End of the Road: Oil Addiction is Ripe for Intervention

Once again, sales of trucks and sport utility vehicles are outpacing car sales. Have we already forgotten $4 a gallon gas, plunging SUV values and presidential warnings of oil addiction? Are we driving down the road to renewed prosperity, or further dependence?

In their forthcoming book “The End of the Road,” local authors Joseph McKinney, president of Oregon Roads Vehicle Leasing and Sales, and co-author Amy Isler Gibson write that these price fluctuations reflect the challenge of adjusting to a long-term trend of decreasing oil supply, global warming and increased pollution from the unbridled rise of gas guzzlers. They also question the Obama administration’s plans to fund vast transportation infrastructure projects that will encourage continued dependence on the car and result in a continued strategic dependence on foreign oil.

Instead, the authors argue, we must redesign our roads for cleaner, more efficient, humane passage, with complete streets designed as boulevards for walking, biking and public transportation. Central to their argument is the need to dethrone the car and replace it with neighborhood electric vehicles if we are to reclaim our urban core dominated by the infernal combustion engine.

But why now, when prices are so low? Because they aren’t. In 1998 the International Center for Technology Assessment pegged the true cost of gas between $5 and $15 a gallon. Such external costs as government subsidies for oil companies, pollution-related health care, infrastructure needs not funded by gas taxes, military expenditures to maintain oil supplies, environmental protection and cleanup were borne by society, but were not factored into the price at the pump. Add inflation over 10 years plus two new wars, and the current true cost of a gallon of gas is even higher.

Because the price of oil does not include external costs, it is priced as a subsidized commodity, lower that what the free market would determine, perpetuating our addiction. As oilman T. Boone Pickens notes, this has led to the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the world.

In 2007 Lane County residents paid out $637 million to countries such as the United Arab Emirates, currently building the tallest structure in the world. While we baked in gas lines last summer, Dubai residents skied their indoor winter playground.

President Obama agrees that we are oil addicts, claiming “… admitting to oil addiction without following a real plan for energy independence is like admitting alcoholism and then skipping out on the 12-step program.”

That demand will slacken with higher gas prices was proved last summer. People drove less, making beneficial changes such as walking, riding a bike, carpooling and trip chaining. But as the need for public transportation grew, service was ironically cut due to higher fuel charges.

I am an educator by training, but I don’t have faith that education can thwart addictions. Like an addict, we’ll do what we can to get our fix, even if it means turning food into bioethanol, raising the cost for ourselves and threatening the source of sustenance for those with marginal incomes.

Blame evolution for our predicament. Psychologists tell us that our brains are hard-wired to respond to threats that are close at hand. We don’t immediately see our mileage cut in half or twice the pollution for short distance trips with a cold engine.

In 1980, when oil imports accounted for about 30 percent of our needs, presidential candidate John Anderson called for a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax. Had we adopted that tax, the resulting decrease in consumption could have cut pollution-related health care expenses and reduced taxes that support military spending, now half the world’s total, most of which is dedicated to protecting Middle East oil supplies. Additionally, we would have raised about $100 billion per year to fund increased mass transit, additional bike routes, alternative energy, and improved roads and bridges.

But our addiction spoke, we rejected Anderson’s proposal as well as his candidacy, and we now import more than 60 percent of our oil.

So, we are left with the ever-present problem of how to raise the price of the drug to discourage the addict’s use. This will take an intervention from the top of our government to reverse an addiction to oil that threatens our nation’s health, wealth and security. And it will take our collective will and some inconvenience as we make personal changes necessary to achieve energy independence. But without this leadership and our acceptance, the addict will not change his ways.

By Jim Wilcox
2.12.09/ Appeared in Eugene Register Guard: Thursday, Feb 12, 2009, p. A9

Jim Wilcox is executive director of the BikeLane Coalition, which works with businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups to increase cycling for short distance inner city travel. He was recently appointed to the Lane County Roads Advisory Committee.

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Rickshaws under threat in Dhaka

A Rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A Rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A recent parliamentary decision in Bangladesh further extends the rickshaw ban across many parts of Dhaka. This anti-people initiative was taken apparently on the basis of some prejudices against fuel free transportation, rickshaw in particular, without any regard to proper scientific investigation.

It is hoped that authorities will eventually see the importance of fuel-free transport. Given the small modal share of automobiles and the many problems they cause, there should be no provision for creating more auto-only roads within urban areas, and all existing auto-only roads should be converted into mixed-use roads by properly integrating public transit with other modes.

Lessons can be learned from the Mirpur Road Demonstration project before proceeding with transport planning, where fuel free transport (rickshaws and rickshaw vans) were banned. This case showed a very different direction from that of current transport initiatives in Dhaka. The answer lies in the “After Project” report of a government-mandated study into the project, which showed a number of key congestion indices with respect to before and after scenarios including:

No travel time gain for fuel-dependent vehicles was achieved due to the rickshaw ban. Bus travel has worsened following the rickshaw ban; passenger travels by bus has become slower than by rickshaw. An increase in congestion due to taxi operators reluctant to take short trips, causing significant increases in waiting times for passengers. The economic impact of the fuel-free transport ban has been devastating; figures show losses as high as Tk 1.52 billion (€10 milliard) per year in the area. Overall, the banning of fuel-free transport has deteriorated accessibility of the majority of road users by cutting access to side roads, destroying the continuity of the transport system, and hampering door-to-door mobility of passengers. In government sponsored studies the overall net impact of rickshaw ban was disproportionately in the negative side.

It may be mentioned here that after failure of the rickshaw ban in the demonstration project of the Mirpur Road, the World Bank has set the standard of extending further bans on the condition that: “Any future support from the World Bank would be possible only if it can be demonstrated that aggregate positive impacts of NMT-free conversion on transport users and transport providers outweigh the aggregate negative impact”. We hope it will set the minimum standard for all decision makers and transport professionals in Bangladesh prior to embarking on any potentially regressive transport policy.

Yet policies continue to give car owners absolute priority, while ignoring the fundamental principle of any transport project appraisal, that is, that net user benefits of any transport intervention must exceed net loss. The double standard of providing absolute priority to a tiny minority of car owners, while at the same time restricting environmentally friendly and efficient rickshaws, not only has no scientific basis as far as congestion management is concerned, also infringes on the fundamental rights of the vulnerable rickshaw drivers to earn a living by legal means. Moreover, such ban will increase sufferings of the most vulnerable road users, such as, women, children and disables by depriving them from having their most suitable means of transport.

A mother and a child on a rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

A mother and a child on a rickshaw ©Maruf Rahman

As people’s representatives, we hope to uphold the fundamental principal of social justice and transport policy appraisal on the basis of economic efficiency and social equity and revoke further ban on rickshaws and reintroduce them where they were previously banned without further delay.

Mahabubul Bari

International Expert on Transportation Infrastructure

Ministry of Infrastructure , Republic of Rwanda

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