ESSAY- No holiday: McCain & Clinton, see the error of your ways

The writers of The Federalist Papers were right: our political system pretty much demands our candidates pander to our short-term, self-involved thinking.

"Courageous" John McCain and "fighter" Hillary Clinton are only the latest in a long line of politicians to "see which way the parade is going and get in front." But their pandering today is terrifying. 

In spite of the long-term economic, social, financial– and especially rational– common-sense observation that America needs to raise gasoline taxes to decrease single-occupancy driving, these presidential candidates are pandering by offering voters a gas tax holiday this summer.

To put it simply: making driving "easier" and "cheaper" will eliminate any chance of solving America's primary issues.

We've already sent our sons and daughters to the Middle East at least partially over its oil. We're already the fattest people on the planet in part because we no longer walk or bicycle anywhere. We're already creating the most greenhouse gases in the world because 87 percent of our commute trips are alone in a car. We're already so congested that it's costing over $63 billion annually. We've already found cancer-causing gasoline additive MTBE in the groundwater of 28 states.

Already, importing oil is the largest single chunk of our foreign trade deficit. Already, air pollution– excluding global warming– from car exhaust is costing us a minimum of $24 billion annually.

We already don't know our neighbors because we rarely get out of our cars.

Indeed, according to one study, the unrecovered cost of gasoline not included in the price we pay at the pump is over $10 a gallon. We're shooting ourselves in the foot because we and our politicians– even Al Gore, who pulled a similar stunt during the 2000 campaign– won't recognize that our drive-first attitude is hugely destructive.

From Nobel economist Gary Becker to energy guru Charles Maxwell to N.Y. Times editorialist Robert Franks– and, yes, even President Bush– every knowledgeable person who studies oil, environmental, health and foreign policy issues today says fairly clearly that we must address our addiction to oil.

Unfortunately, history shows that the only thing that slows America's thirst for foreign oil to burn in our 2.9 trillion– yes, with a T– driving miles is higher gasoline prices.

As humans, we Americans 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 less than five percent of the world's population and 2.7 percent of the world's oil reserves– use 26 percent of its petroleum annually. Two in three barrels of proven oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf.

We love to blame the "thems," but traffic planners have said for a decade that America can't build our way out of congestion. Every single highway project gets more people to drive more places at more times and usually worsens our suburban sprawl.

We love to blame the "thems," but since "Daddy" George Bush's Clean Air Act gave power and manufacturing plants an economic incentive to emit less sulfur dioxide, industry has reduced CO2 emissions by 23 percent relative to GDP. Today, America's largest producer of greenhouse gasses– and fastest growing emitter– is our transportation sector. Our planes, trains, and automobiles create the most global warming and the most pollution of all the sectors of the economy.

We emit almost half of the world's automotive CO2.

We love to blame the "thems," but for 20 years HMOs– and CEOs and MDs– 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 "adult onset diabetes" no longer waits for puberty.

Senator McCain, you know very well that Americans need to take personal responsibility (or act Republican) to mitigate so many societal issues, or act Democratic by 1) taxing gasoline and diesel significantly to discourage frivolous use; 2) using the new and saved monies to build mass transit as fast as we can while 3) halting construction of more automobile infrastructure.

You say, Senators, that you have the "experience" of reaching across the aisle. Where, Senator McCain, is your vaunted "courage" for showing us the truth? Or, Senator Clinton, your "readiness to answer the 3am call" from across the world?

With 75 percent of 38,000 Pew Trust respondents worldwide saying that America is fighting in Iraq not to spread democracy or even to stop weapons of mass destruction, but to seek oil, you must be aware, Senators, that our thirst for oil is destroying our foreign policy.

Certainly, you know that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez threatens, regularly, to cut us off. You should know that Nigeria is on the verge of a civil war. And you must know the other nine OPEC nations are all Islamic.

America, as both of you have to understand, needs higher gasoline taxes. A tax holiday today will only put each of your administrations– should either of you be successful– further behind a horrifying eight ball.

Randy Salzman, a former communications professor, is a Charlottesville-based freelance writer.



Thank you for the intelligent and spot-on essay regarding oil and transportation issues in America. As I stop at the traffic light before crossing 29 N on Rio Rd during my daily bike commute to work, I typically count the single occupancy vehicles. Sadly, it is always 95-100% of cars with only a driver, usually on a cell phone. The last few drivers always stomp the gas to make it through the intersection on a red light only to slam on the brakes for the red light at Albermarle Sq. Too many drivers only think about racing to the next red light. I look forward to the day when gas hits the $7 dollar/gallon range and people change their oil consumption habits. It is an issue that crosses all socio-economic divisions and includes all the ignorant "if I can afford, I can have it" Hummer drivers. Let's work to keep the focus local and support the forward thinking initiatives of the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT). Thank you for the great essay! No Gas Holiday!

this is an important essay-- a must read. Perhaps we can get serious about alternative transportation and contribute towards making the situation better, greener. this issue extends beyond our wallets and our parks. the issue is international, it is one of foreign policy, and we are on the losing team.

This essay speaks truth to power. Our current lifestyle is unsustainable and anyone who thinks a little will know this is true.

I started commuting on foot or by bike last June. I lost the 10 pounds I'd been wanted to lose for years and found it not nearly as hard to do as I had expected. No parking fees or trouble finding parking. Gas prices don't affect me that much.

It's a change we need to make. My wife talked me into it, and she was right to do so. I heartily encourage anyone who can do so to make this change. The world needs it.

I'm in my 50s with at least another decade of commuting ahead of me. If I can do it, a lot of you can do it, too.

It is highly unlikely that we can slow Global Warming without eliminating fossil-fuel-derived energy (oil, coal), which produce Greenhouse gases. Energy demand continues to soar worldwide while oil production begins to decline. Those in denial pray for a technological miracle, while doing nothing to modify their automobile-dependent life styles. Can we continue to stay pillowed in our comfort zones when UN Demographers predict a 48% increase in an energy-hungry world population of 9.2 billion by 2050. Those who would emulate Nero should buy violins.

Andy, just because a person chooses to wrap themselves up in 7,000 pounds of metal (Hummer) doesn't mean they are ignorant. I think it makes them pretty smart after watching the same drivers out here that you just commented on, the ones who drag race from red light to red light, and the ones who stomp on the accelerator and run red traffic lights. It's not a pretty picture when they run over somebody on a bicycle. I would never get out on the public highways on a bicycle or a motorcycle.

Randy, you've written a smart, overdue essay and it deserves wide circulation. I realize it's politically difficult for candidates to call high gas prices a good thing, but Hillary's and McCain's pandering is truly inexcusable. We have just gotten a glimpse of the environmental policies they would support if elected.

Yes, the proposal of a gasoline tax holiday is pandering to the electorate, especially since this proposal is unlikely to be enacted in 2008. Moreover, the 18.5 cent per gallon federal gasoline tax, which is supposed to be a highway user fee, is way to low, especially since no sales tax applies to motor fuels.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Higher gas prices are helpful though. But, lets not forget about public policy. How much money is this region going to spend to build a road through a public park (aka Meadow Creek Parkway)?? The commenter above who complained that it is too dangerous to walk and bike in this area has a point. How many pedestrians/bicyclists have been struck by vehicles? Especially on Rio Road?? How much money is this region spending on building infrastructure to make walking / bicycling safe? If you follow the money you will know where the regional priorities lie. So, while higher gas prices may affect driving, what can we do to affect public policy?? How do we get our politicians to see alternative transportation not as a fringe expenditure but rather as part of an integrated multi-modal system?

I wish people would respond to rational sensibility rather than waiting for escalating prices to get us to conserve, but they will not. Salman's perscription is the only medicine that will work.

Randy, your essay hits the nail on the head. Cable media ignoring Peak Oil and sustainability issues is a criminal act in my opinion. A gas tax holiday does nothing to properly address this.

Five years ago, I made a bet with myself to try to "get by" on 50 gallons of gas for an ENTIRE YEAR. I succeeded in squeeking in under 50 gallons and have made this bet with myself every year ever since. I don't drive a hybrid, but parked the car, and use the City trolly every day.

Oh no, Peak Oil! The world as we know it is coming to an end.

I think I'll suit up in my tin foil hat and underwear!

Yes, the idea of biking on a highway is frightening but this town is made up of more city streets than highways so there are plenty of alternative routes - google is even trying to get involved with a "Bike There" option. Never say never. Instead, why not support our local organization Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation (ACCT) to make our city streets better equipped for ALL modes of transportation and leave the highways to the hummers.

Sick of the Local Rambos offers an easy excuse to buy a Hummer over biking or walking: as long as everyone else is driving crazy, I have to rely on an automobile too. All of the reasons given in Salz's essay make it clear that we have to find a way to change this kind of thinking. Either we need more people courageously volunteering to go first (the more that switch to bikes and walking, the safer both modes become!). Or it will have to be the government's job to make everyone switch to alternative modes at the same time. I think we can accomplish a lot by taking the first steps ourselves, today. This coming week is bike week. Hope to see you out there.

Yes--and most of all, we need a return to traditional (as in, pre-Bauhaus, pre-WWII) urban design practices so that walking from home to a shop, school, office, or restaurant becomes possible, let alone practical and pleasant.

For those worried about safety on a bike...A few years ago I did that research and in 2002, 690 people died on a bicycle from all causes and 43,300 something died in a car from accidents (did not include other health factors like heart attacks enroute --which were included in bike fatalities because if had heart attack, then you'd wreck your bike.)

Furthermore, the research out of Europe is very clear. The more bicyclists there are, the less absolute number of and percentage number accidents there are.

Also, Alexis Zeigler has an insightful piece on the overall issue at

Checking it out will provide you with more "Reason, Research, Resonance, Real Word Events" that Howard Gardner's "Changing Minds" indicates we must have to make a difference.

Thanks to Randy Salzman for creating this piece for us to reflect upon. I am a single parent with a 7 year old child. The best thing we have done is pass along our car and buy a used tandem bicycle. We bike 6 miles to school and back and then some most days. We feel more connected to our environment around us and traverse our city at a slower pace-- which does contribute to greater contentment.
Plus, Community Bikes has taught us how to repair our bike as needed and enabled us to share with others.

I would love to be able to bike to work or shopping, but can't afford to live anywhere close around here! Biking in to work on 29-S would be totally impractical.

Yes - avoid blaming the "thems". I realize that some people have 4 kids and drive into town daily and commuting by bike just isn't an option for everyone. But take a moment to look at your lifestyle. How can carpooling help out? How can combining errands help out? How can planning where you live and work impact each other? Would you actually SAVE money moving closer to town? Try to do things more local. If your kids see you jump into your car each and every time you go anywhere, they are going to learn the same habits. I know it takes thought, but will help all of "us" and save "you" money as well.
Gas at 7.00 a gallon would change our habits, but it would also mean my bananas would cost 3 bucks a pound at the grocery. Lets try to fix this mess ourselves before we are forced.

What a great collection of comments :) to follow a truly excellent article. There are countless reasons to change our transportation habits and start traveling through our environment in a more practical way,... **huge health benefits from biking and walking, **dramatic environmental consequences if we don't start using the bike, transit, and our feet more for our daily trips, **huge economic savings for ourselves, our community, and our society, ****and it is so much more enjoyable than driving and sitting in traffic every single day of our lives!

as this article points out, maybe it is time for us to **stop feeling that it is too much for us to get out of our cars and try other options, **stop giving completely impractical, unsustainable, and societally debilitating subsidies to driving alone in an automobile, **and stop believing we are going to be saved by some technological fix that makes a completely impractical lifestyle practical.

i hope we can use the current and upcoming gasoline "crisis" to climb out of this impractical lifestyle that is based around the automobile. this is a great opportunity and i hope we can make the most of it!

Get involved with ACCT or donate money for this type of work if you are ready for some local change in this arena!!!!

Again, I've done some of the research which illustrates what many of the commenters are saying.

The conservative estimate of the subsidies America and American communities provide for driving is $295 billion annually. This does not include the cost of importing oil, about $275 billion annually, or the cost of "going after it" in places like Iraq, or the Persian Gulf, where we now have two complete carrier groups assuring the flow doesn't stop.

We truly are in a Catch 22. The real solutions are in local communities -- quit making driving easier and cheaper -- but the effects are primarily national and international and the only real solution, a serious gasoline tax has been destroyed by the population's inability to connect the dots of congestion, pollution, global warming, health and foreign policy. There is no incentive, truly, for local planners like Juan Wade or Harrison Rue to even think about Global Warming or Peak Oil. Let's praise them for being willing to look outside their "job boxes" and see the bigger picture.

We want the "easy solution" but NOTHING about this issue is easy; not to understand and not to address and not to solve.

Let's begin by saying clearly, no matter how much we might oppose his policies, that President Bush at least admitted that America is addicted to oil. This took political courage that even Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain won't show. Let's, furthermore, admit that it's our actions -- our default position of putting the key in the ignition -- that made it easier for him to go to war than to try and tell us the truth. Let's admit that industry is actually decreasing emissions compared to Gross Domestic Product and quit instantly blaming them. Let's recognize that U.S. oil companies control only 4 percetn of world petroleum reserves and quit blaming them for providing us what we demand -- the basis of the economic system.

Every single economist, from the left or the right, has said that we have to change our transportation behavior and one energy analyist has put it in these terms: "We may be seeing democracy in its death throes."

Of course, we may also be seeing Global Warming destroying 1/4 of all species on the planet in less than seven years UNLESS we curtail our C02 emissions -- most of which, in America, come out of our tailpipes.