ESSAY- Dumb drivers: Choosing congestion over inspiration
The plus: With Uncle Sam reporting that American driving actually declined last year for the first time since the 1979 Arab oil embargo, we're spewing less pollution and less greenhouse gas, creating less congestion, and moderating our oil imports.
The minus: Much of the 4.3 percent decline is on rural, two-lane highways, indicating that drivers are foregoing weekend trips and vacations more than changing their day-to-day behavior.
The cause of both the plus and the minus is, of course, consumer response to rapid gasoline price hikes. The minus implies that the consumer is yet again irrational when it comes to American transportation.
While cutting vacations may seem reasonable, it's the least intelligent, most economically destructive way to save gas money. Acerbic Time magazine columnist Michael Kinsley calls Americans "idiots" for their inability to control our oil habit, and even the comic strip "Cathy" makes fun of how we fail to recognize the cost of staying versus the cost of going.
Here are some numbers to chew on.
According to the Department of Transportation, about 40 percent of our car trips are less than three miles– which, in places of high congestion like suburban Northern Virginia is as fast on a bicycle as in a car.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, about 60 billion car trips a year are commutes, and most of those commutes take place where transit runs, and virtually all take place where carpooling is an option.
But, according to the DOT, 87 percent of us commute alone.
According to the Census, three percent of Virginia commuters now make an "extreme commute"-– over 90 minutes one way.
In short, pitting jammed "freeways" five days a week against a weekend hike at Crab Tree Falls, suburban Americans are choosing daily congestion.
To steal Governor Tim Kaine's comment last year about raising gasoline taxes to afford transportation improvements, changing our transportation behavior rather than our recreation behavior "would be logical, and therein lies the problem."
We ain't logical.
Recreational driving, we should realize, is more financially desirable because our vacations and day-trips boost the economy much more than our typical commutes.
First, in general, there are substitutions for the single-occupancy commute. Sign up for RideShare, take the bus, carpool with a co-worker, live closer to the job and bike.
Second, the money we spend at Monticello boosts our economy, and the money we expend commuting boosts the resources of America-hater Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's strong man. When Mom, Dad, and junior show up to tour the House of Jefferson, they likely add lunch or dinner and maybe even an overnight. Indeed, every dollar Mom pulls out of her purse is re-spent an estimated seven times before it heads out of town, boosting sales tax, jobs, and area income.
Third, when we pile Mom, Dad, junior, and sis in the car, we're being more efficient because we're carrying 450+ pounds rather than 180 for virtually the same quantity of gas and getting better gas mileage in the process.
Fourth, the trip is usually family time, something disappearing from the American landscape, as more and more kids have TVs and computers in their rooms and cell phones at their ear.
Instead of staring at an endless line of tail lights, worried about your engine overheating, wouldn't you rather be showing your family the brilliance of Monticello? The beauty of the Appalachian Trail? The history of the New Market Battlefield? The wonders of Luray Caverns?
Before the recent gasoline price hikes, at least grandma would. Then, the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry was grandparents grabbing their grandkids and heading out on the open road.
The open road, the one that shows up in all the car commercials but never appears on the Beltway where drivers are exercising that in-bred American right to forego rational thinking.
We're actually more content to squander gasoline stifling road rage than hiking in the Shenandoah. Something seems irrational to me.