Pump prices in Madison have climbed to about $3.17 per gallon for regular unleaded. A number of reputable forecasts are predicting pump prices will flirt with $4/gallon across the U.S. by spring. And the recent surpassing of the $100/barrel threshold has led to a yet another round of hand-wringing over how these trends might affect the reeling U.S. economy.
Forget the U.S. economy for a moment. I can't help wondering about the local outcomes of $4 gas in terms of Madison-area arts, recreation, food, housing, retail and other aspects of life here in Dane County.
For example, what might be the impact on attendance this season at American Players Theatre, which relies on Madison for much of its audience but also draws theatergoers from Milwaukee, Chicago, Minnesota's Twin Cities and other points of origin near and far?
Will APT's Madison patrons hesitate before making the 35-mile drive to rural Spring Green? Will a noticeable number opt to not make the journey?
Will the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra see a dip in the number of people driving into Madison to attend its Concerts on the Square? How will the Madison Symphony, Madison Opera and Overture Center fare?
Will music clubs see a drop in the number of touring acts playing Madison because $4 gas is too great a burden for touring musicians to bear?
If entertainment venues hike ticket prices to offset performing artists' rising travel expenses, will the market be able to bear such an increase if arts patrons are spending more of their discretionary budget on gasoline prices that have risen 15-30% in the past year?
How might $4 gasoline affect the volume of boat traffic on the Yahara chain of lakes between Memorial Day and Labor Day?
What happens when you have to choose between pulling your boat to the launch for a day of pleasure cruising versus taking the family to a Badgers game or out to dinner?
Could more expensive pump prices create enough of a burden on high-school athletic budgets that schedules are cut back, or some sports eliminated, or WIAA basketball and wrestling championships move out of Madison to a more central Wisconsin location? How will the rising costs of transporting food affect prices at area farmers' markets this summer -- and the ability of farmers to bring their food to market?
How will $4 gas affect pizza delivery prices?
How will it affect local restaurants?
At what point will higher gasoline prices induce people to move closer to their place of employment? Will paying $4 or more per gallon lead a substantial number of people to re-think the length of their commutes to Madison from Stoughton, DeForest, Lodi and other outlying communities?
Will people living downtown but working in Fitchburg or Verona move to those communities to reduce commuting costs?
Could $4/gallon fuel prompt a resurgence in new-urbanist developments in the Madison area, clustering the places where people live in close proximity to the places where they work and play?
Will the number of people organizing car-pools increase?
Will rush-hour traffic volumes ease on the Beltline?
Will Madison Metro be able to accommodate more passengers without re-allocating buses from lower-use routes to routes facing higher demand?
Will local bicycle retailers see a surge in sales?
Might gas prices of $4/gallon create opportunities for enterprises such as Scram Bicycle Couriers to gain market share over competitors reliant on fossil fuels? If so, how long would such advantages last before competitors responded by -- ahem -- shifting gears?
Will more Madison-area employers encourage tele-commuting?
How will the big destination shopping malls at either end of town fare relative to strip malls, neighborhood shopping districts and the retailers lining State Street?
How will higher gas prices affect the city's ability to deliver services such as snow-plowing, leaf collection and waste and recycling collection? What effect would $4 gas have on the city's ability to fuel its other fleets, including police, fire and emergency vehicles?
There are plenty more questions raised by the prospect of pump prices cresting near, at or above $4/gallon. Questions regarding infrastructure, quality of life, those attributes of the way we live in Madison that might prove advantageous in learning to live with higher gas prices and those that might prove more intractable.
The answers to these questions will tend to be more elusive than the questions themselves. Whether the changes here turn out to be subtle or dramatic -- and whether the more profound changes come farther down the road, when prices reach $5 or $7 per gallon or more -- the questions bear consideration.