Gas Pains

By Jason Menard

A few weeks ago, when I was in Montreal, the prices had risen to $1.04 per litre and I was only comforted with the thought that the cost per litre had to be less in Ontario. I knew that I would feel good about paying whatever the rates were back in London, because they couldn’t be worse than what I was paying in La Belle Province.

I’m not proud of my petroleum-fueled Schadenfreude, but it’s a fact of life that we’re willing to pay whatever price the gas companies set for us, as long as someone else is worse off! It’s all a matter of perspective. And, as I stated, paying in the low-90s is much more palatable once we’ve already broken the $1.00 ceiling.

Oh, what a difference three weeks make. We are now them. And the ridiculously high gas prices are starting to have an impact on the economy around us.

As predicted, people are now flocking to gas stations that are selling at prices that only a month ago seemed outrageous. The people who are dancing in the streets when gas falls under that buck a litre threshold are the very same who were bitching vociferously when the price of gas rose to the mid-80s.

But, more tellingly, the ancillary effect of these higher gas prices is that people are choosing to restrict their activities – to the detriment of industries that rely on the summer season and that increased revenue for their livelihood.

Several times now I have spoken to people who have decided that enough is finally enough, and their cars are going to be used only for the bare necessities – driving to work, getting groceries, and small errands. The idea of getting behind the wheel and driving out of town on a day trip just doesn’t appeal to some any longer simply because it’s hard to rationalize the financial expenditures that any sort of trip would demand.

In Canada, the summer tourist season is painfully short already. Stores, restaurants, and areas that rely upon out-of-town traffic will soon start feeling the pinch caused by cautious motorists. Add to that the fact that many people are restricting the number of little jaunts they take throughout the city, thus reducing the number of opportunities they have to engage in impulse buying – and it’s plain to see that the rising costs of gas are having an impact on and off the roads.

“Essence à Juste Prix,” a Quebec-based organization (and it’s no surprise that’s it started there, considering the premium Quebec drivers are forced to pay for their petrol), is calling for the federal government to look into the escalating costs of fuelling up. At the same time, federal transport minister Jean Lapierre has stated that the feds have no intention of dropping the taxes Canadians pay at the pump. In the interim our gas companies raise and lower their prices in unison, somehow avoiding the spectre of collusion, yet appearing by their actions to collude.

So where does that leave us? Boycotting doesn’t work because, literally speaking, the gas companies have us over a barrel. While some of the major metropolitan areas in Canada, specifically Toronto and Montreal, have efficient, timely public transportation, others of us in the country don’t have the luxury to leave our wheels at home and take advantage of alternatives.

When I lived in Montreal, I was able to cross the island in 15 minutes by commuter train and metro to get to work, which saved on a 45-minute to an hour-long drive had I tried to traverse the city. Living in London, a 10-minute drive to work would take over an hour by public transportation – and that’s assuming I don’t miss on of the oh-so-infrequent busses that run all throughout the city.

Driving is my only option. And it’s the only option of many Canadians who are forced to travel any distance to work. We can restrict, conserve, and search for alternatives all we want, but we need to find a solution.

If the federal will is not there to reduce gas taxes or place caps on prices at the pumps, then they have to divert money into public transportation. People will make the switch if the alternative is palatable. I would sacrifice an extra half-hour out of my commute if I knew that the option was there for me. But I live in a fairly sizeable urban environment. Others aren’t so lucky (or unlucky, depending on your point of view).

The answers aren’t so cut and dried – but unless some action is taken, and soon, fuelling our cars won’t be our biggest problem, fuelling our economy will.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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