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


At 9:43 PM, Blogger Ben Kraal said...

John, I think you assume too much about how easy it is for people to change jobs or move houses to be closer to their work.

Addressing some of your other points:

Self-guiding cars that work on a standard road system are are very complex problem. Most self-guided vehicles rely on sensors in the road.

Similarly, regarding faster broadband -- in Australia at least the government owns the majority share in the company that owns the infrastructure.

For self-guided "trains", see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramis_%28personal_rapid_transit%29

I will re-iterate my comments from your previous post: you are starting from a point of saying "cars are bad" without saying (to all of us car bloggers) why you think cars are bad. In this post you've said that they're innefficient and unsustainable -- how so? I think you need more detail. Are non-poluting cars (ie hydrogen/fuel cells) just as bad as ones that run on gasoline?


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