COVID Revelations: Traffic

thelma and louise car

According to Apple’s cell phone tracking data, driving automobiles in the United States is down from normal by about 1/3. [Note: See line 148 of the underlying spreadsheet.]

As a result of this one-third reduction, U.S. freeways and streets are now, in the experience of your humble DbC editor, operating roughly like they are supposed to operate. Traffic jams have become truly rare, and travel times pretty reliably approximate what distances and speed limits together suggest they should.

The obvious conclusion from this natural-experimental result is that our existing automobile facilities are under-built by some factor that explains all the headaches and waste of normal automobile travel. That factor has to be at least 1/3 — and might be higher, since there are probably issues of greater-than-1:1 scaling in the infrastructures that would have to exist in order to allow the now-missing 1/3 of normal automobile traffic to enjoy the optimal results now occurring in these abnormal, reduced-use conditions.

So, in order to allow today’s stock of automobiles to work as advertised, we would need to have about twice as much roadway capacity as we now do.

Likewise, if we were to try to sustain this level of functionality, all future accommodation of still-more automobiles (i.e. the normal plan and assumption) would have to be roughly twice as big as we are accustomed to such projects being.

The fact that we don’t (and won’t, and could not) provide such accommodation speaks not just to the material and geo-spatial insanity of cars-first transportation, but also to the gargantuan time-theft that inheres in it, under corporate capitalist normalcy — something, btw, that our overclass is positively quivering to reopen/re-impose.

COVID: Transit Killer?

Here’s a recent Bloomberg headline about what’s happening now with transportation in Wuhan, China:

wuhan headline image

This is, of course, disastrous news, if it holds — which it probably will. A flight into still more mobile privatization is entirely logical for the individual, of course. And China, like the United States, is literally built for it, given its eager facilitation of automobiles. But what of the collective problems on the horizon — the ones the present pandemic might, barring a simple return to normalcy, have helped us ponder with new maturity?

Whatever the implications of an intensified attachment to cars might be for supposed communists, here in the United States, the coming ridership crisis is going to put environmentalists and transportation activists to a stern test. Will we finally summon the brains and guts to start talking adequately about the way our towns and cities are built around automobiles, or will we continue to whimper and special-plead as our public transit schemes grow even more pathetic and our overall design remains an overclass ukase?

A Moment for Natural Experiments

Jared Diamond often points out that, sometimes, human history serves up parallel events that, in and of themselves, come close to allowing the kinds of confident comparisons the simpler sciences obtain via planned experiments.

We are now inside a special time-window where this point becomes pretty obvious and extra-important, aren’t we?

Consider, for example, the news on metropolitan air pollution levels.

Here is a telling depiction of what’s happened recently above Los Angeles:

It’s interesting — and, of course, macabre — that, at least in China, reduced air pollution might save as many lives as the pandemic ends.

Some fraction of that is due to reduced automobile use in Chinese cities.

And the point also applies, at least to some extent, in de-industrialized places like the United States, where wall-to-wall cars and trucks have their all-too-obvious, yet still thoroughly unmentionable, mortality effects.

New Angles

COVID-19 arrives, despite a couple decades’ worth of their self-praise about the fit between BAU and data + information + technology, as a huge surprise, not just to us commoners, but to TPTB.

This — the discombobulation of history’s greatest power elite — ought to be among the things we progressive survivalists mull in these weird and momentous times. All is definitely not what we’ve been told.

Meanwhile, as today’s contribution to your cranial recalibrating efforts, we here at DbC would direct your gaze to this image from BuzzFeed news.

Contemplate, if you will, the utter centrality of the automobile, even in one of the most iconic spots for non-automotive locomotion in this very, very troubled and unprepared empire.

cable car street in sf jammed with parked cars

The Yellow Vests in France

yellow jacket tax protester Many have been wondering what’s up avec des gilets jaunes.

DbT‘s editor is the farthest thing from an expert on French society, and has not set foot on French soil since 1987.

Nevertheless, since the automobile and its French accoutrements play such a central role in the thing, DbT hereby offers its official guess:

The Yellow Jacket movement is a rightist version of #Occupy.

Marine Le Pen is a big fan of the phenomenon, and is trying to ride its energy into new elections.

Meanwhile, the thing, like #Occupy, has neither leaders nor a coherent agenda, and is fueled by Twitter storms and pose-striking. Hence, it won’t last, and will have little effect.

None of which is to excuse Macron, who is a yuppie dunce bent on repackaging dangerous (witness the neo-fascist tendencies afoot) Reaganite dogmas.

Trying to sustain an automobile-centered way of life, however, is a losing gambit, in any form. Capitalism’s #1 machine is simply unsustainable under the given laws of physics, which are rather strict.

California Dreaming

California aspires to obtain all its electricity from renewable sources, 27 years hence. The great fly in the ointment? As always, corporate capitalism’s lifeblood commodity, the private automobile.

The reality is that the U.S. automotive fleet is now the nation’s #1 domestic GHG emitter, out-GHG-polluting not just each of the economy’s other four end-use sectors (farms, retailers, factories, households), but also the entire electricity-generation industry. And the gulf will only widen.

ghg graph
Source: Bloomberg Finance LP 2018

All unmentioned and unmentionable, of course…

What Causes Obesity?

emperor on parade In America, it has long been taboo to pay critical attention to automobiles’ centrality in our lives. It remains a very effective and important taboo.

Witness “The Toll of America’s Obesity,” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times. In it, a pediatrician and an economist, both from Harvard, review the basic facts about the continuing escalation of obesity rates and burdens in the United States. In the author’s view, obesity is a “diet-related disease.”

And, indeed, so it is.

But can anybody think of another reason why obesity has been relentlessly worsening across recent decades? Might it have anything to do with the continuing automobilization of our lifespaces? Might worsening fatness in America also be caused by our ever-deepening, never-so-much-as-mentioned subjection to mandatory cars-first transportation policies and outcomes?

The question answers itself, yet remains utterly out-of-bounds. This is true even on the political left, which has never quite summoned the chutzpah to take the first step toward transcending prevailing ideology/taboo. That first step would be a serious class analysis of transportation in the USA.

Foxes Planning New Henhouse

fox guarding henhouseFord Motor Company CEO Jim Hackett is at the Consumer Electronics Show — the “Global Stage for Innovation” no less! (nobody ever said decrepit elites learn humility as they necrose) — today revealing some info about how his corporation is planning to keep selling its massively outdated product and, incidentally, to thereby keep the American population ensconced in market totalitarianism. As ever, the bedrock material basis for that latter outcome, so vital to our runaway overclass, is perpetuation of cars-first transportation.

Doing that, of course, requires deepening the already huge primacy of the automobile in urban planning, at a time when doing so is patently ecocidal and sociopathic.

At this point, this is going to require a new level of explicitness, as one can tell by this Automotive News headline:

Hackett says Ford expanding mobility vision beyond cars to cities

In order to peddle the “self-driving” products they obviously see as the next trick to make cars look modern rather than archaic, the automotive industrialists know they’ll have to build massive computing power into the physical features of towns and cities. Hence, this kind of stuff.

Of course, DbC remains more than a little unsure any of this will actually ever come to much fruition, as it would require huge breakthroughs in technological capability and reliability, as well as in theories of legal non-liability.

Luckily for people like Mr. Hackett, the automobile remains sacrosanct in this society. Even our concerned scientists and sputtering proto-social-movements still fear to mention it, as they scramble to euphemize their way around its catastrophic portents.

Those Who Love Hurricanes

Corporate capitalism, by design, commodifies everything and mal-distributes income. As a result, it paints its own primary beneficiaries into a corner, even as it sustains their obscene wealth and increasingly decrepit power. As silly products proliferate and the bottom 2/3 of the population goes without discretionary income, it gets harder and harder for corporate marketers to sell new rounds of goods and services. The only possible answer, from the perspective of the investing class, is selling more and more waste to people who still have money to spend.

The ultimate corporate capitalist waste platform is the private automobile. Within a publicly-provided cars-first infrastructure, such machines are not only themselves spectacularly and optimally wasteful, but also enable and stimulate the second great vector for profitable squander, the suburban house-and-yard.

For cars themselves, the ultimate dream for capitalists would be the one described in The Waste Makers, Vance Packard’s 1960 non-fiction best-seller:

The motorcars of Cornucopia will be made of a lightweight plastic that develops fatigue and begins to melt if driven for more than four thousand miles.

That, of course, was an illustrative exaggeration. Individual car owners will not tolerate such directly obvious capitalist tactics. They demand some longevity with their waste.

But consider what we will tolerate collectively: For car-sellers, Hurricane Harvey is very good news, for exactly Packard’s reason. Per today’s edition of Automotive News:

With the storm potentially having damaged 1 million vehicles in Houston, the rush is on in states near and far to acquire and ship new ones into the city.

“We see multi-faceted benefits to new vehicle sales, new vehicle inventories, and used vehicle prices,” Ryan Brinkman, an auto analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a report Tuesday. Prior to Harvey, weak used-car values had been one of investors’ “chief concerns” with the auto industry, he said.

Such is the stuff of 2017. Our grandchildren will never stop vomiting.