The New York Times today reports that urban officials around the nation are spending time rethinking transportation, now that SARS-CoV2 has hinted at what a wasteful clusterfuck cars-first transportation really is.
Here is what Randy Clarke, “president of Capital Metro, the Austin [Texas] public transportation system,” tells the Times he’s pondering these days:
“How do we make a system that’s more equitable and sustainable, and give people more options besides cars?”
That, of course, was the pertinent question roundabout 1902, when, a year-and-a-half before chartering the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford was gushing to his brother-in-law that “there is a barrel of money in this business.”
Unfortunately though for Randy Clarke and his peers, by this point, no technocratic answer to this always-epochal (and still-never-democratically-asked) question exists. We have long since built our entire, continent-spanning society in such a way as to compel maximum automobile use. The facts now are very much on the ground.
If we are ever going to undo this still-heavily-sponsored (read: business-dictated) mistake, it is going to take a gigantic, aggressive, and clear-eyed Green New Deal. Nothing else stands a chance of making a meaningful difference.
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.
Here’s a recent Bloomberg headline about what’s happening now with transportation in Wuhan, China:
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?
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Ford 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.