The open road

July 27, 2006

Here's a paradox: The high price of gasoline makes driving more worthwhile. Expensive fuel induces people to cut down on trips, and that makes the roads less crowded for everyone else. You may not have noticed, but Maryland and the rest of the country have seen some evidence of this over the past month.

As the cost of a gallon of regular edged up over $3, traffic dropped off. O.K., just a wee little bit, but still - there are fewer cars out there than there were a year ago. Traffic monitoring by the State Highway Administration shows that the number of cars on I-95 in Baltimore is down 5 percent to 6 percent during the past three weekends compared with Saturdays and Sundays in July 2005; there appears to be a somewhat smaller decline on weekdays. On I-70 in Frederick, a comparison of two Sundays - one a year ago and one four days ago - shows a drop in traffic of about 3 percent. The Maryland House and Chesapeake House rest stops on I-95 both report slight slumps in business.

Nationally, the Department of Energy reports that demand for gasoline in the second quarter was up less than one-tenth of a percent from the same period a year ago; the American Petroleum Institute actually found a decline of nearly half a percent. Either way, that's a significant flattening of the upward trend in gas consumption, which had been running at between 1 percent and 2 percent a year. So, why are there still traffic jams? A very rough calculation suggests this: To reach these savings, the average car in America is being driven about one-tenth of a mile less per day. Not much, but it's a start.

Imagine how enjoyable it would be if people really cut back. The problem there, of course, is that as soon as that happened, drivers would be lured back again by rumors of free-flowing traffic, expensive gas or no, until - well, until we got back to where we started. Crawling and fuming.

The point, it seems, is that conservation is worthy, but what would really affect the quality of life is a cutback in the number of trips. Fewer cars on the road would be even better than hybrid cars on the road. The high price of gas cuts down some on the to-ing and fro-ing, but an efficient rail and bus network would make a much bigger difference. Driving today is a necessity - but if it were a luxury again, what a pleasure it would be.

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