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Oil Change

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NICHOLAS VON HOFFMAN

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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What would he tell Obama to do?

Bank of America's Ken Lewis has done his bit to reinforce the idea that the CEOs who got us into this mess are a pack of liars.

Forget change you can believe in and start dealing with the changes coming at you as fast as the price of fuel makes its way skyward.

With gasoline prices headed toward $5 a gallon, more than half the population has, in a matter of a year, become marooned in the suburbs. The economics of housing combined with the lunacies of city planning have left most Americans stranded, miles away from their places of work, their schools, their stores and medical facilities.

The physical plant of the United States for the past sixty years was designed on a premise of cheap energy. This has left much of our population locked into homes and communities they now can ill afford to leave in the morning, come back to at night, heat in the winter or cool in summer. Nor they can sell out and go elsewhere.

America is saying bye-bye to the Hummer. General Motors is ditching its great ape of an automobile, which gets about ten miles to the gallon. Ford is cutting back on its production of the fabled F series of pickup trucks, some models of which equal the Hummer's mpg rating. The jobs of the people who made these giant vehicles also are being discontinued. "This is a fundamental change," said Ford chief executive officer Alan Mulally, who may be slow on the uptake but appears now to have gotten it.

While American automakers try to catch up, millions of us are stuck with our gas guzzlers. There are more than 200 million private, gasoline-powered conveyances in the United States--a little less than one for every two people, counting the babies. Sixty percent of our households own two or more automobiles, hardly surprising in an era when families must have two wage-earners. Almost all of those cars get poor gas mileage, but even at five bucks a gallon it will not pay to trade them in to buy a new car with a lower mpg rating. At current replacement rates, the better part of a decade will pass before the current generation of gas guzzlers is retired to be replaced by more energy efficient cars, if--and it is a big if--there will be enough of them at the right price.

People are not going to be switching to public transportation because we have no public transportation. The exception is in a few--a very few--of the biggest cities. The figures bear the statement out. An average family will take 3,090 trips to work, play etc. in their cars and pickup trucks in the course of a year. In the same year, they will take fifty-eight rides on some form of public transportation. Less then 2 percent walk to work and less than three percent take some form of public transportation.

What can people do? Some will take to bicycles, but since the streets and highways are not designed to protect cyclists, it's unlikely bikes become a major means of getting to work or going to the mall.

For now there is little choice but car-pooling on a heretofore unknown scale. A number of car-pooling Internet sites are already up and running. If gas prices go higher and stay high, car-pooling and other forms of ride-sharing will become a big part of the American way of life. As a stopgap measure ride-sharing, zip cars and slugging (for an explanation please consult: http://www.slug-lines.com/) will have to do.

We may be near the end of cheap long-distance travel, with young people looping around the globe and families being able to afford to fly 1,000 miles for a Disneyland vacation. As the price of jet fuel climbs, jet flight might revert to a former era, when the few and the rich went first class and everybody else is crammed in coach. It remains to be seen if an untraveled America will be a more isolationist, provincial, less tolerant, higher-tariff America.

The jump in oil prices has hit too fast for us to do anything but improvise. There has been no planning, no steps taken to prepare the society for the shock.

The price of oil continues to rise, but at some point in our ever-fluctuating economy, it is going to go down. It will not stay down, however, and next time it spikes, we had best be ready.

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