The big news this week in California is a "perfect storm" of events which led to gas prices skyrocketing in an unprecedented way.
The surge isn't expected to last long, but it may take over a week for prices to return to the $4.10 level they were in Fresno at the beginning of this week.
Even a short term surge can wreck havoc on low income families that are forced to depend on cars due to a bad transit system. Fresno has the highest density of poverty in the country, one of the highest unemployment rates, and a city built around the car. That's a recipe for disaster.
Sometimes poverty means a family has to drive even more. Many lower income households own only one car, and if both parents are working, that can mean twice the miles. The problem is compounded if the jobs are merely part time, meaning the same miles, but less income coming in.
Take for example the following scenario, which is based off someone I know:
Kids attend school.
Husband works standard hours (and tries to take extra jobs on weekends)
Wife works 2:30pm until 11pm (and the days shift)
So in the morning, the husband drives the kids to school, then he goes to work. He then is forced to take an extended lunch to drive all the way home to pick up his wife and drop her off at work, and take the kids to the in-laws home, then drive to work again. Once his work is over, he picks up the kids, and drives home. At 11pm, he has to drive to pick up his wife and go home.
Basically, if a one car household relies on a "chauffeur" it means twice the mileage because instead of the car sitting in a parking lot, it goes back and forth.
And twice the mileage means twice the gas.
Why aren't they taking the bus? A number of reasons. For one, the FAX network has not been changed to reflect today's work patterns and instead seems to be stuck in the 1960's. On top of that, frequencies are bad and hours are short. The wife can take the bus to work (and does some days) but it turns a 20 minute car ride into a 90 minute odyssey. The system isn't very reliable, and at her minimum wage job, being late could cause dismissal, so her husband prefers to drive her to ensure she is never late. When she gets out of work, at 11pm, the bus is no longer running. On top of all that, she also tries to take part-time jobs during the morning, which means she can't afford the 90 minute bus ride to interrupt her day.
There's more. Low income families rely on older and in many cases less efficient cars. A household with parents working two minimum wage jobs can't exactly get a Prius. They also don't have the luxury of packing up and moving closer to work.
I know one girl who is in a similar one-car situation. That car puts in at least 60 miles a day. It is a clunker, which gets around 15mpg. At current gas prices, that's almost $20 a day on gas.....now imagine the maintenance they put into the thing as well.
This girl spend an entire two hours of her 8 hour work day to feed the car.
A bus system she could use would reduce that to $5 a day in transportation costs.
By not having a decent bus system, Fresno just ensures that the poor stay poor, ensuring the poverty crown sticks around for quite some time. It also means the money pours out of the local economy on its way to Texas and Saudi Arabia, instead of staying local. The more Fresnanas spend on gas, the less they spend on local business, ensuring the local vacancy rates remian sky high.
Maybe it's time Fresno delays one of their many (many) road widening projects and allocates the money to a bus system that works. Maybe that way, when gas prices get unbearable, people can actually choose to not pay them, and have enough money left over to keep the economy turning.