In the Public Interest: The Root Cause of Our Oil Addiction

For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we've talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires.

- President Barack Obama

Last night, President Obama once again correctly diagnosed our nation's damaging addiction to oil. As the President noted, the U.S. consumes more than 20 percent of the world's oil, but has less than 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, and we send nearly $1 billion to foreign countries every day for their oil.

But while the diagnosis is broadly known, one of the main causes is often overlooked. What has been largely missing in the national discussion is the role played by transportation, and especially by driving.

Broadly speaking, oil use equals driving.

In fact, passenger vehicles are the single largest consumer of oil in the U.S. Oil currently fuels a staggering 96 percent of our transportation needs. Each second, America's transportation sector burns 6,300 gallons of oil, with cars and trucks responsible for almost 70 percent of the use.

A critical strategy for breaking this addiction and making our country and its environment safer is the development of a more energy-efficient transportation system that makes it easier for people to drive less. Through increased investment in modern transit and high-speed rail, as well as pedestrian and bicycle improvements and better land-use policies, we can significantly decrease our oil use. Doing so will also lower household costs, increase public health, and considerably cut our carbon emissions.

The good news is that the American public is already mostly on board. Across the country, a new generation of commuters is choosing to live closer to city centers and taking the train or bus to work. In fact, transit ridership increased by nearly 30 percent during a ten-year span from 1995 to 2006. According to a poll conducted earlier this year by the Transportation for America coalition, nearly 60 percent of the country now believes that we need to expand our national investment in public transportation.

But despite this strong public shift, our federal transportation policy is still stuck in the 1950s. The way that we prioritize and fund projects in Congress is based mostly on outdated formulas that lead to more sprawl-inducing highways and not nearly enough alternatives. Our federal government continues to spend nearly four times as much on highway construction projects as it does on transit and rail.

U.S. PIRG is working to advance a set of transportation principles that enhance our economy, national security, public health, environment, and quality of life. Hundreds of public officials across the country have signed on.

And there is a movement both inside and out of Congress for a new direction in federal transportation policy.

Last summer, over 140 major national, state, and local organizations, with a collective membership in the millions, wrote to Congress to appeal for a new kind of transportation policy that makes it easier for Americans to drive less. These diverse organizations wrote in support of the National Transportation Objectives Act, legislation introduced by Representatives Holt, Inslee, and Carnahan that would set 10 critical objectives for our federal transportation system, chief among them is a 16 percent reduction in driving in order to reduce oil consumption.

The legislation has faced a mostly uphill battle, though, as special interests and over 1,800 registered transportation lobbyists continue to benefit from a system that is known more for its waste and its "Bridges to Nowhere" than its ability to meet large national challenges like reduction in oil use.

Last night, the President correctly called on both parties in Congress to seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. No one can argue with the images that are pouring in from the Gulf Coast. The message is painfully clear.

Until we kick our national addiction to oil, we continue to endanger our security, our economy, and our environment. We will never be safe from oil disasters, domestic and foreign, until we reduce our consumption, and we can't do that until we finally invest in ways to ditch the gas pumps and drive less.