Not so brave in this new world

I gave up driving when I moved to San Francisco five years ago, because I hate driving, and a monthly bus pass means I can go anywhere in the city with something approaching efficiency for a little more than $500 a year — way less than car payments or gas or insurance (to say nothing of the three combined!). So my Exxon stop today before returning the weekend’s rental car was the first time I’ve gassed up a gar in ages, meaning it’s the first time I’ve experienced that nauseating knot in the stomach as you watch your price tally streak toward ten bucks as the volume indicator ambles leisurely past two gallons. Man.

Traveling around the greater D.C. area over the past few days has reminded me just how hard gasoline’s one-way ticket to Gougeville is going to hit the country in the coming years. Outside of a half-dozen dense metro areas, the past century of U.S. civic engineering has been built around the assumption of the permanent availability of cheap, plentiful gas. The most horrifying thing I saw all weekend was a newly-minted, artificial suburb-slash-strip mall whose name I can’t even remember — essentially a deconstructed shopping mall with the stores and parking lots freely intermingled, seemingly manufactured to resemble a quaint village. It failed, of course. Mostly it felt like someone had lifted one of the innumerable vapid shopping towns that comprise the majority of urban development between South San Francisco and San Jose and dropped it whole a few miles from Dulles. I wonder if cities and suburbs responsible for inventions like this will be able to adapt to the new reality in which driving a few blocks to go everywhere is no longer an afterthought to be taken for granted but a luxury few can afford, or if the entire country is just totally boned. I guess we’ll all find out in ten years, if we’re not dead from rioting.

On the plus side, I’ve discovered that U.S. Airways is apparently the last competent airline in America. Yeah, they’ve cut corners and corners — nothing is as fun as your stomach rumbling 500 miles into a cross-country trip before realizing that they don’t even give you a bag of pretzels for free — but at least those are fairly insubstantial considerations. (Most everyone else is laying off staff and overbooking their flights.) I flew round-trip across the country with connections for a total of four flights bookending a major holiday weekend, and each and every leg of the trip not only departed on time but mostly landed early. And there were empty seats, too! In fact, my Dulles-to-Phoenix flight was so far ahead of schedule I was able to jump on an earlier flight to San Francisco, which landed so far ahead of schedule that we had to taxi for 15 minutes because the traffic tower wasn’t ready for us. With the media full of stories of passengers turning feral after being stuck on the tarmac for 10 hours at a time, it was sort of refreshing to have a completely painless travel experience. It was like a brief reminder of the good old days before air travel in this country went straight down the crapper. Ah, memories.

20 thoughts on “Not so brave in this new world

  1. You should ask if there were paint chips in the fuel. I had a guy complain to me at the store the yesterday about being forced to fuel up planes with paint chips and other crap in it. Best part of it had to be the next guy in line had to be an air marshal (who guy #1 didn’t know about) getting a queasy look at the mention of the questionable fuel.

    I only know because I needed to see his I.D. for his credit card.

  2. If you want to look at the two big causes of the problem of which you talk about in your post, look no further then the total dismantling or change to gas based mass transit around the US during the 20s/30s/40 and the construction of the interstate highway system starting in the 50s, which lead to major urban sprawl, which makes mass transit almost impossible.

  3. What makes it worse is that Tomm works in an information sector. He could probably work from home a couple of days a week. He just likes commuting.

  4. Tomm: More like “Screw you, bank account!”

    freyr: Yeah, I know. I’ve mentioned the decommissioning of commuter rail services in a few conversations and have received only withering looks of contempt for my horrible, awful, no-good political agenda-mongering in response. But seriously, Judge Doom is pretty much the source of modern America’s downfall.

  5. Oh US Airways, my former employer, you were pretty okay. Mostly you installed the idea in my head that the idea of paying for air travel is outrageous.

  6. Yes, gas is ridiculous. I just moved back home to the DFW area, and it’s awful. It’s ridiculously spread out, and public transit is an absolute joke.

    It’s a legitimate excuse to stay inside and play video games when given the choice.

  7. Don’t worry, John McCain will get that Iraqi-black-gold running any day now. If not, everyone will just drive electric cars, which means we’ll either be burning coal at unprecedented rates, or every county will be putting up nuclear reactors. Yay!

  8. Now Ken, how are we going to properly have the next Chernobyl or World War without a massive, worldwide increase in power plants? It’s all in the universe’s plans, my friend.

    Anyone else feel like these gas prices are some higher power’s way of punishing us for not having crazy-advanced flying cars? I feel like $4.50 a gallon is God’s way of smiting us for not having mass marketed Spinners and Jetsonmobiles right about now. We’re in the 21st century, right? It’s time to drive like it!

  9. OMG! $4.50 a gallon! Its the end of the world as we know it (well it very well could be actually). You should come to Europe though, we very willingly pay €1,60 a litre. Which is €6.00 a gallon. Which is about $9.50 in u.s. dollars. *gasp*
    Then again, we dont have to make the suburbia-to-work trip in a 1 mile/gallon SUV everyday ;)

  10. Yeah, but U.S. dollars are the world’s new Canadian dollars, which are akin to the world’s old Monopoly money.

  11. You also pay twice as much for videogames.

    It looks like gas prices may need to settle in or drop a bit, we just had the largest drop in miles driven in … ever, following a substantial decline in SUV and truck sales, so it’s looking like people have reached the point where they are making those lifestyle changes that are needed to get off the oil wagon.

    God knows I’d love to get rid of my car (even though I love my car, it’s just expensive to own one), but until all my clients are inside the city, it’s not an option. I guess that’s why they pay me the big bucks (ha!). At least they reimburse me the mileage.

  12. The thing I love about the peak oil scenario is that it’s basically:
    1) Oil becomes more and more expensive as demand skyrockets and reserves dwindle.
    2) ???
    3) 19th century again yaaaaay back when folks were nice to each other and you could go down to the music hall for a nickle

    Oil will certainly move out of the range of consumers, leaving some other technology to take its place (I like electricity, personally, and there’s been some nice innovation in wind and solar power that inches both closer to being efficient enough to power the grid), but the idea that oil will disappear forever, or that consumers will give up an interconnected lifestyle with plastics and all that stuff is ridiculous.

  13. “What makes it worse is that Tomm works in an information sector. He could probably work from home a couple of days a week. He just likes commuting.”

    I work in software development and they won’t let you work from home here. Some businesses are just old fashioned- the owners want to be able to see their busy little bees working away in the hive instead of sleeping until noon and working until 8 or 9 at night at home.

  14. Turkish101: Arlington is my hometown, so I can testify to the lack of public transit. At some 330,000 (and growing), it’s the US’s biggest city without public transit. Hurrah!
    Now, I live in South Korea, where gas is 1800 won per liter, or about $7-8 bucks a gallon, and, in a city of 250,000, we have two kinds of natural gas-powered city buses, dozens of intercity buses, also LNG, and we’re at the railhead of a quick and efficient train system. Also, there are dozens of ferries every day to the neighboring islands.
    So, when my stupid Arlington protests that the size of their city doesn’t warrant public transit, I must vomit in disagreement.
    On the other hand, I saw this article on CNN the other day:
    Americans are driving less this year than they did last year. The percentage is minuscule, but the fact that it represents any backwards growth, any at all, is comforting. In a way. If only it weren’t too little, too late. Yes, I’m glad I don’t live over there any more…

  15. I, too, had two excellent trips with US Airways this past weekend. Both ran ahead of schedule, and the second was underbooked so I got my own row.

    You got screwed on the pretzels. They must have wound up on my flights — they gave out TWO free bags.

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