Salzman embodies elite 'cure' for fuel freedom

Randy Salzman’s plea to make energy more expensive [Hook February 9 print edition: “Gas tax…It will stop regulations and wars”] embodies his continuing longing for a European life style here in the United States. 

He quotes the cost to society of 54 cents per mile we drive. Not mentioned is the urban transit cost of 81 cents per mile (per the National Transit Database, 2007).

Not mentioned are the economic benefit and freedom of mobility values to our society, particularly to the low-income family.  A 2003 Harvard study concluded that owning a car was “more helpful to getting a job than getting a high-school-equivalent degree.”

Be it Growing Cooler, Moving Cooler, or Driving and the Built Environment, the social architects should read F.F. Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit.  Making energy and land use more expensive is the elitists’ cure for the common man.

Over 40,000 off-shore oil wells have been drilled. Accidents will eventually happen, just as train wrecks can be predicted. 

Charles Battig, MD
President, Piedmont Chapter
Virginia Scientists and Engineers for Energy and Environment

1 comment

Thank you, Dr. Battig. This is exactly what is needed; a dialogue over transportation issues. In the post World War II period, there have been little, if any, discussion on the basic premise that we need more driving space and less driving cost which shows up in virtually all American local “transportation improvement plans.” Even here, in our “progressive” community of Charlottesville, our dollars and planning efforts are heavily skewed towards building more roadways because we haven't recognized that there are issues and societal costs created by our driving.

One issue, as you point out, is equity. Most think it is "regressive" to tax gasoline because it hurts the poor. We do indeed have a system where having a car is more important to having a job than education and motivation. Consider our local Charlottesville Area Transit System. On the vast majority of its routes, the “headway time” (space between buses) is an hour. No employee can chance, therefore, missing the bus. He/she wouldn’t be “late;” he/she would be fired. Yet, according to the National Transportation and Revenue study, nationally we are subsidizing highways at an annual cost of $145 billion vs subsidizing transit at an annual cost of $39 billion. Different research projects indicate that families headed by men use 30 percent more gasoline/diesel annually than do families headed by women and white families use 11 percent more gasoline/diesel than do minority families. Furthermore, data indicates that over 80 percent of nationwide transit trips are from families which have less than $50,000 in annual income.

The point: the poor already take the bus and they have, generally, lousy service, yet our tax dollars support building more freeways before they do any other form of transportation. Still, in an era of greenhouse emissions, foreign wars in oil fields, and what the U.S. Geologic Survey calls “the Big Rollover” and what others call “Peak Oil.”

Yes, it costs more to run a bus than it costs to run a car as you point out. It’s in the per-capita costs that society finds itself better off by running buses. Some 87 percent of America’s 411 billion trips are in single occupancy vehicles, according to Department of Transportation figures. Still, as you suggest but may not recognize, the American transit rider today is the most subsidized in the developed world where fares provide generally only 10-15 percent of any transit agency’s annual budget. Too often our buses are running too close to empty because we’ve made driving such a “natural” choice through three generations of planning all transportation around building more car space. Rather than subsidize transit more, we need to encourage more transit ridership because it addresses several American issues, from global warming, to foreign policy, to congestion, to pollution and – perhaps most importantly – to health which, of course, is your field.

Certainly, you and all your fellow doctors recognize that Americans fail miserably in getting the required amount of exercise for healthy living, right? In other cultures, which have better mass and muscle-powered transportation systems, they get immensely more hours of physical fitness.

Though you think I want us to be European, the continent that I consider the best model is Australia, a country which has even more wide open spaces and even greater per capita car ownership than we do, yet is successfully reducing vehicle kilometers annually about 13 percent (depending upon what metropolitan area). In the first part of Australia to begin, around Perth in Western Australia, after a decade they were reporting 7 million additional hours of physical fitness annually because more and more people are choosing to walk/bike to work and, more importantly, walking to the bus stop. (Also, 4.2 million more transit boardings, 88 million less tons of CO2 emissions, 30 million fewer car starts and $25 million more dollars in citizen pockets. Again, annually). Though Aussies are very much like Americans, they have lower rates of obesity and adult onset diabetes still waits until puberty. In 1960, the first U.S. census to study school transportation, about 70 percent of kids got to school under their own power. In 2000, that number had dropped to 17 percent as more and more mothers/fathers insisted that for “safety” their children had to be driven. In Australia, where they do NOT have school buses like we do, those percentages are going in the opposite direction.

It’s fun, Dr. Battig, to be considered an “elitist.” You gave my wife, and others who know me, a great laugh. I’m a Texas redneck who spent the first 15 years of my working life in the oil patch. I’m proud to say that I can still throw a chain with the best of the roughnecks; that I can still weld; that I still work on my cars (and, yes, I own two of them) and my bicycles (where I’ve got several more) and I think nothing of re-building houses. I ran a turret lath and drove a truck professionally. My son served in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- where the poor, working class tend to end up much more than the elite – although I missed Vietnam because my navy ship was never sent on a WestPac. Politically, I like to say that I’m rabidly middle of the road but my wife, I think, believes I lean conservative and the internet attacks tend to suggest I’m leaning the other direction (though attack I love the most was that I am “Limbaugh lite.”)

God, I hope there are other "elitists" out there like me. And I think you might be one, Dr. Battig. Transportation is a complex issue –there are no easy answers – and you seem to be someone who does not simply accept the conventional, even if it is written, wisdom. Please, please, please continue to research and think in this field. I submit that the more you search (as I did), the more you will realize that the American default position of key in the ignition* to get anywhere, everywhere and often nowhere is harming us as a nation.

Thanks for your letter.

*My little ode to Jesse Jackson…