It should be understood that I am not anti-car. In fact, I am very grateful for the automobile and the prosperity it has brought to our country and my family. I think it is an incredible invention that has driven our experience of life from a Dickens' dystopia to a Kerouac carousel of possibility.
With that being said, it occurs to me that over the past few decades we have become dangerously dependent on the automobile and its main source of fuel: oil. What I would like to see happen is not a return to the days of horse and buggy or an abolition of all automobiles. Rather, I believe that it seems wise for us to start supporting alternative modes of transportation as exactly that, reliable alternatives. I don't know how long people have been saying, "don't put all your eggs in one basket" but it is advice that shouldn't go unheeded now. Let us support the construction of high-speed rail, bicycle paths, and fuel efficient cars with the same gusto that we currently maintain our highways, roads, and gasoline prices.
There is a lot to be said on the differences between rail, road, and air. Certainly air has a monopoly on speed and efficiency and the convenience of a personal automobile is hard to beat (unless it is rush hour). Rail takes longer and can cost more locally (although if you factor in government subsidies that point becomes debatable). But I'd like to counter that with 3 big points:
1) Leisure and comfort have been displaced by speed and efficiency. Is this a good thing? I mean, as far as I know we only get one life. Should we spend that life rushing around, packed like sardines into a flying tube or stuck in traffic jams? On a train families can sit together around a table and play games; passengers can look out the window at a landscape that they'd never get a chance to see on a highway; strangers can meet in the dining car and, over a drink or a meal, discuss anything from Daniel Day Lewis's performance in Last of the Mohicans to the devolution of the media as a credible source of information. On a bike one can yell "hello" to a neighbor planting flowers; an adult going to work can race a 10 year-old going to school; and everybody can get some very good exercise. Is it time we re-adjusted our priorities?
2) A train uses less oil than a car or an airplane to power itself. A bike uses no oil to power itself. We import 66% of the oil we use. It is a simple thing to understand the difference between already having what you need and going out and buying what you need. Right now as a country we are dining out 2 of every 3 meals. Every family/person on a budget knows that this is not fiscally responsible. Let's start cooking at home and moderating our oil consumption by supporting rail and bikes.
3) The future is coming. No matter the importance of getting to work today or how sweet the melodious siren song of a monthly dip in gasoline prices, we must confront the future. Oil will not last forever. Right now we are not prepared to replace our nationwide fleet of personal automobiles with counterparts that run on something other than gasoline. However, we do have the technology to create an infrastructure of high-speed electric rail that connects all of our cities; cities that could be crisscrossed by bicycle lanes and light rail lines. We have a fantastic opportunity to make some pretty sweet looking cities and towns. Let's put our young men and women to work planning, manufacturing, and physically laying the groundwork for an oil independent future.
*Some quick math: I will be traveling approximately 17,500 miles using only my bicycle and the rail system. To do this will cost me about $1717 (just transportation). If I were to go 15,000 miles in an automobile that gets 30 mpg with the average gallon of gasoline at $3.50 I would have to spend $1750. On the surface this seems very comparable. However, this does not take into account wear and tear on the car, oil changes, gasoline prices above $3.50/gallon, and the fact that I will be traveling over 15,000 miles.
(17,500 miles) by rail and bicycle = $1717
(15,000 miles) / (30 mpg) x ($3.50/gallon) = $1750
(17,500 miles) / (30 mpg) x ($3.50/gallon) = $2041.67
**It should also be noted that these numbers derive from a system that heavily favors the subsidization of road over rail. Over the past 40 years the Federal Government has spent over 17 times more money on highways.
Approx. $550 billion on road
Approx. $32 billion on rail
Here's a persuasive speech I gave entitled Unhooking Ourselves From Oil: