Man Without Qualities

Monday, September 26, 2005


The issue of the broader economic effects of higher gas prices is hotting up, with the President calling for less driving and some analysts arguing that high fuel prices will make for a very difficult 2006.

I do not pretend to understand what the broader effects of gasoline price hikes will be, but I am fairly confident that the President will get his wish that many people will drive less in the short run in response to sharply higher fuel prices.

Anecdotally, the effects already seem rather stunning - especially on weekends. Last Saturday, I drove from Santa Monica to Los Feliz (through downtown Los Angeles on normally clogged freeways) at all times traveling not less than 60 mph except for a minute or so on transition ramps. Yesterday, I drove from Los Feliz to Pasadena at about 5:00 pm and dropped below 60 mph for only a couple of minutes. Each time, I found myself realizing at the end of the trip that I literally could not remember the last time I was able to make that trip at that time of day without encountering considerable traffic. These have not been the only examples of sometimes surprisingly decongested freeways I have encountered since Hurricane Katrina pushed gas prices into the $3 range in these parts.

There's still lots of clogged traffic in Southern California. But at least during periods in which one expects that traffic is mostly discretionary (that is, not mostly people going to work), there does seem to be a noticeable slackening on some freeways. It raises the interesting if expensive question: Just what is the price point of gas that would make the Southern California freeways function the way they did in, say, 1970? Would $5 a gallon do it? For a while I was thinking that Hurricane Rita would allow us to find that out by shutting down, say, 20% of the nation's refining capacity. Then Rita whimped out. Such a price would not even equal what most of the world pay - albeit with lots of taxes.

It's too early to conclude anything as to whether increased gas prices are reducing congestion - and the shopping, recreation and other economic activities that correspond to congestion. But it will certainly be interesting to watch what happens, quite literally on the road.

Comments: Post a Comment