Because of the rise in the price of gas as the result of the war in Ukraine and supply chain problems, I was curious what people are paying in Europe. On March 14, people in Amsterdam, paid $9.30 in US dollars per gallon. In London, $8.17. In Paris, $8.96. And in Berlin, $9.19.
Some of us could handle it but for most Americans that would be a real struggle, and it would be hardest, nearly impossible, for the people we’ve been calling indispensible, the people who do crucial work and don’t get paid nearly what they’re worth. So the fact that they’re paying that in Europe doesn’t mean we should pay that here. But my question is how’s it even possible?
If you’ve been there, you may have been picked up by a friend or colleague with a car but it becomes obvious pretty quickly that most people don’t drive. You realize right away that European countries have excellent public transportation. Trains connect cities to each other and to the airports. Busses and trolleys do a lot of the rest. At the stations, one sees what look like endless fields of handlebars.
How's this possible? For one, cities are very compact. Places one needs to go to are not so far away. So you can walk or pedal where you want to go. Every bit of that is environmentally helpful. It not only cuts down on the fuel used used to get places, but, the more compact cities are, the more they cut down on fuel used for heating. Those of us who live in detached houses with lots of space around us have to spend a fair amount on heating, unless we have oriented our houses to benefit from passive solar. There's also a lot that we spend on connections – connections to the electrical system, connections to water and sewer systems, connections to phones, connections to the Web, and so forth – and the further we are apart from each other, the more expensive all of those are.
And the more open space and farmland we pave and cover over. Which means the transportation and fuel issues extend to how we get our food, because it comes from farther away.
OK, lots of Americans don’t share my preferences. We lived in New York City and my commute to work was a walk or a bike ride over the Brooklyn Bridge. We lived in St. Louis and my commute to work was a bike ride across Forest Park. We lived in Boston and my commute was a walk along the Charles River, then over the Fiedler footbridge and across the Boston Garden and the Boston Commons. Here in Albany, we deliberately chose to live within a couple of miles of my office so I could walk in and I did for many years.
So I’m different that way. I remember the dream of the little white house in the country in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Americans live in suburbs because most of us like it that way and because this country has not chosen to put taxes on fuel the way European countries have. But there is an environmental cost. Suburban living in spread out cities and towns is a luxury. And it’s one that many of my former clients could never afford – never mind the gas, they couldn’t afford the car to get to work, so never mind discrimination or the glass ceiling, their ability to break out of poverty was very limited, talent and skills notwithstanding.
Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.