In the frenzied reaction to high gas prices at the pump, everyone has their favorite villain: Oil companies. Joe Biden. Vladimir Putin. Enviros. Saudis. What’s gotten lost is the source of America’s addiction to gas.
About a century ago, automobile, oil, and tire companies sold us on building our cities and towns around the car, junking the timeless lessons of the previous 5,000 years of walkable, human-scaled places. Madison Avenue packaged an alluring vision of the open road, Sunday drives, and outdoing the Joneses with the latest model. General Motors mesmerized 12.5 million Americans with its Futurama pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. As the Depression was lifting and another world war was looming, Futurama modeled an autopia of single-family subdivisions, shopping centers, and business parks, all connected by swiftly flowing highways. In distant foxholes and on war industry assembly lines, GI Joes and Rosey the Riveters daydreamed about putting a down payment on their patch of Futurama. Eventually, a million Americans were bulldozed from their homes and businesses to build the urban highways that enabled a gas-guzzling lifestyle for suburban commuters.
Over time, auto dependence became so ingrained as to seem normal. We put up with the cost of transportation surpassing the cost of food. We accepted the ugly crudscape of drive-throughs, big-box stores, and seas of parking. We internalized the stresses of road rage and commuting ennui. We relegated those who couldn’t drive (too young, too old, too poor or disabled) to second-class citizenship. We continued to widen highways to pharaonic scales, inducing more demand in a doomed effort to escape congestion. Despite occasional dips for recessions or global oil shocks, U.S. consumption of gas rose inexorably, from 50 billion gallons annually in the 1950s to 100 billion gallons by the early 1970s, climbing to nearly 150 billion gallons in 2019.
No matter the damage to our own wallets, to our national economy, and to the planet, we just can’t seem to shake our gas addiction, leaving us at the mercy of world events and corporate oligopolies.
Despite increasingly stringent fuel consumption standards and the shift to hybrids and electric cars, America’s gasoline consumption has nearly bounced back to the 2019 pre-COVID peak. Why? Larger vehicles, driven further. No matter the damage to our own wallets, to our national economy, and to the planet, we just can’t seem to shake our gas addiction, leaving us at the mercy of world events and corporate oligopolies.
It all connects back to sprawl. But it’s not just new houses springing up on the remote urban fringe. What’s driving all this is the ubiquitous dead hand of the past, the obsolete government codes that continue to mandate wide roads, subsidized parking, and separated uses, even in urban core environments. While President Biden was surrendering to the clamor to relax the gas tax, former President Obama felt liberated to put his finger on the real problem. Speaking to the annual AIA convention in Chicago, Obama stated it bluntly: “Sprawl in America is not good for our climate. So we have to think about creating livable density that allows us to take mass transit and take bicycles and walk.”
Yes! Compact communities that enable walking, biking, and transit. Urbanists have been advocating for this vision for nearly a half century. Is this finally our teachable moment?
The racist roots of conventional zoning have been laid bare. We know that artificial zoning and parking restrictions drive up the cost of housing. There is no doubt that separating uses makes us dependent on driving for the simplest of daily necessities. Sprawl is responsible for a whole host of problems: it divides us by race and income; puts home ownership out of reach of young families; imposes unbearable rent burdens on the poor and working class; forces us to spend too much on gas; and stokes climate change.
In his searing new book, Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It, planner and author Nolan Gray writes: “Zoning assumes universal car-ownership and all the emissions and traffic violence this entails. It does so by strictly segregating uses—no more corner groceries in neighborhoods—and forcing developers to build giant parking garages even in contexts where most residents or employees might prefer to bicycle or take the train. If you have ever wondered why more Americans don’t walk or ride buses to work, as in most other developed countries, the simple answer is that it is illegal. In most American cities, zoning prohibits the densities needed to support regular business service, let alone light-rail. The type of walkable, mixed-use, reasonably dense development patterns that might help to ameliorate climate change—patterns that prevailed before the twentieth century—are outright prohibited under most American zoning codes. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way.”
What more do we need to know? Americans are notoriously crisis-driven. Winston Churchill is frequently cited as observing, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” Are we not at that point?
The temptation always is to fall back on cynicism. The crisis will pass, prices will come down and we can persevere in our folly. But if that happens, we know who’s to blame. As Cassius tells his reluctant friend in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Featured image via Flicker.