May 28, 2008

Energy Efficiency and Better Transportation

After the American Century

Energy should be a key issue of this presidential campaign. The US has had a failed energy policy under Bush. Consumption of all forms of energy has risen. Imports of oil, in particular, have burdened the economy and made the nation increasingly dependent on uncertain suppliers. Undemocratic regimes control much of the world's oil, notably in Venezuela, Nigeria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, while one could discuss whether there really is democracy in Russia or Iraq. Americans are pumping billions of dollars into these economies every time they tank up.

The only solution seriously advanced by the Bush Administration has been that of substituting alcohol for some of that gasoline. This has pleased farmers, as they can grow more corn that before and get higher prices for it, too. But the diversion of agricultural production to providing oil substitutes is not a wise choice, for world agricultural prices are rising so fast that millions of people are now on the brink of starvation.

Fortunately, there are other solutions. Unfortunately, Americans have been slow to embrace them. Least glamorous, but most effecive, is conservation. I drive a car that gets about 43 miles to the gallon, double the US average. (I should have bought one that is even more efficient.) If all Americans purchased such automobiles, their vast consumption of oil would drop by 50%. Furthermore, I have chosen to live relatively near to my place of work, so my round trip is less than 10 miles. Few Americans live that close. Better yet, the Danish government has built a comprehensive system of cycle trails, including traffic lights, that makes it safe and convenient to bike to work. It takes me no more than 20 minutes each way, while driving is only 5 to 8 minutes faster. Few places in the US have provided such an infrastructure, so Americans drive even short distances because that is often the only safe alternative when going to buy milk or a newspaper. By my rough estimate, compared to Europeans, Americans drive twice as far using cars that are only half as efficient. In short, if Americans switched to more efficient cars they would import much less oil. By reducing demand, they might also push down the price at the pump.

But buying the right kinds of cars is only the beginning. Let me be blunt. My fellow Americans, you have been squandering billions of dollars driving cars that are larger than you need. You have devoted half the land in your cities to roads, driveways, and parking lots. You have imprisoned yourselves in an inefficient and individualistic transportation system that is now choking the nation almost to death. You once had a comprehensive system of mass transit, in the form of light-rail, that existed in every major city and most towns until c. 1930. You have abandoned that system in most places and almost destroyed the passenger railroad network as well. You should be demanding its reconstruction.

In 2008 it is long past time for a change. It is time to demand from presidential candidates the construction of high-speed railroads, of the sort long used successfully in Japan and France. These trains routinely go 200 miles an hour - or faster. It is 190 miles from Boston to New York, 225 miles from New York to Washington. Each trip would be about an hour on such a train. It could be possible to go from Chicago to Minneapolis in about two hours, or from St. Louis to Chicago even less. Flying should be for distances of at least 500 miles. It is idiotic to drive or to fly shorter distances, because the time and hassle needed to go to the airport, get through all the security arrangements, board, fly, disembark, collect bags and then travel to the city center, is hours longer than the time needed to take a good train for the same distance. Likewise, it is foolish to drive several hundred miles because it is tiring, expensive, and environmentally damaging. On the train (in Europe) you can sleep, relax, read a book, or surf the net.

In 2008 it is time to wake up to the pleasures of not driving and to discover the relief of not standing in lines at airports. Instead of bankrolling autocratic regimes that happen to have oil supplies, instead of pumping out exhaust and causing global warming, instead of spending billions of dollars in Iraq, ostensibly to build democracy, but also to protect access to oil, it is time to rebuild the US into a more efficient and competitive nation that does not need so much oil in the first place.