Higher Gas Prices are on the Horizon but NJ is Well-Positioned to Weather Storm
March 19th, 2008 by Jay Corbalis
- Since peaking in 1989, per-capita fuel consumption has declined in New Jersey. Nationwide, public transportation ridership grew by 2.1 percent in 2007; NJ Transit ridership grew by 4.1 percent.
- Since 1980, New Jersey has had the fourth slowest growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the nation, behind North Dakota, South Dakota and the District of Columbia.
- An estimated 30 percent of New Jersey residents live within walking distance (one-half mile) of a train station.
Density, transit work to state’s advantage
With oil prices at an all-time high, the dollar continuing to lose value and the summer driving season just around the corner, higher gasoline prices may become the norm for the foreseeable future. Already there are signs that Americans are beginning to adjust to sustained higher prices. Last year, national vehicles miles traveled (VMT) fell for the first time in 25 years. Gasoline consumption also fell in 2006.
While it may provide little solace the next time you’re at the pump, New Jersey is in a better position than most states to absorb the impact of higher gas prices. For a variety of reasons, New Jersey residents drive less than their counterparts in other states. The first reason is density. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the nation. Studies have shown that the higher the population density of a city or metropolitan area, the lower the per capita consumption of gasoline. This relationship can clearly be seen in New Jersey, where per capita VMT in sprawling Hunterdon County is four times higher than in dense Hudson County. Compact, mixed-use development with a well-connected street network encourages non-motorized travel and reduces travel distances even for those trips that are still taken by car.
Another advantage New Jersey has in lessening the impact of high gas prices is its extensive public transportation system. NJ Transit, the nation’s third largest provider of bus, rail and light rail transit, affords many residents the opportunity to use public transportation for at least some of their trips. Seven out of 10 New Jersey residents live within five miles of a transit station, and 30 percent live within half a mile, the generally accepted distance for walkability.
Taken together, these statistics paint an encouraging picture about New Jersey’s relative insulation from higher gas prices. Still, if the state is to meet its ambitious targets for greenhouse-gas reduction and energy conservation, as well as give more residents the option of forgoing their car, much more needs to be done. For years, jobs and housing in New Jersey have migrated away from transit centers toward auto-dependent, suburban locations. The state Department of Transportation’s Transit Village initiative, and the increasing popularity of Transit Oriented Development (TOD), may potentially bring jobs and residents back to areas served by transit. The state can build on these approaches by providing incentives for towns with rail stations to zone for higher-density, mixed-use development around stations, and encouraging employers to locate in transit-accessible locations.
New Jersey has a head start in the national race to reduce gasoline dependence and automobile use. But it is a marathon, not a sprint, and maintaining this lead will require much more than replacing conventional gasoline-powered cars with hybrids. The state’s ambitious greenhouse gas-reduction and energy-conservation goals will not be met without substantially reducing VMT. And that will require smart, long-term land-use planning and continued expansion of transportation alternatives.