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Perspective: Ending Oil’s Monopoly—a Blueprint for Mobility Choice

Perspective by Deron Lovaas, Federal Transportation Policy Director, Natural Resources Defense Council

Oil is a strategic commodity second to none—it underlies the global economy and even the American way of life. Of course, other countries benefit from this fact, with about $900 million flowing out of the US to buy foreign oil every day, and about 40% of that going to OPEC. [1] Our dependence on oil also means that America must support military engagements in regions, such as the Persian Gulf, to defend energy sources, such as pipelines and sea lanes. As a result, America continues to be entangled with unfriendly or shaky regimes, which compromises the safety of our troops and our foreign policy objectives.

Volatility hurts us too, for as we’ve learned the price of oil can rise sharply in a short period of time. This means our economic stability is at stake because of our reliance on oil. In fact, four of the last five recessions were started by an oil price spike. [2] Furthermore, our environment cannot continue to bear the brunt of carbon emissions stemming from our heavy use of oil. We must fight against the increasing amount of carbon pollution entering our atmosphere if we are to leave our planet in better shape for generations to come.

How do we go about tackling the economic, environmental and national security threats posed by oil’s strategic status in America? We need to work together with government, business, non-governmental and national security experts to develop smart policies that will strengthen fuel economy standards, shift us to alternative fuel development and increase transportation infrastructure investments.

One of the current focuses of Congress is the clean energy and climate bill. Part of that debate has been about the squeeze such a bill would put on oil imports by saving oil through increased development and deployment of cleaner, more efficient vehicles such as plug-in hybrids as well as increasing domestic production.

That last fact may be a surprise to some but analysis conducted by NRDC does indeed show that targeted capture and sequestration of emissions underground can do double-duty: Safely disposing of pollution, while using the proven technique of injecting carbon dioxide into dry wells to recover more of the remaining oil. [3] So a strong clean energy and climate bill will unleash investment in clean energy sources and help cut our dependence on oil.

The transportation sector accounts for about 70% of petroleum use in the US. Source: EIA. Click to enlarge.

Further progress requires that policymakers pay attention to “the other energy bill”—the transportation authorization, which will be taken up by Congress in 2010. Thanks to higher fuel economy standards currently proposed and to key provisions in legislation like the recently-passed House American Clean Energy and Security Act, we can expect to cut our nearly 20-million-barrel-a-day petroleum habit by more than one-fifth by 2030. We can, and must, do more for the sake of national security and the environment. And since about 70% of the oil we use goes to transportation (see diagram at right) that’s exactly where we should focus additional policy solutions.

Thankfully, federal transportation policy is up for renewal. Making it a tool for getting us off oil requires boosting mobility choices for consumers to give them exits from oil dependence and the gas-price rollercoaster we’ve been subjected to in recent years.

The recently released Blueprint for Mobility Choice [earlier post]—sponsored by the Institute for the Analysis for Global Security (IAGS) and supported by Anne Korin and Gal Luft of IAGS, Jim Woolsey (former CIA Chief), Bud McFarlane (former National Security Adviser), Cliff May (President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), and yours truly—follows four guiding principles that will move America’s transportation sector to a competitive market and help strip away oil’s status as a strategic commodity: Aligning price signals for consumers, basing investments on performance criteria including oil savings, pushing responsibility to the metropolitan level where most oil is consumed and deploying technology to improve transportation operations.

From these principles we derive a ten-point plan which would yield results, unlike much of our current pork-barrel transportation policy (some may remember the emblematic example of such spending, Alaska’s costly “bridge to nowhere” debated in the last federal transportation bill). This plan can be accessed by clicking on http://www.mobilitychoice.org/, and its adoption would yield three big results:

  1. First, there would be more, viable choices for consumers of transportation services. More rail, more buses, as well as innovative options for ride-sharing such as bus-rapid transit and jitneys—small buses popular in other countries and used in some metropolitan areas. These investments would also be better targeted to places where they stand a better chance of being fully loaded.

  2. Second, technology would help make our travel more efficient, by giving consumers real-time information about traffic and transit, making connections more seamless, improving traffic flow and reducing trips entirely via increased telecommuting. Technology has transformed communications, isn’t it time for it to do the same for transportation?

  3. Third, paying for transportation services would become more rational, by more accurately accounting for the costs of securing oil resources (an oil security fee), wear-and-tear on roads (high-occupancy toll lanes) and the risks of driving (pay-as-you-drive insurance).

Our representatives in Washington must act to implement policies that bode well for energy security and climate stability. This means tackling oil’s monopoly over the transportation fuel sector by focusing more on transportation policy. We need to develop cleaner, renewable sources of energy as well as alternative means of getting around. In short, we need mobility choice.

Deron Lovaas is the Federal Transportation Policy Director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can read more about the Blueprint for Mobility Choice at http://MobilityChoice.org.

[1] US Imports by Country of Origin (US EIA)

[2] CIBC World Market StrategEcon, 31 October 2008, p4.

[3] NRDC Policy Brief



Actualy ai win what realy happened there was gm THOUGHT busses were more modern then trollies.. and in a way they were right.

BUT busses have a problem.. Busses gained a bad image for various reasons and alot of people who liked trollies HATED busses. So the people with money left when the trollies did. And that further cemented the image of busses as being EVIL and trash and low class.

Now this isnt a problem in say europe because it didnt have that happen there. But its a big arse problem in the us where the bus is still considered the infested horde of white trash mobile parade.

You can even see this in the style of thier busses its clear early on they were thinking more like the busses of london and then some... They clearly never expected what happened. Gm wanted to form an empire based on busses.. and failed.


Ooookay; [and ai_vin nods, smiles weakly, and backs away slowly in a non-treatening manner]


Hey just because I have waaay too much useless trivia about everything useless and boring doesnt make me a freak!!!!


Good perspective on mass tran in US. What we see in LA is even when the light rail and subways are completed - they are not well populated.

I think light rail especially can be expanded by sharing energy (gas, alternatives) taxes with highway development. It also must be subsidized by municipalities. As the cost of personal ptransport decreases (EVs are far cheaper to operate) the cost comparison will greatly favor personal. So, buses, trolleys/light rail MUST cost less than EVs - meaning 50 cents a ride or less even.

Can municipalities absorb these costs?? Not without more taxes probably. And of course that causes furor in U.S.

IF a municipal light rail system added a premium service, say Dart pickup at your door to rail head,a business class car or two, and Dart to destination (or near) they might offset subsidies with revenue. Service could be marketed to higher income people like an airline does its premium services.

Will that get people out of personal cars with radios and GPS and heated seats?? Not unless the traffic slowdowns cost enough time to hurt. In most gib urban centers that is the case. But people adapt. they listen to talking books, radio or Glen Beck/NPR.

What wintermane talks about is making mass transit attractive. They done a pretty good job in LA with the Red/Blue lines. Last I looked, they still were not used heavily.

While on topic - can engineers tell me why high speed rail must cost so much?? Ruling out mag lev - what is so expensive in real engineering about building HS rail?? Excluding rights of way and easements.


Mass transit gets you from A to B, but not from where you are to where you want to go. That should be obvious to anyone that gives it any thought at all. If they had small hybrid buses getting you to and from the transit so that you could get to and from where you want to go in less than TWICE the time it takes you in a car, you might actually have something.


Mass transit gets you from A to B, but not from where you are to where you want to go. That should be obvious to anyone that gives it any thought at all. If they had small hybrid buses getting you to and from the transit so that you could get to and from where you want to go in less than TWICE the time it takes you in a car, you might actually have something.


If where you wanted to go was on well connected transit routes = better planning.
If we didn't have the luxury of private 'carry me cause it's too far , forgot how to walk, can't ride a bike cause it's too dangerous or not facilitated, the sorts of problems everyone under licence age without well off indulgent parents that can't show the kids mobility, types or tie their own shoelaces cause you need a degree in magic knots that only a few can do, type.
Well there would of course be an alternative.

I suppose there are too any self interest individuals or square peg planners to see that we are the biggest problem here.

The extra taxes are easily affordable by those with a higher percentage of disposable income.
They are the ones that dont need to spend a high percentage of income on personal mobility.

Australia has large distance low population density issues that dont easily fit mass transit options, America has legacy poor planning.

Too much incentive or laziness assures the continuation of poor outcomes.


can engineers tell me why high speed rail must cost so much?? Ruling out mag lev - what is so expensive in real engineering about building HS rail?? Excluding rights of way and easements.

Higher the speeds = higher standards you have to build to and maintain. I remember a story from when Japan first built its bullettrain; they had to have a army of workers re-align the tracks every night. The main problem is something called 'hunting.' "The classical Hunting oscillation is a swaying motion of a railway vehicle caused by the coning action on which the directional stability of an adhesion railway depends. (It will be noted that the railway vehicles considered here have their wheels in pairs fixed to the axles in what are known as wheelsets.)

Below a certain critical speed, the motion is damped out, above this speed the motion can be violent, damaging track and wheels, and potentially causing derailment.

It was discovered towards the end of the 19th Century, when speeds became high enough to encounter it. Remedial measures, particularly in the design of suspension systems have been introduced since the 1960s, permitting speeds exceeding 180mph (290km/h).

It arises from the interaction of adhesion forces and inertial forces. At low speed adhesion dominates, but as the speed increases the adhesion forces and inertial forces become comparable in magnitude, and the oscillation begins at the critical speed."

The contact patch of a steel wheel on a steel rail is only about the size of a dime and the only thing keeping that wheel on the rail is that this dime sized contract patch moves up the side of the wheel's flange as the train rocks back and forth.

And don't underestimate the cost of those excluding rights of way and easements. For low speed rail road-crossings are bad enough, at high speeds you can't afford to have anything bigger than a deer on the tracks.

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