February 2, 2006---Exxon Mobil declared record profits of $36 billion in annual income for 2005 on Tuesday, according to major news sources. Putting aside for a second the morality issues of a large company profiting at the gas pump while putting ordinary consumers in financial distress, and the concomitant jump in consumption prices that have rippled through the economy, Exxon-Mobil’s profits bring to mind something entirely wrong with this country’s thinking.
The fact is that the majority of people in the United States either drive to where they are going, or use motorized transport, even on small trips. If we have even the most fundamental grasp of economic modeling, we soon understand that the gas-drive relationship does not represent your typical supply-demand elasticity.
Because of our arcane road infrastructure, there is a built-in fudge factor that will not allow people to stop driving once gas becomes too expensive. That’s because in many cases, there’s no other way to get there. Either there is no bike access on almost any highway in the U.S., or there is no safe space created on the smaller commute roads.
And that’s the government’s fault—each level on down the line, federal, state and local. Realizing that supply and demand does not operate effectively under the current infrastructure which often dictates that one drive a car instead of riding a bike, means that the extraordinary profits of an Exxon-Mobil or any other oil company, could be considered perhaps more ill-gotten gains than market-driven profits.
Let us explore the ways that this arcane infrastructure is perpetuated. First there is just pure habit and laziness. An astounding article in the New York Times several years ago interviewed New Jersey drivers who admitted freely to hopping in their car to go to the pharmacy or corner store two blocks away, instead of walking.
But this is largely the American government, its public agencies, and appointed organizations’ own fault because government officials and administrators from the White House to the Department of Transportation, to the Census Bureau, set the tone for the nation.
Here’s a good example of why. In 2004 and 2005 the U.S. Census Bureau came out with its results of a study showing that the longest commutes are in New York, New Jersey and Maryland.
In referring to the 2004 study, the Census Bureau Director, Louis Kincannon said, “Commuting trends are critical as a city decides whether to increase its public transportation or build new roads,” he added, with no mention of plans for public paths and byways to facilitate bicycle and pedestrian commutes.
In truth, the study found that New York City residents spend on average of about one full week a year getting to work — the longest commute time in the nation among large cities, according to the ranking by American Community Survey data.
New York City residents take an average of 38.4 minutes to get to work each day — more than any other area of the United States. And of the 231 counties with populations of 250,000 or more covered by the ACS, Queens (41.7 minutes), Richmond (41.3 minutes), Bronx (40.8 minutes) and Kings (39.7 minutes) – four of the five counties that comprise New York City – experienced the longest average commute-to-work times.
So in response to these awful statistics, did the U.S. government jump up and offer $235 million dollars to make roads safer for cyclists in the New York area by installing bike lanes on every road in the New York area? No, that amount alone was given over to I-95 to improve the transfer at Exit 15X in New Jersey.
By allocating so much more more money to car transportation and less to cycling, the government is encouraging driving over pedaling.
And it works. According to U.S. Census numbers from 2000, more than 75 percent of the over-16 working population in the nation drove to and from work, up from 1990. Amazingly, only 4.7 percent used public transportation, and 0.4 percent or 488,000 people rode a bike to work.
But if you look closely at the number of miles people drive, almost 59 million people in this country, or 47 percent of the total, drive 19 minutes or less to get to work. A 19-minute drive often translates to an hour, or little more –or less—depending on congestion, bike ride. A round trip is about 20 miles of useful, healthy exercise. That means in total—59 million more people could potentially be getting out of their cars and onto a bike. That is, if the roads were built to take them there.
But the majority of our highways, and many of our roads are not usable by bicyclists. And even though the latest U.S. transportation funding act was re-framed to mandate a small set aside of transportation dollars to promote safe cycling and walking, it is quite evident that that is happening too slowly, or not happening at all.
Case in point: in 2004, Rte 9W between Palisades Ave. and Clinton Ave. in New Jersey, a major cyclist thoroughfare, was repaved. Prior to the repaving, there was a small, barely adequate 3-foot wide shoulder that cyclists could ride on.
Now, after the repaving, which was paid for with transportation funding, the shoulder is completely gone. The space? It’s been given over to managing the car traffic, by adding a middle turning lane along the entire section. Once again, cyclists have been marginalized—physically and politically, off one of the most heavily cyclist-traveled roads in the United States (the NYNJ Port Authority estimates that 1,500 cyclists a weekend day travel across the George Washington Bridge to access Rte. 9W in New Jersey.) Even the local police at Englewood Cliffs who have handled hundreds of cyclist accidents along this stretch, were surprised to see the lane taken away.
So how to solve this problem? Let’s look at the numbers again. If 10 percent of the 59 million people who have a 19-minute or less drive to work hung up their car keys and rode to work we would save approximately $1.2 billion in gas money per year. I came to that number by looking at all the people who normally drive short distances to work and estimating how far they need to drive to get there.
The latest $32.5 billion SAFETEA-LU transportation funding act, is estimated to provide about half of 10 percent or about $1.625 billion over the five years of the act’s funding for bike and ped projects, according to the League of American Bicyclists, a Washington, D.C. based interest group. That means about 5 percent of the total, or only $325 million a year—for the entire country. Compare that to the one-exit fix on I-95 that I mentioned earlier for $285 million. That’s one exit, on one road, in this entire vast system of highways, in this vast country.
Another safety element of the act, the Highway Safety Improvement Program allocated about $50 million over 5 years to bike and ped safety projects, but that amount also includes safety changes that have nothing to do with either activity, such as adding “rumble strips,” a change that paradoxically is more of a danger to cyclists than an aid.
It would be much more useful for the U.S. government to set a marketing target of 5 percent of the drive-to-work population to convert to cycling. That means converting about 6 million people to cycling, and then allocating more money to accomodate those people in a safe and accessible way. This target-marketing is a more effective business principle than the "build it and they will come" mentality that has fueled the builidng of highways that lack bike access, and failed our nation's transportation policy.
Here also is my suggestion to the directors of Exxon-Mobil: Why not set aside $1.2 billion dollars per year—the amount that is being paid by 5 percent of motorists who normally drive distances they could easily cycle if it were safe—and donate that money to the U.S. government specifically to create safe, accessible bike routes to work across the nation.
That amount could be deducted from Exxon-Mobil’s tax payments, would make the company appear less like robber-barons in the eyes of the public, and would give company directors and shareholders a better probability of securing eternal peace in the afterlife.