$4 Gas? So What?

How Knoxvillians prove, daily, that it's no big deal

I have to mention this bit of brightness, proof that $4 gasoline is not nearly the crisis the media's Chicken Littles say it is.

Last Monday I set out to meet my family for dinner at a restaurant in Bearden. I'd ridden my bike to town that morning, and I could have ridden it to the restaurant easily enough. But I didn't know what my mom would think if I were all sweaty when I got there, so I caught the Kingston Pike bus. The 11 leaves at 6:15, right after about 15,000 people downtown have just gotten off work. It was right on time, as usual.

The five-mile trip cost me, as always, a dollar and a quarter. The bus was air-conditioned, and the seats were comfortable. It gave me a chance to catch up on some reading.

The bus I boarded was the only bus that left the downtown/UT area between 6 and 7, the only one going down Knoxville's busiest street to West Town and dozens of other potential stops within easy walking distance of tens of thousands of suburban residences. Here's the good news I promised: There were only three other people on the bus. All but one of them, an old lady, got off before we got to Bearden.

If the price of gasoline were any sort of serious problem, you'd think we might have had some company.

There are other indications that we're secretly happy to tolerate rising gas prices. Remember carpools? I learned that word as a young child, in the '60s, because my father was in a carpool, and at 3 I thought it was a funny phrase. Silly Daddy, I thought. Cars don't swim. But every morning, Dad, an engineer for Union Carbide, got in a car with other colleagues and they drove to work together. They took turns, so the gas expense would even out. After all, gasoline was 29 cents a gallon, and money doesn't grow on trees. It would be silly for all these guys to drive different cars to work, when they were all going the same place. They got to be pretty good friends. Lots of men did that. The carpool was an American icon.

Carpools do still exist somewhere. I hear about well-intentioned local initiatives every year or so. I just don't hear about people actually carpooling. I haven't heard anyone pronounce the phrase "my carpool" in at least 30 years. A year or two ago, when gas prices were approaching $3 a gallon, my wife found out about a carpool initiative available to the community college where she's a teacher. This was a much better deal than my dad's old carpool, because it was an offer of a mini-van provided free through a federal gas-conservation program. The participants would have access to the mini-van without having to worry about a lease, tire wear, or car maintenance; all they had to do was split the gas.

I was personally pretty excited about it; I did some math, and it looked like our $2,000 a year commuting bill might be reduced to as little as $200. She sent out some memos and e-mails. Few responded at all; in the end, no one actually participated. Even with the price of gas rising, it turns out that her colleagues all prefer to drive to work in their own cars, alone.

I know that some, because of where they choose to live or work, seem to have fewer alternatives than others. Then again, that fact demonstrates still another choice we make; we're not in the habit of considering transportation costs when we choose a place to live or work. Just lately, I've been hearing of professionals choosing where they live based on whether it's within walking distance of their workplace—or workplaces moving near where their employees live. Maybe some things are changing.

Rising gas prices may be annoying, but hundreds of thousands of Knoxville-area commuters seem to prefer paying $4 a gallon to riding the bus or joining a carpool. As nice alternatives as those are, they're apparently not nearly as nice as driving your own car and paying whatever price the Man tells you to pay for it. Demand drives prices up. Demand's exploding in China and India, sure enough, but it's also growing here. Despite everything, the warnings and the alternatives and the bipartisan exhortations, Americans are burning more gasoline now than we ever have. Supplies are finite, and dwindling. Gas is, therefore, expensive.

It's a free country, still, and some people just like expensive stuff. I have friends who adore expensive fashions, expensive watches, expensive vodka. Nobody gives them a hard time about it. It's their money to enjoy, or in some cases, to waste.

I like expensive tomatoes. I was in line at the farmer's market the other day with one large Blount County tomato. It was $2.60 a pound, and it was too much for one stranger in line right behind me who was having a hard time with the fact that I was spending two bucks on one tomato. The old man seemed to know his tomatoes, and thought I was silly. "I wouldn't spend that much for a Blount County tomato," he said. "Why, those Florida tomatoes are just as good."

But it looked like a good tomato to me. I don't know whether the old man would have liked it or not, but as far as I was concerned, that tomato was wonderful. I savored it in small portions. I have no regrets.

Maybe, to some, the single-passenger automobile lifestyle is something like that. It's expensive, more expensive than it used to be, more expensive than other options. If people savor driving like I savored that tomato, I understand why they're not riding the bus.

They're making their own choices, and picking the expensive one. Consumers who have agreeable choices aren't exactly victims.