On July Fourth, President Bush predictably gave another spirited defense of staying the course in Iraq, and he asked every American to find a way to thank the men and women in the military and their families.

Send a care package, he said. Ask family members with a mom or dad on the front lines what they need, carpool, pray for soldiers and their families, click on AmericaSupportsYou.mil.

Wait a minute. Did he say “carpool”? Carpooling to thank and support the troops? That’s a surprise.

Carpooling, the few times it has come up, has been in the context of an energy emergency. Bush told federal workers to carpool and take public transportation in 2001 when California was hit by rolling blackouts. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew away some oil production on the Gulf Coast, he advised carpooling.

This time, he dropped the phrase “You can carpool” into the holiday speech in Martinsburg, W.Va., without elaboration. The timing — gas prices have soared and the national mood has soured — raises intriguing questions.

Could the president be conceding at last that oil is a factor in the Iraq war? Is he finally asking ordinary Americans to sacrifice as part of the war effort? Has he mellowed since 2001 when he declared, “You cannot conserve your way to energy independence”?

Well, no. George W. Bush has not gone green. The White House emphatically denied that Bush was calling for widespread carpooling.

“This is not an energy speech,” said Blair Jones, a spokesman. “He’s talking about carpooling as helping people out whose spouses or loved ones are overseas.”

So the president missed another chance to lead. Carpooling is on the decline in America. Only about one in 10 people carpooled to work in 2005, the Census Bureau reported last month. We not only bowl alone; we drive alone. Cue the sociologists. Those who do carpool tend to ride with just one other person.

Nationally, 77 percent of us drove to work alone in 2005, according to the American Community Survey. Carpooling was biggest in the West, led by immigrant farmworkers who ride together. Midwesterners aren’t hot to carpool, nor are Southerners. In Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, 80 percent or more of people drove alone to work. About 78 percent of Virginians drove alone.

Less than 5 percent nationally took the bus or subway to work — and they live in the 10 biggest cities.

These stats are hardly a recipe for energy independence. But it’s not fair to blame pro-Bush Southerners or Midwesterners. It’s not as if most are constitutionally opposed to mass transit or sharing a ride, especially with gas above $3 a gallon. It’s just easier said than done.

Higher housing prices have forced people to move farther out, away from transit lines. Many people commute to jobs in another suburb. Schedules vary.

One could avoid the commute by working from home, but nationally, fewer than 4 percent do. A few enlightened, high-tech companies, like Google, operate their own transit systems, picking up and delivering workers free, but that and free food at the workplace are extremely rare perks.

Bush has always been more keen on using technology to develop new sources of energy than on improving fuel economy or encouraging personal action to reduce energy dependence.

He hasn’t exactly led by example. Last year, the White House asked the Virginia transportation department to shut down all the commuter lanes into Virginia on a Wednesday afternoon so that Bush could make a fund-raiser for then-Sen. George Allen. The state refused, and Bush took a helicopter. Except that a president never takes a helicopter, a car or a plane. There’s Marine One, the limo or Air Force One — and always a decoy. Critics complain that’s wasteful, but security trumps fuel efficiency.

Changing the public’s transportation habits and creating incentives for ride-sharing or mass transit would require leadership from both parties.

Congressional Democrats need to stop staging photo ops where they blast Bush’s energy policies — and then hop into their SUVs to ride the block back to their offices. And the president needs to do more than say, “You can carpool.”

(Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief of Media General News Service. E-mail mmercer(at)mediageneral.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com.)

Comments are closed.