NOTIONS: How to beat the high price of dependence on petrol

June 4, 2007

Went to the gas station last week. Filled 'er up. It'd been a few weeks since I'd done that. Seemed like the price had jumped pretty dramatically. The pump clicked off. The total read $48.75.


Next day, Indianapolis declared a

"Knozone Air Quality Action Day." Some fellow at the Department of Public Works told the local paper there was "literally dirt in the air." The paper described this gunk as "floating particles the diameter of a human hair," particles caused by "fuels such as coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, oil and wood."

In other words, the stuff for which I'd paid $48.75 the day before.

The forecast called for haze. We got it: in the air, and in the heads of people who don't think we're messing up the planet.

In our company's internal blog last week, a coworker recalled a chat with a restaurateur in Fishers, where she lives. He said business had been down significantly the past two months. He said the nearby gym had suffered its worst months ever. He said two shops in his strip mall had gone out of business. Among the causes he cited: the high price of fuel and folks driving less to conserve cash.

In a perfect storm of persuasive proportions, those worried about fuel costs, environmental impact and the environment's impact on human health have coalesced. Among other things, they're full of helpful tips.

On those nasty Knozone Days, for example, kids, the elderly and people with heart and lung problems are supposed to limit outdoor activities.

We're all supposed to stop idling our cars (à la the drive-up lane at McDonald's). We're not supposed to burn yard debris. We're supposed to avoid cutting the grass or filling our tanks before 6 p.m. We're supposed to carpool or, heaven forbid, ride the bus.

Even our company blog got into the act, suggesting that we cut costs and benefit the environment via running the dishwasher and washing machine only with full loads, unplugging the cell phone once it's finished charging, or using tap water instead of bottled water to cut down on the use of petroleum-based plastic containers.

But despite the beneficial advice, we're avoiding the moose on the table.

The air is polluted and the cost of petrol so high because we're too darned dependent on the stuff.

And we're too darned dependent because we keep driving our gas-guzzlers farther and farther. And we keep driving farther and farther because we keep building our houses more and more miles from the city where we work and play. And we keep building our houses more miles from the city because we want to duck our fair share of what it costs to run one. And our mass flight from the urban center raises city costs even further, and decimates the schools, too. And with decimated schools, we end up with fewer and fewer students in older and older buildings. So we build nice new schools in far-away suburbs and let old schools in the city rot. And with rotting schools, we struggle to attract top educators. Then we complain about the failing kids in the city schools, and we ask "What's wrong with them, anyway, and why can't their teachers fix it?" Then, on top of the high cost, we're also now in fear of commuting because the city kids we refused to help educate in rotting schools are now doing more dangerous things to get by. So we build more and more places to work and play and learn farther and farther away. And with more of those places farther away, those who dare to live in the city must more and more often drive into the suburbs for the things they want and need.

And the more city people drive into the suburbs, and suburban people into the city, the more we depend on fuel.

And the more we depend on fuel, the higher climbs the cost and the worse grow the environmental and health consequences.

There's a cure for this vicious cycle, of course. It's not as simple as carpooling or mowing your lawn after 6 p.m. But it leads to a simpler, less costly, less environmentally damaging life: Just live, work and play downtown.

You spend less time commuting. You stop encroaching on valuable farmland, woodland and wetlands. You can invest in (rather than complain about) young people we need for our future. You can walk to work, walk to cultural amenities, walk to the gym, walk to IUPUI, and contribute to the critical mass that's needed to draw more walk-in retailers.

That car I filled up last week? Because I live, work and play downtown, it's 3 years old and has only 30,000 miles.

The house next door to mine is for sale. Wanna take a look? I'll introduce you to the listing agent.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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