Yesterday I saw an article that asked, what if gas goes to $7 a gallon? The article didn't actually explore the ramifications as promised, but it did say that $7 gas was likely in the next four years. And I remember being horrified when gas went up to $1.50!
Whatever the magic number, I can imagine a scenario in which within a decade gas has reached a point where consumption patterns for most Americans will have to change because we won't be able to afford the old ones. That's why I disagree with a piece such as this one, which says environmental change may be possible without deprivation. Anything that gets us out of our cars (or off airplanes) will be felt as deprivation. Anything that raises the costs of goods will be felt as deprivation.
So imagine you can't afford to use your car for your daily commute, and you don't live in a city like New York. How do you get to work? In most smaller cities, suburbs, and towns, the public transit isn't sufficient - there aren't enough routes at the right times and places. Nashville, for example, routes everyone through a downtown hub, and therefore no one uses it if they can afford anything else. Some people might move closer to their jobs, but our housing stock isn't in the right place for this to happen en masse. (And then think of the dual-income households where the partners have jobs on opposite ends of town.)
And what about longer trips? Green advocates say things like, "Take the train." To do that, I'd have to drive eight hours to catch one! And it's the medium-haul trips that are the problem. I suspect that barring complete economic meltdown, Nashvillians who want to visit, say, Alaska are still going to fly. But what about trips to Memphis?
In the short term, I guess we throw buses at the problem. We have the roads, after all. I've harbored sentiments for a while that it was a mistake to dismantle so much of our railway structure. I can see the day when "rails to trails" goes in reverse as we convert greenways back to railways.
And while you think about that, I'm going to get into my conventional vehicle and drive to campus five miles away, a distance which is certainly bikeable and for which there is public transport, although it takes three times as long as driving. You see, I'd like to make changes in my life, but I can't afford them. You add people like me to people who like the current way to doing things just fine, and you end up with no change until the economy forces it.
P.S. This just in: Mass transit ridership is already increasing.