out of necessity. Norway, for instance, is one of the world's largest oil exporters, yet it levies one of the world's highest gas taxes. Sounds awful, but it takes just one trip to Western Europe to see the colossal upside—better transit; denser, more walkable cities; and inherently green architecture. In the U.S., the fuel tax varies by state, with a national average of 49.4 cents per gallon as of July 1, according to the American Petroleum Institute. That's next to nothing, and if the automobile industry got its way, which it's pretty good at, we'd pay even less.
I think we should pay even more. Europe learned its lesson following the energy crises of the 1970s, raising taxes on gasoline to change consumer habits and reduce reliance on foreign providers. Meanwhile, the U.S. effectively returned to business as usual. We didn't just keep fuel taxes low, we allowed Detroit to drag its feet on fuel efficiency, Congress to starve Amtrak and public transportation, developers to build outward instead of upward, and OPEC member nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran to gain the upper hand. For the most part, we voted in favor of these strategies, both at the polls and with our pocketbooks.
Those days are over. Suddenly, thankfully, Americans are paying attention to the cost of energy, and we're changing our habits. Better yet, we're breaking some very bad habits.
For starters, car sales are at a 10-year low. The Big Three automakers are awakening from their SUV-induced stupors and scrambling to meet the leaping demand for leaner, more fuel-efficient alternatives. The Hummer Mini, perhaps?
For suburbanites, already rocked by the housing crisis, rising gas prices feel like a disaster. The daily commute costs more and more, which is especially frightening for low-income families who can't afford to trade in older gas-guzzlers for newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Even public transit fares are climbing (though buses and trains remain the cheaper, greener alternative). The trickle-down effect just doesn't stop, reaching right down to the cost of a pound of rice.
As difficult as the current situation may seem, rising fuel prices do come with a bright side. They're reinforcing significant trends such as a growing preference for urban living and, in suburban areas, for higher-density development and pro-density zoning reform. Transit ridership is up, despite the fare hikes. The United States transformed itself into a suburban, automobile-based society in the decade or so following World War II, and we can just as easily undo the damage. A higher fuel tax is one way of reinforcing these positive trends, and in turn it could subsidize the expansion of our nation's railroads and public transportation systems and help to jump-start the economy.
Where transportation goes, development follows. And development means architecture. Much of this construction will take the form of renovation (a good thing), as formerly industrial urban areas continue to be converted into homes and offices and as suburban structures like malls and big-box stores take on new lives. And consumers and developers alike are paying heed to the economic benefits of sustainability. Saving the planet is wonderful, but saving money is what really motivates change.
Change is more than possible. It's just months away. As the 2008 presidential election approaches, pay particularly close attention to the candidates' energy platforms. Look for positive signs like increased investment in alternative fuels, higher corporate taxes for oil companies, and, yes, higher gas taxes. Look, listen, then vote wisely.
Editor in Chief
Cruel and Unusual “The Future of Incarceration” [June 2008] failed to delve into the design and social justice issues inherent in the proposed reopening and expansion of the Brooklyn House of Detention, which will put back into commission more than 750 cells that were designed and built in the 1950s as isolated cages. Today the [New York City] commissioner of corrections considers these cells to be crucial because they are “the city's most secure” and, under new federal regulations, can no longer be replicated in this manner. I cringe at the thought of housing human beings, most of whom have not yet been convicted, and many of whom are mentally ill, in these outdated facilities.