By planning development without density, we virtually assure that we'll need a car to get around.
By purchasing an expensive car, we give ourselves incentive to drive.
By slashing investment in public transit services, we cause the overcrowding and backups that make us avoid it in the first place.
That's what experts said at The Atlantic's Green Intelligence Forum 2010, where policymakers and consultants met to debate how the United States can move toward clean transportation -- and what's holding up progress.
According to Veolia EVP Ruth Otte, it starts with the second car.
"There's this myth that American's won't give up their car," she said. "But if it's convenient to people -- how far to I have to schlep? -- for people who have two cars but would like to have one, we have to have the funding in our industry to make it a rational, reasonable choice. For half of the people in the U.S., it is just not an option where they live."
The first problem? Oil prices. Emil Frankel, director of transportation policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said the U.S. has a national imperative to get its transportation systems off their dependence on oil.
"Transportation is the only major sector of the American economy that is, for all intents and purposes, totally dependent on oil," Frankel said. "Seventy percent of the oil that's used in the United States is used in the transportation system. America doesn't have an oil addiction problem, American transportation has an oil addiction problem."
Frankel also said U.S. government officials at all levels need to take a hard look at their institutional role in assisting clean transportation.
"The American government does not, for the most part, own and operate transportation systems. The U.S. DOT makes grants," Frankel said. "The question is how the American government uses the power of the purse at the state and local level. These innovations have to occur there.
"The transportation sector is probably the least innovative sector of the America economy. The last significant invention was the internal combustion engine. It's still wheels on steel."
Embarq COO Clayton Lane said lawmakers must understand the underlying social issues behind the problems with the nation's existing transportation infrastructure.
"People don't work for good solutions. Good solutions work for people," He said. "We're not going to change because it's the right thing to do, we're going to do so because it works for what we do -- the personal optimum versus the social optimum.
"The automobile has served us personally but not socially. The public transit system is good for all of us but doesn't serve us personally. All of us drive at least occasionally, right? We can relate to owning a car. We need a car at least now and then. We're not going to change use overnight."
Lane said companies like PhillyCarShare, a car-sharing service in Philadelphia that he founded in 2002, make it possible to need a car without needing to own it.
"People who use car sharing have access to a car but not the incentive to use it because the costs are not fixed," he said. "They're all variable costs. When we own a car, 80 or 90 percent of those costs are fixed. We have an incentive to drive. Spiking gas prices give people a reason to think about the cost of driving."
Otte agreed, saying that you can't solve the problem without first understanding it.
"You have to focus on the passenger experience every minute of the game," she said. "We have clients in the U.S. in major cities where buses pass by stops where people are waiting, because they don't have the money to operate. They have capital, but not operating funds.
"My contention is that we have to look at mobility in a city like our circulatory system in our body. Seeing all those cars sitting on a freeway [in traffic] is not that image. If you look at everything through the filter of passenger convenience and time, we can make a big impact."
There are bright spots, however. Otte cited Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City, Utah; Albuquerque, N.M. as examples of towns that are addressing glaring inefficiencies to make systems run more smoothly.
"In Nice, France, just by connecting the buses more conveniently to the train, we've seen a 30 percent increase in ridership. No new investment," she said. "People are making practical innovations. A 45 percent increase in ridership in Salt Lake City. That's huge."
But we shouldn't yet give up on the internal combustion engine, Frankel said.
"We could get 45 or 50 miles to the gallon with technologies that were used for performance and now for efficiency," he said. "The marketplace wasn't demanding efficiency. The marketplace has not really rewarded it."
Both Lane and Otte said that private companies can help -- especially in new megacities whose population growth has outpaced infrastructure build-out.
"It's tapping the expertise and the capacity of the private sector," Lane said. "The private sector has the incentive to innovate and the flexibility to do so."
Otte said municipalities need to offer longer-term contracts to give private firms incentive to participate.
"About 17 percent of the transit agencies [in the U.S.] have contracts with private sector companies like us," she said. "In only a few cases -- three -- do we follow the European model, where the entire system is delegated: New Orleans; Savannah, Georgia; and a community in L.A."
There's plenty of low-hanging fruit in the public transportation systems of America's cities. Technology can address it, Otte said.
"There are a lot places into the U.S. where if you go from one bus to the other you're entering a completely new system. I should be able to go anywhere with one pass," she said. "The analysis of where service needs to be deployed -- it's really that basic. We bring a lot of technology and efficiency [to the table] -- we just need to know where to place it."
But it all comes back to behavior.
"There's a misconception that if we simply change the technology of our vehicles, we're all fine," Lane said. "It's imperative that we adopt new technology, but we also have to change behavior. Different behavior is essential to improving our transportation system."
Photos: Alstom; Mini.
More coverage of the Green Intelligence conference on SmartPlanet: