Colorado Springs falls in the middle of cities most prepared to handle a fuel crisis that could raise the price of gasoline to $7 a gallon.
SustainLane.com examined 50 major cities, looking at infrastructure and work habits to determine which could cope best if oil spikes to $100 a barrel. The study did not include the affects on utilities or heating oil.
“We want to let the citizens see for themselves how well their infrastructure and buying habits would stand up if gas prices go higher,” said Warren Karlenzig, the organization’s chief strategy officer. “If there is an oil crisis, how will it affect mobility, use of public transportation, and the ability to buy food? In a potential crisis, nearly every area would be hit, but we wanted to examine the areas most directly affected: where you live, what you eat, how you get to work.”
SustainLane.com conducted the study because of the fluctuating oil market, which continues to be affected by unrest in the Middle East and Venezuela. The uncertainty has pushed gas prices to record highs.
Colorado Springs ranked 23 of 50 cities. Denver was No. 15. New York City, with its subways and buses, ranked No. 1. Oklahoma City ranked last.
Denver ranked higher than Colorado Springs because of its public transportation system, Karlenzig said. More than 5 percent of Mile High residents use the system, and the city plans to expand it to provide capacity for 22 percent within the next five years.
“Almost nobody uses public transportation in Colorado Springs,” he said. “Less than 1 percent. Most people are driving their cars to work, 79 percent commute by themselves. It’s the main reason for the lower ranking.”
The city provides about 3 million rides a year, said Sherre Ritneour, transit services deputy manager for Colorado Springs.
“Adding buses is complicated,” she said. “Our buses are provided by the Federal Transit Authority, and they give us buses based on the number of people riding during peak hours. Demand would have to be higher, and stay higher for a period of time for us to add more buses.”
More people rode the FREX (Front Range Express) buses when gas prices rose after Hurricane Katrina, she said. Demand is rising – as gas prices rise – again.
“We do see a rise in demand when gas prices go up; people are just unwilling to pay that much for gas,” she said. “But public transportation has to be convenient, and there are places in the city where you can’t get public transportation. It’s not that convenient for soccer moms or dads, who need to get kids to events after school.”
Ritneour said she expects to see more people riding the public transportation buses as gas prices push above an average of $2.40 a gallon in Colorado Springs.
“We’ll see another increase,” she said. “We saw a big increase when we added buses and more routes, but we always see one as gas prices rise.”
Colorado Springs ranked higher is some other areas: an effective wireless system that allows people to work from home; and farmers’ markets and community gardens which provide the opportunity to purchase locally grown food.
“When gas prices go up, that additional money does not stay in the city, county or state,” Karlenzig said. “But when you buy local produce, that money stays. A lot of cities, Portland is one, consider placing farmers’ markets and community gardens in neighborhoods as a major economic development incentive.”
Drivers are spending about 4 percent of their annual budget on gasoline, and in some places that number is as high as 5 or 6 percent, Karlenzig said. If the percentage of incomes increases, it will reduce the amount of money spent in other sectors of the economy.
“We’re talking about 10, 12, 15 percent of income that leaves the local, regional and state,” he said. “That money doesn’t get re-spent in the local economy. It could wreak havoc on the local economy.”
Another thing that bodes well for Colorado Springs is its tradition of carpooling, Karlenzig said. More than 11 percent of commuters share the ride to work.
“That’s much higher than most cities,” he said. “It’s one reason Colorado Springs ranks higher on the list than some other cities.”
And urban sprawl is not yet a problem in Colorado Springs, which reduces commuting time and time caught in traffic snarls.
“The time people are in their cars is less than in other cities, where the people don’t live close to the urban, downtown centers,” Karlenzig said.
But for people who drive as a business, the idea of a fuel crisis means less business at higher prices.
Dan Dupont, owner of Dan’s Towne Car Service, has seen gas prices triple in the five years he’s been in business.
“We’d have to pass it along to the customer at some point,” he said. “We haven’t gone higher on our rates, yet, but it could happen if gas prices get higher. If it doubled again, for instance, we’d have no choice.”
Dupont said higher gas prices could definitely hurt his business, a service that provides drivers in luxury cars around the city, 24 hours a day. More people, he said, will use public transportation or drive their own cars.
For an example of how to approach the potential fuel crisis, Colorado Springs officials need to look no further than Denver, Karlenzig said. The city’s light rail system and other improvements to public infrastructure make it “a leading model for the nation.”
“Denver had a symposium in January, where the city and purchasing department discussed how to alter its purchases to address the fuel crunch,” he said. “And this was after the fast-track legislation passed. The public transportation is the biggest solution, and it’s not going away. It could be tragic to ignore it. Denver is bolstering its public transportation and plans to increase riders fivefold in the next decade.”