ESSAY- Obama's botch: He just asked us to drive more

"We can utter a sentence rarely heard," President Obama told the U.S. Department of Transportation in April. "This government effort is coming in ahead of schedule and under budget."

Unfortunately, this government effort is a short-term solution which will make long-term problems worse, as it has already released $28 billion in stimulus funds for 2,000 highway projects which, the data indicate, will lead to more driving which will lead to more more pollution, more global warming, and a less healthy nation.

Although President Obama says he backs sustainability and wants to get American troops out of the last major undeveloped oil fields on the planet, this short-term stimulus of making driving easier will erase positive actions in those fields. Even though he wants better health care, making driving easier will cajole more people, especially school children, to abandon muscle-powered transportation for the ease and convenience of four-wheeled air conditioning. 

This effort will lead to greater congestion, as some 90 percent of new urban freeways are overwhelmed in five years. Why? The perception of decreased travel times leads more drivers to get on those freeways which produces higher annual vehicle miles traveled which produces more delays which produces more pollution and requires more oil.

According to the bi-annual "Urban Mobility Report" from the Texas Transportation Institute, America would have to build 16,203 miles of new roadway annually to hold the congestion line– a line of 4.2 million lost hours and $78 billion lost dollars. In 2005, the average American lost $710 and 38 hours being stuck in traffic, a 300 percent increase since 1982.

In the roadway world, if you build it, drivers do indeed come, multiplying all the problems created by driving.

Consider Atlanta. After 40 years of freeway growth which includes the merger of three main interstate highways and an expansive, eight-lane loop, it is the world's most inefficient transportation city, requiring 782 gallons per capita for its citizens to get around.

The remainder of the worst ten cities are all American because Europe and Asia have been building mass transit and bicycle-pedestrian infrastructure– with gasoline tax dollars– during the same years that America has been building automobile roads.

U.S. politicians, both local and national, are stymied by the fact that they depend upon self-involved voting drivers in a culture where entire philosophies are explained on bumper stickers. And rather than address America's oil addiction by simply expanding the gasoline tax to decrease our driving, President Obama is trying to counter his stimulus spending by building the politically-easier "cap-and-trade" carbon system.

A cap-and-trade system will fail to address the worst greenhouse cause while requiring the building of another federal bureaucracy with all the inherent potential for inefficiency and corruption that regularly shows up in other bureaucracies.

We driving voters hope the cap-and-trade system would force industry to improve its emissions enough to solve global warming. Already, over the past 20 years, the ratio of American emissions to gross domestic product– has been trimmed by 23 percent. Industry and commerce, in short, have been mitigating CO2 emissions. So further government regulations will simply move heavy industries to under-developed, less-regulated countries and, in the process, make our trade deficit and unemployment worse.

To be truly effective, the cap-and-trade system would need to be applied to the nation's 300 million citizens, a political and practical impossibility. With more cars than drivers, Uncle Sam would either have to know where every car was at every moment or would have to piggy-back on the auto fuel distribution system– in effect raising the gasoline tax.

Today, transportation accounts for about 60 percent of America's oil usage and produces the most greenhouse emissions. More than industry, more than commerce, more than housing.

With 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States produces 45 percent of the entire planet's automotive carbon dioxide– about 1,600 million metric tons–- in our driving of almost three trillion (yes, with a T) miles annually. With one in 20 of the world's citizens, America is using over a quarter of the world's petroleum production.

So if politicians are concerned about the greenhouse effect, the trade deficit, congestion, or energy independence, making driving easier is a losing proposition. 

Forcing GM to build greener cars, as the President similarly desires, also sounds like a great solution. But if suddenly Chevrolet could produce its new Volt cheap enough to make money, it would still take almost two decades to turn over the 251 million gasoline and diesel vehicles in America (only one in 19 of our cars are junked annually), and we'd be burning more coal, or nuclear, to charge that many electric cars. 

Even before that new electricity demand, Australian professor Ted Trainer analyzed best-case scenarios for wind, solar, biomass, and hydrogen to conclude that renewable energy cannot sustain a consumer society– even a consumer society which uses half as much carbon as the typical American burns today.  

Further complicating the higher mileage solution is that the history of CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, indicates clearly that building more fuel-efficient vehicles cajoles buyers of such vehicles to drive more. We– and I'm one who learned by personal experience– compensate for our lessened pollution by driving more miles.  

Over the 30-year lifetime of CAFÉ, economists report that this "rebound effect" has cajoled new, higher-mileage car owners to increase their annual driving by at least two percent. With congestion already causing each American to waste 26 gallons of fuel annually, higher mileage cars put more drivers on the road for more miles.

Hydrogen fuel cells, meanwhile, suffer the same problems with the added issue of there not being the infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations along the roadways.

And by now the four-year-old ethanol dodge should be exposed. After driving food prices higher and hurting everything from foreign trade to school lunches for the underprivileged, ethanol refineries are already going bankrupt while gas mileage decreases relative to the amount of grain alcohol in the fuel tank.

The only rational mitigation of so many of our national problems is for Americans to drive less. The only rational way to get us driving less is a stronger gasoline "user fee." Instead, however, our government is spending tax– or rather borrowed– dollars to make driving more attractive by building and improving highways.

"It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself," Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her 2006 shocker, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, "but that is what we are now in the process of doing."


A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.