Tuesday, November 08, 2005

A spirited debate

Criticism exercises the mind and helps a writer refine ideas. Several commenters have been kind enough to drop by and let me know what they think of my eleven point plan for eliminating the private automobile. Although not all of the comments have been phrased in the nicest possible language, I still appreciate the feedback. Rest assured that I will take your ideas into account as I revise my plan.

Some commenters seem to think that I intend to come over and literally take their cars away. Honestly, I have no desire to do this. Indeed, as a card-carrying anti-authoritarian, I think that legislating the car out of existence would be a really bad idea, too. Rather, I think the best approach is to subvert the car and auto culture, using technological innovation and consumer choice to convince people to abandon their cars voluntarily.

Several accused me of being a socialist, which I am not. Rather, I hope to promote new trends of thinking, better choices, greater efficiency, and a voluntary transition away from cars. Cars are inefficient and unsustainable in the long run. I think we can do better.

Joe at Big Ford Fan pointed out, "I love the rosey picture of the future that paint, but what about all those people who work for a living? Not everyone has a job that you can work at home."

This is an excellent point. What about people who work in manufacturing, in construction, or on farms? We're obviously not going to eliminate all commutes. However, there's a difference between not commuting alone in a private automobile and not commuting at all. Commuters should have more public transit options, including commuter rail for long distances and efficient bicycle-related (hybrid pedal/electric) vehicles for short hops. Rail lines can use a system like Caltrain's for integrating cycling and trains. My daily commute is over 40 miles each way, a combination of cycling and rail. As commuting becomes more inconvenient, people will move closer to work or work closer to home. Which would you rather have, an hour behind the wheel (or in a train) or another hour with your family?

Joe continues, "What about all the jobs lost in the Auto Industry? What about all the folks who work in those malls, what about the road crews?"

If the private automobile disappears, the people working in the auto industry can still build buses, trucks, trains, motorcycles, taxis, police cars, and fire engines. In addition, the auto industry can innovate and come up with new modes of transport that are more efficient than cars.

As for the people working in the malls, if they want to continue working in retail, they can work in shops downtown. I tend to think that the transition away from the auto will be good for the economy in general and that there will be lots of new job choices for people. As for those working on the road crews, their efforts can be diverted towards building the post-auto infrastructure: the rail system will grow and roads will still be needed for the many vehicles still remaining. Ultimately, I do think that less money will be spent on infrastructure. It is cheaper to support an efficient transport system than an inefficient one. A lot of government pork goes into maintaining and expanding the highways.

Joe concludes, "I'm sure futurist and socialist love the idea of small planned communities where nobody has to do more than contemplate their belly button, but the rest of us live in the real world. You watch too much Star Trek."

I addressed the "socialist" question above. As for the idea of "small planned communities," that's not really how I see it happening. I envision the reversion of suburbs into towns as a more natural process, taking place over many years. People will simply gravitate towards the center of economic activity as the suburbs decline.

Oh, and I don't watch much Star Trek, although Firefly was cool. Too bad it got cancelled!

Mike writes, "I'm just curious - how do you plan to fund these programs? Some more of that 'free government money'?"

If you look over my plan, you'll notice that actually, most of them are suggestions for private initiatives or grass-roots movements. Ideas 1, 8, 9, and 10 (self-guiding cars, exoskeletons, faster broadband, and e-commerce) would be innovations by private industry. Ideas 4 and 11 (anti-car PR campaign and neighborhood building) would be spontaneous movements and trends in society, although the PR campaign might be spearheaded by nonprofits. Idea 2, car sharing, could be promoted either by nonprofits or by private firms or clubs -- no government funds necessary.

As for the ideas that do involve the government, 3, 5, 6, and 7, only idea 7 (more public transit) would require increased government spending. Idea 3 (fewer freeways) means less spending, which should be popular with conservatives. Idea 5 (externalities) would be a complicated change in policy: I'm not sure of the implications do government revenue. However, much of it could be accomplished on a private level, through insurance premiums, for example. Idea 6 (higher taxes on petroleum) would actually raise revenue.

Nonetheless, I can definitely see why raising taxes on gasoline would be unpopular! For one thing, they are sales taxes, which are regressive. Perhaps they should be combined with some kind of negative income tax, like the one Republican president Richard Nixon proposed back in the 70s.

JG Halmayr at Ride makes some insightful comments. He points out that, "This is exactly what the industry is moving towards, eliminating the need to drive your car manually when a computer can do it for you." I'm aware of this trend and in fact I see it as working against car culture. The point of my plan is to make driving less desirable and to make other forms of transport more appealing.

There's a certain romance to the automobile. Advertisers exploit this mercilessly when they show a car speeding down an empty highway (often beautiful highway 1 here in California). However, a lot of this romance is tied up in the feeling of control and independence that you get when you're behind the wheel. If you give up control of your car so you can, "accomplish other things, such as work, playing videogames, watching a movie, reading a book, or surfing the internet," you're not in control any more. You might as well be riding on the train. Or what about the "pod cars" I mentioned, that link physically to form ad hoc trains? That combines the best of both worlds -- you gain the efficiency of shared transport while retaining the privacy of the private auto.

The other advantage to the development of computer guidance systems is that they make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Some people choose to drive instead of bicycling or walking because they feel vulnerable without a metal shell around them. If cars can't crash into you, you're a lot safer.

Technorati tags: , , , policy, taxes, government

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Eleven point plan for eliminating the private automobile

This post is a follow-up to the thread on peakoil.com called, "How to eliminate the private automobile." The thread takes as a premise that cars are viruses. The term "private automobile" is defined in this post by gg3.

  1. Invent self-guiding cars that can't crash into pedestrians, cyclists, and each other. Regulate auto speed with governors. Tie use of these technologies to insurance premiums. In the future, private autos may evolve into "pod cars" that link physically to form ad hoc trains.

    Result: you're not really driving any more. Driving becomes less appealing because motorists lose the feeling of control that comes from being behind the wheel. Safety is improved for pedestrians and cyclists.

  2. Expand car sharing programs (e.g. City Car Share) and make them more convenient. Car sharing is a step towards eliminating auto dependence entirely. Use RFID, GPS, and mobile phones to make sure shared cars are always available in convenient locations. Provide lockers where users can store child car seats, shopping bags, et cetera. Make a child car seat that's easier and quicker to install on the go.

    Result: take the "private" out of the private automobile. Participants share cars rather than owning them. People who use car sharing programs also use public transit more often than car owners.

  3. Stop expanding free highways. When traffic demands dictate the need for a new lane, build self-funding toll lanes for people who want to stay in their cars but get out of the traffic. Over time, change existing free highways and lanes to toll roads so that the highway system funds itself.

    Result: Lower highway spending removes a subsidy on driving, discouraging waste. For drivers in the disappearing free lanes, traffic worsens and driving becomes less attractive. For those in the toll lanes, driving becomes more expensive.

  4. Start a PR campaign to discourage automobile use. Mimic the anti-smoking and anti-DUI campaigns of recent decades. Make driving unpopular.

    Result: driving becomes less appealing.

  5. Hold automakers, fossil energy companies, and motorists responsible for the externalities of petroleum use (e.g. pollution deaths, property damage due to climate change).

    Result: the expense weakens the auto industry, raises the price of petroleum, and encourages greater transport efficiency. The victims of climate change are compensated for their real economic losses.

  6. In U.S. (and everywhere else where petroleum is cheap) raise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel to match those in Europe.

    Result: driving becomes more expensive and less practical.

  7. Fully fund public transit, especially rail. Focus on intra-city transit (e.g. SF MUNI) over commuter rail (e.g. BART or Caltrain) but promote both when possible. Develop high speed rail for long distance travel. Use a hub and spoke model for bus lines, incorporating computers, GPS, and mobile phones into their scheduling so that buses are always full.

    Result: commuters do not need to drive to get to work.

  8. Invent lightweight, protective exoskeletons for cyclists to make bicycling safer, even at relatively high speeds (>60 kph). Promote electric-assist bicycles that are faster and can cover more varied terrain than pedal power alone.

    Result: bicycling is safer, faster, easier, and thus more appealing. Bicycles and related technologies replace cars for most short to medium distance trips.

  9. Faster broadband (>100 Mbps) makes working from home totally seamless. High quality videoconferencing replaces most meetings.

    Result: the need to commute to work is eliminated for many, along with a good percentage of auto trips.

  10. E-commerce expands to include almost all shopping. People only go to the store for specialty items. Webvan (or the modern equivalent) is reborn. Delivery is handled either by the Post Office or by dedicated firms (FedEx or UPS) so you get a single delivery with many items. The fuel efficiency of trucks is improved and they can run on biodiesel if necessary.

    Result: the inefficiencies of shopping malls are eliminated. People conduct commerce within walking distance or through the Internet, rendering a large percentage of car trips unnecessary.

  11. Build urban neighborhoods and communities. Promote neighborhood watch groups, community gardening, and neighborhood cohesiveness. Allow the suburbs to revert back to small towns or cities.

    Result: people have more to do near their homes and fewer reasons to physically leave the neighborhood. Communities thrive and people are happier. Crime declines and quality of life improves.

This plan is a work in progress and I welcome more ideas for the transition to a car-free future.

Update (8 November 2005): Remarkably, not everyone is in complete agreement that the private automobile should be eliminated. The car-defenders include Jalopnik, who writes, "Car lovers, know thy enemy." My plan is also cited by The Auto Prophet, who calls me, "A car hating greenie with socialist tendencies and a fetish for bicycles." The Auto Prophet may not be without socialist tendencies himself: I hear his car is Swedish.

Others do not hate my plan. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog comments that although, "A few of these concepts seem unworkable and even a little bizarre . . . a combination of some of the more practical ones could have positive effects." Eric at Long live the network opines, "What i really liked was, exoskeletons for bikers." However, I think he was envisioning the exoskeleton as some kind of power-assist device, as opposed to protective gear. I should have been a little more clear on that.

Update (10 November 2005): J G Halmayr at Ride is writing a thoughtful, point-by-point critique of my plan. I am commenting on his rebuttals and revising my points as he exposes weaknesses in them.

Technorati tags: , , , automobile, environment