ESSAY- Wean thyself: Personal vehicles mean public disaster

The president's admitted it. We're addicted to oil.

Our governor's admitted it. We can't get anywhere because everyone is trying to get somewhere at the same time in the same way– all alone in our personal cars.

Our scientists have admitted it. Our use of carbon fuels like oil is destroying the global atmosphere at a rate so fast that they've become terrified.

Our doctors have admitted it. Our lack of exercise has made us so fat that for the first time in history, this generation's lifespan will be shorter than the previous.

Will we ever admit it? Or will we continue to avoid the mirror?

We love to blame the "thems" of the world, but the fact of the matter is America can't leave the Middle East because we­ with 5 percent of the world's population and 2.7 percent of the world's oil reserves– use 26 percent of its oil. Damn near all that's left is in the Persian Gulf controlled by Moslem states that generally don't like us.

We love to blame the "thems," but traffic planners have said for a decade that you can't build your way out of congestion. Every single highway project, each parking garage, gets more people to drive more places at more times. Within five years, virtually every "improvement" is overwhelmed and has succeeded only in worsening problems.

We love to blame the "thems," but since the 1990 Clean Air Act gave power and manufacturing plants an economic incentive to produce less sulfur dioxide, industry has cut emissions immensely. The largest producer of greenhouse gases­ and fastest growing emitter ­ is our transportation sector. While cars, boats, planes, and trains create the most global warming and the most pollution, 87 percent of Americans arrive at work in an automobile.

We love to blame the "thems" of the world, but for 20 years HMOs­ and CEOs and doctors– have been telling us to make our kids get exercise. Today, though, only 17 percent of kids arrive at school under muscle power (compared to seven in ten in 1960 when we were still a healthy nation), and the Census bureau can count the number of adults who use "active transportation" almost on one hand.

Will we ever admit it? Will we look in the mirror?

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, help us take responsibility­ or act Republican­ to mitigate so many societal issues­ or act Democratic­ by 1) stopping the construction of any more automobile infrastructure; 2) slapping an annual tax increase on gasoline; and 3) using that new and saved money to build mass transit.

Everything you suggest is needed, Mr. President and Mr. Governor, would be accomplished by getting us out of our cars. The research shows that at least 20 percent of a household's car trips could be accomplished easily by other means­ like riding a bike or walking. The research shows that pollution, global warming, congestion, and health and foreign policy issues would all improve if more and more of us made the choice to walk to the bus stop. The research shows that, if we think about it, we can cut the 2.8 trillion­ yep, that's trillion with a ­ miles we drive every year.

Instead, we're drive more every year, using 163 billion­ yes, that's billion with a B– gallons of fuel annually in turning a key 411 billion times annually. We could, right now, carpool, get all our errands done in one trip, and try out the bike to head over to the neighbors and the bus to downtown.

And in the long term, wow:

Growth in the suburbs would slow without regulation, Mr. Governor, if we commuters knew that every year gasoline would cost more because of an annual increase in gas taxes.

Technological innovation would sprout without government handouts, Mr. President, if we buyers knew that with another gas tax hike coming, gas guzzlers certainly aren't the answer.

And if we had known that years ago, look where we would be today:

n Under the Kyoto greenhouse gas emission figures even if we aren't in the formal program.

n Spending a lot less than today's $117 billion annually fighting obesity.

n Not having to repair highways so regularly and therefore flush with more state money to spend on, say, education.

n Able to get around without a car much, much, much easier and knowing how to do it.

n Perhaps not fighting in Iraq because that's where the oil is.

n Better respected in the world community because we're handling our addiction.

n Driving the world's first commercial all-electric vehicle, GM's Impact.

But we didn't know years ago, Mr. President and Mr. Governor, so the Impact couldn't find buyers, and GM switched to something more profitable, called the Hummer.

And, partially because of that switch, GM, the quintessential American company, is on the verge of bankruptcy. And the planet's on the verge of destruction.

Must we bankrupt the country and destroy the world before we learn that it's not "them," but it's us?

Randy Salzman is a mass communications professor at the Virginia Union University in Richmond.