There is some discussion where I live about whether the amount people drive is "elastic"- whether people drive less and look for alternatives if the prices of fuel go up. In the last Provincial election where I live, the leader of the party I support ran on a platform I couldn't support, calling for the removal of a tax on gasoline and heating, suggesting that people had no choice, that demand was inelastic.
But a new American study by Bradley Lane of the University of Texas at El Paso contradicts this, even in cities and towns with lousy transit. According to Eric Jaffe in the Atlantic,
Your electricity. Your home heating. Gas for your car. You can cut a lot from your household budget, but everyone needs to heat their home, keep the lights on and commute to work.
All told, Lane found a pretty strong link between changes in gas prices and shifts in transit ridership. Every 10 percent increase in fuel costs led to an increase in bus ridership of up to 4 percent, and a spike in rail travel of up to 8 percent. These results suggest a "significant untapped potential" for transit ridership, Lane reports in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Transport Geography. In other words, a significant part of America's love for the automobile may only be its desire for inexpensive transportation.
But what is most surprising is the reaction by drivers in seriously car-oriented communities, where you would think people would stay in their cars no matter what the cost because there are so few alternatives.
Most notably, he found big behavioral responses to gas prices in places like Omaha, Des Moines, Kansas City, and Indianapolis — cities one typically thinks of as car-centric. "What that tells me is that there is actually a greater sensitivity to fluctuation of gasoline costs in cities that tend to be more auto-dependent," says Lane. "That to me is very interesting. People will go to transit even when there really isn't much transit to go to."
It is pretty straightforward: Increase gas prices and people drive less and look for alternatives. Decrease them and they drive more. What's the green thing to do?
More in the Atlantic