Gas prices are climbing. The sky is falling. Whatever shall we do?

Since some of us at eye ride bicycles to work, even in winter, and since most of the rest of us walk or take the streetcar, we were prepared to greet the news that gas prices in Canada rose five cents per litre at the end of December with our usual response to auto-related complaints and take the opportunity not to care.

Yet, because that news arrived at the same time as a 10-cent hike in the price of a TTC token, and because Canadians are still publicly puzzling over how we can fulfill our Kyoto promises (even though auto makers were handed a big, fat exemption), and because a nice real-estate agent couple we know who live in Richmond Hill (sorry, Uncle Frank) recently purchased a second GMC Yukon — so that each half of the couple could travel separately to the same office in elevated, gas-guzzling, road-hogging, rage-inducing comfort — we’ve been forced to reconsider our indifference.

So now, we’re thinking that a five-cent-per-litre hike in the price of gas (even if it is caused by labour strife in Venezuela) really just looks like a good start.

If higher gas prices make auto addicts think twice about whether to take the car to work, or even consider walking to the corner store rather than taking the SUV, then we can only cheer.

In fact, while we’re at it, we’d relish the idea of governments hiking prices another 20 cents a litre, say, and pumping the resulting revenue directly into public transit.

Cars account for half of all urban pollution and one quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions; automobile accidents are consistently one of the top 10 causes of death in North America; cars lead to the type of disastrous city planning that sees expressways running through downtown neighbourhoods and parking lots pockmarking the downtown core — both of which effectively kill street life and the urban je ne sais quoi that comes with it.

Moreover, as Bill Maher points out in his new book, When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden (see Best Bet, Listings, page 32), a large portion of the money we spend on gasoline goes to Arabian oil barons, who have a nasty habit of using the money to prop up religious dictatorships and fund terrorist activity. (You already know this, but if you’re frustrated and terrified by the impending U.S.-driven Oil War II, decreasing our society’s dependence on black gold is one solid, constructive way for you to fight back.)

All of which should leave public transit looking pretty attractive, except that the provincial government has been effectively starving the TTC for nearly 10 years. And with every price hike, of course, a few more riders decide The Better Way isn’t, and every drop in ridership encourages further service cuts and fare hikes, which lead to more ridership decreases, and so on.

Let’s stop the downward spiral. Even if the car drivers of this province insist on riding with bin Laden, we can compel them to chip in for the greater good.

A dedicated gas tax for public transit would mean a cheaper, better public transit system, paid for by urban polluters in direct proportion to how often they drive. It could encourage Uncle Frank to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, or even to take the train.

So forget the five-cents-a-litre hike. As far as we’re concerned, it’s a buck a litre or bust.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on January 9, 2003.

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