August 8, 2008

August 8, 2008 | Commentary on Energy and Environment

Pelosi's Great American Con Game

Let's hear it for automobiles.

They are the great American freedom machines.

They offer us enormous opportunities to go where we want, when we want. They are even more energy-efficient than the mass transit systems touted by "smart growth" advocates.

Autos dramatically expand the geographical area in which people can work, shop, eat, attend school or just enjoy themselves without the extra time needed to match public transit schedules or to walk or bike. With extra range of movement comes a huge range of extra opportunity.

It's quite convenient to live near where you work -but why limit your choices of where and how to live and raise your family? Even if you find a place that combines a great job setting with a good place to live, is it permanent? Every year, four in 10 Americans change jobs. Those aged 18 to 34 typically change jobs nine times before they turn 35.

No other transportation mode offers the flexibility of the automobile, including the ability to separate our place of work from our place of abode and from our places of recreation.

Yet professional planners have persuaded government to sink billions into trying to push us into mass transit. Since 1970, more than half a trillion dollars have been pumped into mass transit subsidies. The result? More than 95 percent of America's workers still drive to work.

Indeed, mass transit's share of overall commuter miles traveled has dropped steadily for decades, until this year's $4-a-gallon gas.

The higher prices pushing us off our roads are being hailed by some. The Washington Post editorialized that rising fuel prices are "a happy development for proponents of public transportation." But not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of having to sacrifice our freedom of mobility because "green" politicians chose to "save the planet" by hampering our country's ability to produce affordable energy.

By condemning Americans for our supposed addiction to automobiles, green extremists (and many in the media) try to make us feel guilty so that we'll accept their agenda meekly. Yet Al Gore and his entourage arrived at his recent "Save the Planet" speech in air-conditioned limousines and an SUV, even after encouraging "other people" to ride bikes or take mass transit. The convenience of the automobile is so great that it outweighed the guilt for limousine liberals!

Liberals also assert that it's cheaper to ride than to drive, a claim that depends upon perspective. Those who shift from cars to mass transit can save money for themselves (at a cost of less personal convenience), but it's not an overall saving of money or energy. Public bus and rail systems get 75 percent of their operating costs from taxpayer subsidies, and only 25 percent from riders' fares, so that expense is simply shifted to taxpayers when people shift to transit.

Nor does transit save energy. U.S. Department of Transportation figures show that transit buses actually consume more energy (in BTUs) per passenger mile than autos do! Further, as charted by the U.S. Department of Energy, American buses average 4,650 BTUs per passenger mile, compared to only 3,702 for autos. Rail travel does slightly better, with 3,172 on average, but rail's energy consumption figures are higher in cities due to stop-and-go nature of commuter rail.

Then there's the congestion argument. The New York Times' John Tierney reported, "As documented by the Texas Transportation Institute, when you take population growth into account, traffic congestion has been increasing more rapidly in the cities that haven't been building roads. The reason for Los Angeles' traffic morass is that it didn't build enough freeways, incredible as that sounds."

Roads have gone unbuilt because the "user pays" principle of transportation has been violated. Highway trust funds (your highway user taxes) have been siphoned off. Whereas other forms of transportation receive subsidies, drivers pay subsidies.

Supposedly our fuel taxes go to build and maintain roads and bridges. But for many years at least a fifth of the money has been diverted into high-priced mass transit projects, bicycle paths and tourist attractions instead. That's a huge factor in the backlog of unbuilt and unkempt roads and highways.

Until it pays its own way, mass transit will be a parasite on the road system, worsening that system's ill health.

The recent drop in driving is lowering fuel tax collections and generating interest in new options for highway funding. But killing the car is not a good option. Cars may evolve into vehicles that burn something other than gasoline, or are electric-powered, but personal vehicles will always serve a great purpose. Still, the smart-growth crowd would rather eradicate autos by the millions.

Can cars be improved? Absolutely. We should want to make them safer, more fuel-efficient and less polluting, so long as the vehicles also are affordable, reliable and practical. When government dictates the "improvements" rather than market forces, those mandates instead make vehicles more expensive, fragile and impractical.

Consumer demand is already generating positive change in the automotive market, as it always does. Government dictates can do more harm than good.

Trying to force everyone onto mass transit will never work. But be prepared for those who will use today's challenges to push us in that direction - perhaps as brutally as the professional pushers who cram riders into the cars of the Tokyo subway system.

It's time for drivers to stand up against efforts to demonize the automobile. Forcing people to use a particular mode of travel is not the American way. Life is better when you have the freedom to drive, not just find a ride or wait at bus stops.


Ernest Istook is recovering from serving 14 years in Congress and is now a distinguished fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Energy and Environment

First appeared on World Net Daily