The Economy Kind of Sucks for People Who Don’t Drive

Sorry folks.  

Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images

Right now, it’s a great time to be a driver.

Oil prices have fallen through the floor, crashing the price of gasoline below $2 a gallon. That’s taken pressure off family budgets, allowing Americans to spend less on fueling their cars while saving a bit more of their paychecks. It’s also kept inflation low. On Wednesday, the Department of Labor reported that thanks mostly to tumbling energy costs, the consumer price index declined slightly in December, and only edged up a modest 0.7 percent for all of 2015. And low inflation has translated into fairly strong real wage gains, as pay has risen faster than prices.

All of this is lovely. You, and your Honda Civic, have had a pretty good year. But as a subway-commuting New Yorker, I do feel compelled to point out that the economy is slightly less rosy for those who don’t own a vehicle. Nondrivers don’t spend on gas. And aside from fuel, the cost of living is going up at a fairly normal pace. The core consumer price index, which subtracts out the effects of energy and food, rose 2.1 percent over the past 12 months, enough to eclipse most wage gains nationally (average hourly earnings for private-sector workers rose 2.5 percent over 2015.)

Perhaps low fuel costs have kept public transit cheaper? No such luck. The Department of Labor reports that the cost of “intracity mass transit” rose 2.8 percent this year. Bus fares are still heading up.

The one consolation I can find is that pay does seem to be rising slightly faster in the East Coast cities where we car-less few tend to be clustered. In the New York metro area, for instance, average weekly earnings were on pace for a roughly 3 percent increase in 2015. But given the absurd cost of living in dense coastal cities, we can use whatever wage growth we can get. So please, have some sympathy for the pedestrian.