The Best Way to Handle High Oil Prices: Clean Cars, Good Transit, and More Jobs

Steep oil prices are once again sending shock waves through the American economy. People are rethinking commuting arrangements and businesses are putting off investments. These latest price spikes have serious implications for our fledgling economic recovery.

But when President Obama held a press conference last Friday, he made it clear that America can’t drill our way out of this mess.

Instead, we need to turn to the smarter, long-term solutions that will make a real difference.

We don’t have to wait for technical breakthroughs. Solutions already exist and American automakers and transit planners are already beginning to put them in place.

Here is a list of some of these solutions, and here is how they put money in consumers’ pockets and bring jobs to American communities.

More Efficient Cars

Twenty years ago, passenger cars in the United States averaged 21.1 miles per gallon. In 2008, the figure was 22.6 miles per gallon. We can do better.

And it looks like we are starting to. Nearly every major automaker will launch one or more plug-in electric vehicles in the next five years. Electric cars aren’t for everyone, but by using and improving on various existing technologies, America could achieve 60 mpg by 2025.

Not only would this save drivers money at the pump, but it would also reduce our gasoline consumption by 2.8 million barrels of oil by 2030. That alone could cut our oil imports by 25 percent.

Producing these cars will also produce jobs. In a 2010 study, NRDC found that, with the right policies in place, supplying the United States with more efficient cars could create 150,000 American jobs by 2020.

More Transit Choices

No one likes to waste time in traffic. Yet for many Americans, driving cars through congested arteries is the only option to get to work or run errands. Providing more transportation choices would dramatically reduce our oil use. Public transit already saves America the equivalent of 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline every year. Now we need to bring these savings to more communities.  

The key here is to provide drivers with a variety of ways to get out of their cars. NRDC’s Smarter Cities project recently assessed transit systems across the nation and identified the top 15 metropolitan leaders in transportation innovation. Each of these cities provided several options, including bus routes, light rail systems, integrated bike paths, and carpooling networks.

The choices equal extra money in commuters’ pockets. In the region around Champagne and Urbana, Illinois now live within a quarter mile of a weekday bus route, the average work commute is under 15 minutes, and an annual transit pass can be had for just $60. In the town of Bremerton, Washington, the transit authority promotes vanpools, which save participants an estimated $5,000 each year.

More High Speed Rail

High-speed rail could be a vital part of the transit mix for many regions in the nation. Yet last month Florida’s Rick Scott became the third newly elected Republican governor to reject federal funding for a high speed rail project.

President Obama wants to invest in advancing the nation’s rail system, much like President Eisenhower did with our highways in the 1950s. As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wrote on his blog, “Can you imagine if Ohio or Wisconsin or any other state had said, ‘No thanks—we don’t think that highway thing is going anywhere.”

China already has 4,000 miles of high speed rail lines and plans to add 10,000 more miles in the next 10 years. Right now, America only has the ACELA, which covers 456 miles in 7 hours. China’s Wuhan to Guangzhou line covers 600 miles in 3 hours. High-speed rail doesn’t make sense everywhere in the U.S., but surely we can do better than this in our densest corridors.

Investing in the infrastructure that will launch America into the 21st century is both prudent and vital. It will create private-sector jobs and help this country to finally reduce its costly and dangerous reliance on oil. It’s time to move down this cleaner, more sustainable road.

Some opponents of mass transit claim that it requires too many subsidies. But the truth is that all transportation systems are subsidized by the government. Right now, highways get about 80 percent of all federal money spent on transportation. It’s time to redirect a portion of that funding to the infrastructure that will launch America into the 21st century.