One of the more intellectually lazy things that some transit advocates (including me) do is to expect immediate, sharp increases in the price of gasoline.
The “peak oil” argument is well rehearsed with this audience, so I’ll skip over it. It may very well be that argument is correct, immediately relevant, and we will soon see increases. However, there are plausible alternate scenarios where expensive gas is years, or even decades, off.
For one thing, we could have a sustained period of economic ruin, limiting demand. Alternatively, technology has a way of finding more reserves and making known ones more economic to exploit.
More interestingly, policy, both in America and elsewhere, could open up a lot more oil to exploration in the coming years. We could open up more offshore areas to exploration and drilling, which isn’t all that unpopular considering the worst developed-country spill in history is in recent memory. Canada could disregard the horrendous environmental impacts of tar sands exploitation and access another Saudi Arabia of hydrocarbons. Major producers with nationalized oil companies – like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Mexico – could stop using those companies like cash machines and allow them to properly invest in developing their reserves. If the political pressure gets too hot, America might decide to have a gas tax holiday and simply top off the highway fund with more general fund dollars.
Of course, any of these policy decisions would be disastrous for the environment, the situation in most oil-producing countries, and human health. It’s worthwhile to offer transit as a hedge against the possibility that gas prices rise substantially, and get started now on long-range projects to prepare us for the day that must inevitably come. Still, it’s not doing the movement any favors to assume that the price of gasoline will soon make our argument for us.