Leveraging Public Policy and Investments to Break Our Oil Addiction

Last night the President sketched some compelling pieces of a new transportation vision for the nation. First, when discussing innovation and the "Sputnik moment" we face he described the promise of pluggable cars. My colleague Simon Mui describes three specific steps we can take to accelerate commercialization of this technology, which would provide us with a choice for fueling our cars before gasoline, gasoline and more gasoline.

He also pressed for a renewed commitment to transportation infrastructure, calling out high-speed rail which is being built around the world including remarkable engines like the one picture below on Spain's Madrid-Segovia-Valladolid corridor.

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Here's the relevant part of the speech:

The third step in winning the future is rebuilding America. To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information – from high-speed rail to high-speed internet.
Our infrastructure used to be the best – but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.  Meanwhile, when our own engineers graded our nation’s infrastructure, they gave us a “D.”
We have to do better. America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system. The jobs created by these projects didn’t just come from laying down tracks or pavement. They came from businesses that opened near a town’s new train station or the new off-ramp.
Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the 21st century, a project that has meant thousands of good jobs for the hard-hit construction industry. Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.
We will put more Americans to work repairing crumbling roads and bridges. We will make sure this is fully paid for, attract private investment, and pick projects based on what’s best for the economy, not politicians.
Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down. As we speak, routes in California and the Midwest are already underway.
Within the next five years, we will make it possible for business to deploy the next generation of high-speed wireless coverage to 98% of all Americans. This isn’t just about a faster internet and fewer dropped calls. It’s about connecting every part of America to the digital age.  It’s about a rural community in Iowa or Alabama where farmers and small business owners will be able to sell their products all over the world. It’s about a firefighter who can download the design of a burning building onto a handheld device; a student who can take classes with a digital textbook; or a patient who can have face-to-face video chats with her doctor.

I include this last paragraph purposefully, since advances in communications technology are part and parcel of any smart transportation investment program. Technology can dramatically improve urban planning, as IBM and planners themselves realize, by building public support for smart neighborhood development. And there's a whole industry that focusses on maximizing the efficiency of our current transportation system, whether through electronic tolling on highways or real-time signage on systems including bus rapid transit lines such as the one pictured below (location: Ontario, Canada).

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Pulling back the lens, the commitment to high-speed internet as well as rail are emblematic of a President who, as Michael Likosky writes today, is keenly aware that in order to compete effectively with nations and metropolitan regions around the globe we need to make smart, leveraged investments in infrastructure.

What does all this have to do with energy and the environment?

Everything. Electrification of our vehicle fleet won't happen without adequate refueling infrastructure on our roads and in our settlements. And we can't meet our energy and climate security goals without investing outside of the private vehicle box, in mobility options besides driving -- e.g., rail, bus, walking -- including increased "virtual mobility" courtesy of telecommuting. While details need to be filled in by the Administration and Congress, last night the President again clarified a vision of a transportation system that is less oil-intensive, is more flexible, and gives businesses and consumers a more secure footing in a more economically competitive world.