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High Gas Prices: The New Normal

The recent per-capita decline in driving - particularly among young people - has been something of an obsession of mine in recent months. (For evidence, see here.) Clark Williams-Derry at the Sightline Institute has a telling chart up that highlights just how much vehicle travel has fallen over the past decade, especially among people under 35 years of age.

Discussions of this shift seemingly always come back to the question of whether it is the result of a voluntary, culture-driven shift in attitudes among young people or is being driven by outside factors: high gas prices, or a sinking economy.

Cultural debates are always fun to have, but from the perspective of setting transportation policy, the source of the shift is irrelevant. If external forces are pushing people to drive less and those forces are not expected to change, policy-makers had better sit up and take notice.

In that vein, the Los Angeles Times tells us today that Americans are expected to spend a record $491 billion - that's with a "b" - on gasoline this year. High prices are entirely to blame; in fact, Americans used less gasoline last year than they did in any year since 2003.

The Times article underscores the tremendous economic toll that fossil fuel dependence has on our economy, one that we highlighted in The High Cost of Fossil Fuels a couple of years ago. It also shows that America cannot regain control of our own energy destiny so long as we remain reliant on oil - the modest impact on prices that would result from increased domestic production, for example, will likely be swamped in future years by the world's increasingly insatiable appetite for oil.

President Obama's recent moves to bolster the fuel economy of our vehicle fleet will hopefully help American families outrun the impact of higher gasoline prices on their family budgets. But we also need to invest in transportation choices that will enable more Americans to have realistic alternatives to driving.

Transportation investments such as the construction of new transit lines, bike lanes and passenger rail services aren't always cheap. But in comparison to the nation's nearly half-trillion dollar a year - and rising - bill for gasoline, they look like a bargain.