As an environmentalist, I was among the first to get a hybrid car, which helped me be among the first to admit that government-imposed fuel standards – known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) – don't work.
Before I bought my 2001 Toyota Prius (which gets 46 m.p.g.), I drove my old, low-mileage Suzuki rarely because I wanted to save on gas and pollution. I opted to commute as much as possible on my bicycle, as well as ride it for pleasure. Then I picked up the Prius, and before I knew it, I seemed to be driving everywhere.
I was proof of economist David Greene's "rebound effect" – that buyers of high-mileage vehicles drive more. With high-mileage cars, we pollute less per mile, but we cancel that benefit by spending more time behind the wheel. But with the rebound effect in mind and a son who was serving in Iraq, I cut back my driving to roughly its previous level. I am in the minority, however. The fact is that after more than 30 years of CAFE, oil consumption, pollution, and traffic congestion have soared, and automakers have found ways around the tightest standards.
Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), for example, are "a truck without the benefit of being a truck," says a good-old-boy mechanic friend. His description is apt because SUVs are built on truck chassis and are therefore subject to lower fuel-economy standards. SUVs were almost certainly a reaction to CAFE because although customers liked larger cars, automakers found it difficult to build models that complied with CAFE.
CAFE today forces manufacturers of true cars to try the latest fuel-efficiency technology, which sometimes increases cars' sales prices. That pushes some drivers to buy SUVs or to keep older, less fuel-efficient vehicles for longer, rendering CAFE toothless.
Finally, toughening CAFE standards would do nothing to decrease congestion. If you build highways, drivers do indeed come. Yet because highway construction creates jobs and income, legislators push for more highways – while wrangling with Detroit automakers over CAFE.
A decade ago, the Commission on the Future of Transportation in Virginia told lawmakers that it was a "futile exercise" to attempt to build out of congestion problems. But that's what Virginia's Democratic governor and Republican legislature decided was the solution – even though research indicates that 90 percent of new urban freeways are overwhelmed within five years.
The US Senate can hold CAFE hearings and chide Detroit. The president can say we'll be saved by ethanol or hydrogen. Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain can claim that "cap-and-trade" systems are the answer. But all this falls apart when anyone does any real analysis of Americans' "love affair with the automobile."
We have about 226 million vehicles in this country today. Will any of these efforts make families throw away the huge investments in their cars? No. But the real solution does lie with drivers; we must be pushed to realize the impact of our "drive at the drop of a hat" attitude.
We inhabitants of Earth are melting glaciers and raising sea levels at a frightening rate because we're spewing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The US is fighting overseas, in part, because that's where the oil is. We Americans import 12.2 million barrels daily and put about 60 percent of that in our fuel tanks while we, with 5 percent of the world's population and 2.7 percent of the world's oil reserves, use 26 percent of its oil.
A major mitigation to all these problems is getting Americans to drive less. The way to do that is to build substitutions for driving. The way to build efficient substitutions such as mass transit and hiking and biking paths is from higher gasoline and diesel taxes.
The cars with the world's highest gas mileage are in Italy, a country that also has the some of the world's highest gas taxes. For decades, Europeans, over all, have used gasoline taxes to build better developed mass transit and more bike and pedestrian trails.
Let's call America's higher gas tax a "user fee." Every fiscal quarter, the user fee should go up a dime (40 cents a year), until the fee reaches the average amount of Europe's gasoline "user fees." This won't destroy the US economy, and it requires no new bureaucracy because, after all, gas is already taxed. Revenues from this user fee should go toward construction of mass transit and hiking and biking trails, as well as a publicity campaign that connects excess driving with traffic congestion, pollution, global warming, peaking oil, and foreign-policy issues.
At first, drivers will complain, but then we'll adjust. We'll walk in our own neighborhoods, rather than go for a "mall walk." We'll consider taking mass transit or carpooling for long commutes. When we go car shopping, we'll think, "Gas taxes are going up. I think I'll buy a high-mileage car – or try new technology."
An incremental gasoline user fee would accomplish what CAFE hasn't been able to – and that is to reduce oil consumption and, hence, pollution, global warming and the $250 billion annual tab for importing oil. The benefits of a healthier environment, less energy dependence, and decreased congestion would be well worth the cost of the tax.
• Randy Salzman, a former journalism professor, studied transportation-demand management at Oxford University.