By on November 16, 2008

I’m in tears. Back in 1972, Stewart Udall, interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, proposed that the auto companies branch out into “exciting new variants of ground transportation” to produce minibuses, “people movers,” urban mass transit and high-speed intercity trains. Instead of expanding the Interstate highway system, he suggested that the road construction industry take on “huge new programs to construct mass transit systems.” And he called for building “more compact, sensitively planned communities” rather than continuing urban sprawl.” We all know what happened. Detroit, today desperately seeking a miracle, worked hard to ensure that this would never happen. Even today, while screaming and begging for tax dollars, Detroit is lobbying against California’s stricter emissions laws that dictate smaller cars. Here’s the thing: people don’t want cars, we want mobility. And the reason I’m in tears is that lots of people saw this, almost FIFTY years ago.

There are purposes for which we do want a car, but most of our transportation needs can be solved with clearer thinking, and applied solutions that have a vastly improved energy impact. The “many cars in every household” mindset has created a non-viable industry, and a non-viable attitude to transportation. Robert Goodman, professor of environmental design at Hamsphire College, writes about this in today’s NYTimes. I could hug the man. He asks that the “Obama administration should ask the companies, as a condition of financial assistance, to begin shifting from being just automakers to becoming innovative ‘transportmakers.’” Because that’s what we need. It’s all about the mobility, stupid – not about having three cars in each garage.

The coming years will see an incredible revolution in transportation – and when we get through our fixed view of what we thought was right, and emerge into what’s possible, we’ll find ourselves smiling from ear to ear at what fun it has become to move around in the world. (But before that happens, the industry behemoths have some concessions to make – their thinking has been all wrong, from at least 1972 onwards.)

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48 Comments on “IT’S THE MOBILITY, STUPID...”


  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    I drive mainly on weekends. During the week, I’ll commute via bus or by bicycle. Grocery stores are within bicycle commute here in heart of an older mid-size American city.

    But man, I do value my freedom of mobility on weekends and when on traveling on vacation.

    What about the folks in the suburbs? They aren’t even on the radar at the NY Times. Have they ever been to Phoenix or better yet in rural anywhere West of the Appalachians?

  • avatar

    And the funny thing is, it might not even impact the auto business. Germany has an exceptional public transport system. There really is little reason to own a car. In fact, in my young years, I did 7 years of advertising for Volkswagen without having a driver’s license (I had no time and patience for what takes as much time and effort of a Bachelor’s Degree. Once in America, I absolutely needed a car, paid my $15 and had a license.) Likewise in Japan, a top-class public transport system. Now do both countries complain of a lack of auto buyers? The Germans would rather stop eating than driving, someone said. The only way to stop citizens of Tokyo from buying more cars was by requiring them to prove possession of a parking space for the automobile.

    Now the NYT article may be written by someone who lives in Manhattan. I owned no car when I lived there. The $500/month for a parking space was better spent partying. The writer obviously hasn’t been in the next counties. Putnam, Suffolk: No car, you are dead.

  • avatar

    In general, I agree with this; the question is “freedom of mobility.” We’ve been focused on one particular solution — the car — for a 100 years because it was (and to an extent still is) a great solution to that question.

    The problem now I see is twofold. One, we’ve become stuck on this one solution, and most new ideas are just extensions of that solution. Humans seem to have a difficult time switching to a new solution when there is still life in the old solution.

    The other part of the problem is what OldandSlow mentioned above — our living patterns don’t always work well with mass transit. I live 16 miles from my job, in the Utah mountains. Biking/walking is not practical, and there is not the density for good mass transit. I’d live closer to work, but that puts me in a resort town with housing prices I can’t afford.

    I would like to see a more broad-minded approach to our mobility needs. Besides, anything that takes more cars off the road is a good thing, since that opens up the roads for my motorcycle and old British sports car. :)

  • avatar
    NulloModo

    The concept of ‘many cars in every household’ is non-viable neither in terms of the industry nor transportation policy. If people were buying many cars per household still the industry would be in much better shape, and in any area outside of major metropoli where parking is at a premium, the road system can support the vehicles. Yes, demand for fuel plays into it, but further development of alternative fuel sources and more effecient vehicles will take care of that.

    It is also worth noting that mass transit systems, while being able to comepletely negate the need for an automobile for most people when they are well designed such as in London or New York City, are a drain on taxpayer dollars. Yes, even NYCs subway, perhaps the best in the USA, doesn’t make a profit, and has to be subsidized.

    Mass transit and better designed communities will be coming to more of the country as time allows I am sure, but the sheer size of the USA vs. any European nation, and the huge amount of rural area in the flyover states (or for that matter, even in highly populated coastal states) means that it is going to take a very long time and a ton of money before the USA has anything like Britain’s useful rail system.

  • avatar
    crackers

    From a practical perspective, an excellent public transit system is the way to go for the future.

    Unfortunately, I like having the freedom to go anywhere I want whenever I want. I like being fully in control of my mobility instead of relying on a system that goes on strike or breaks down when I want to use it. Being a rather unsociable type, I enjoy the solitude in my sanctuary of sanity and can’t bring myself to blend in with the rest of the cattle in a public system.

    It will take a looong time before most North Americans are willing to fully embrace public transit.

  • avatar
    N8iveVA

    i hate to say it, but i loathe public transportation. I do want cars, and if i could afford them, i’d probably have at least 5

  • avatar
    improvement_needed

    it’s it just a little wrong to ask gm, ford, chrysler to be the ones to make next generation transit systems (and beyond)…

    there are surely better companies equipped for this…

  • avatar

    I’ve kind of decided to test this concept.

    Some months ago I got rid of my two cars, a Cherokee Ltd and an Alfa Romeo.

    I’ve joined a car-sharing company, and have also rediscovered the quite amazing public transportation system where I live (Europe). Prior to joining the car-share I also rented a couple of times from Hertz.

    I’ve added up my total cost for owning cars, on a yearly basis: maintenance, fuel, depreciation, insurance, parking, etc. And I’m looking at that total, and seeing how I can apply it to achieve similar mobility within that budget, without private ownership.
    I’ve begun taking the train to meetings – very convenient, and for some destinations in Europe there’s less travel time than by air, from city centre to city centre. And with WiFi being ubiquitous on trains, it makes sense to leave the car behind.

    As I live in a city, losing the cars is easier. If I lived in the countryside, I would want to have my own car, and probably something I could load stuff into and really get around with.
    As Mr. Udall stated it – And he called for building “more compact, sensitively planned communities” rather than continuing urban sprawl.” The solution won’t come overnight, it will require a rethink of the transportation equation, relative to energy costs and congestion, as well as environmental impact, mobility and convenience.
    But I do know one thing – at present I have eight different cars available to me, at a cost substantially below that of owning two.

    (If I lived in London, I could join one of the car-shares that has Rolls, Bentleys, Maseratis, E-types and other top makes in their stalls, if that was to my liking. And that kind of exclusive models car-share will probably become more popular. Check out http://www.extremecarshare.com and http://www.exoticcarshare.com/Collection/indelx.html)

  • avatar
    volvo

    “And he called for building “more compact, sensitively planned communities” rather than continuing urban sprawl.”

    Ants live in sensitively planned communities. Lions (along with Jackals and Hyenas) roam the plains. Of course the ants will survive (the operative word here) ages longer than the lions.

    It’s really not left vs. right or blue vs. red. It’s collectivist vs. individualist. It may take a village for comfortable survival but at what price?

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Stein, well put. I hope you will continue to discuss this perspective here. If the American auto industry is to survive it needs to shake loose from its five cars in every household fundamentalism.

  • avatar
    JimC31

    The basic concept that mass transit is more efficient than personal transit is, unless you have demographic conditions that exist pretty much nowhere outside Hong Kong, bunk. Yes a bus or a train can carry more people than a car. The thing is my car doesn’t drive itself around town empty to places I don’t want to go while I’m not using it.

    All of Europe’s draconian policies have only delayed, not stopped the rise of the auto-centric lifestyle, and succeeded only in making Europeans demonstrably poorer than Americans.

  • avatar
    Matt51

    Urban sprawl is destroying our farmland. Combine with Iowa topsoil washing out the Mississippi, at some point, we are in serious trouble. The subway in DC is wonderful, as is the overall mass transit in Germany.
    We need to plan, rather than assume the mythical “free market” will fix everything.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Of course we have sprawl. Development for the last 60+ years has catered to the car and the car onwer.

    And never mind NYC’s subway subsidy, we’ve been subsidizing the highway system for just as long. Every time you condemn property and throw 4 to 8 lanes of asphalt over a neighborhood – that’s a subsidy to the auto industry. There are pleny of places where this practice has ruined perfectly nice neighborhoods.

    Changing this, though, takes TIME. Had we done something about this in the ’70′s, we’d be far less reliant on cars today – and able to enjoy them more. I like to drive. I hate to commute. These are not diammetrically opposed points of view.

    And have a care for those too poor to own a car. There’s more of them than you might think. And for those just barely not poor enough that they can afford a car – what would be a better way for them to live? Dependent on that cash-sucking car or mobile by other means and able to use the money for something else?

  • avatar
    wannabewannabe

    It should be noted that the author of the Times piece doesn’t appear to live in Manhattan but in Amherst, Massachusetts, one of these semi-rural areas on the East Coast. His view, thus, is not necessarily jaundiced by the lack of car ownership and access to an excellent, already-built mass transportation system.

    What is particularly interesting is that this editorial dovetails very nicely with a different article in the Week In Review section of the Times today talking about the way dying companies (in industries that may or may not be dying) survive by repositioning the goods they sell or adapting to create different goods: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/16/weekinreview/16rampell.html?ref=weekinreview. While I don’t think that there is a best and brightest among us who would argue that better products do not lie at the center of salvation for the American auto industry, it might be worthwhile to consider that the industry may beyond salvage in its traditional capacity.

    Assume that GM, Ford, and Chrysler started putting out full lines of cars and trucks that are not only competitive with the competition but exceed the competition in the most broadly construed sense of quality. Even then, it would take years to undo the damages of decades of shoddy products and piss-poor management in the public’s perception of the companies. Simply stated, these companies don’t have that kind of time, government bailout or not.

    Maybe their collective future lies in being different kinds of companies. Maybe there is money to be made in building other modes of transportation. Maybe a company with the research capacity and manufacturing might of any of the Big 3 would have the capability to reduce the costs associated with these technologies that Goodman talks about in his editorial. Assuming any of these things is true, then the question becomes whether the government should try to force the Big 3 in that direction as a condition of bailout money. The answer to that question will probably divide us along our normal ideological lines, which is to say we will get no closer to answering than we do on a host of so many other issues.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Urban planning has been effectively broken since WW2. Look at a modern development and you’ll note that it’s actually community-hostile: people are caged off from each other, caged off from resources ad, heck, have to putter around in little cages to get from any two places safely. This benefits retailers (well, big ones), developers, city tax gatherers and automakers by maximizing revenue, but works to the detriment of small business and most people.

    We don’t build communities, we build what are, effectively, the horizontal equivalent of low-rent high-rises that compartmentalize people and cut them off, all because it’s convenient to do so. Only we’ve made it more appealing than the forty-story concrete disasters that inner cities were stuck with post-war.

    There’s a lot to be said for low-rise tenements and Victorian/Edwardian street planning, as well as integration of commerce and residential units. The best, most desirable, least-dysfunctional neighbourhoods generally follow this trend. The detriment to areas like this? They’re not car- or big-box friendly. Park your car on the street, pay a few bucks more for the privilege of shopping in a smaller store and suck it up.

    Note that this largely obviates the need for ubiquitous public transit because you’ve built a sane community where everything is within walking or short-ride distance. You’re down to improving the commuter rail- and/or bus systems that handle work traffic, rather than pumping money into bus routes to service vast wastelands of suburban sprawl. It also doesn’t eliminate the car–you’re still quite free to own one–it just removes the absolute need for one.

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Germany has 80 million people in an area about the same size as Washington and Oregon combined. Those two states have a population of about 10 million. If I’ve done my math right, then Germany has about ten times the population density of two US states with about-average densities.

    I live in Colorado, where the figures are even lower. Germany is right next door to Belgium, with one of the highest population densities in the world.

    So of course massive public transit works in Europe — you’ve got lots of people in small spaces. In most of the US, you’ve got very few people spread out over vast spaces. What works in Berlin or Brussels (or even Boston) simply will not work for most of the country.

    And to replicate what works in Europe, you plan on using my tax dollars to keep Detroit building vehicles I can’t use? Or did you plan on putting my and mine on cattle trains for forced relocation to higher-density cities?

    That last item was a little hyperbole on my part — but only barely, judging by some of the comments here. But the facts remain that the US is not Europe, and if Detroit can’t manage Detroit, then Washington certainly can’t, either.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Stein: great piece, I agree.

    Steve Green: yes, the US has much lower population density, overall. But how much of the US population actually lives outside the metropolitain corridors? When you compare NY-Boston or western California with Europe, I think you’ll find very little difference.

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Martin S –

    Most of the US population lives in much lower densities than the Europeans do. Even our metro corridors are more spread out than theirs. The Ruhr conurbation and Los Angeles don’t look much alike, do they? Or compare metro Denver (about 35 minutes north of where I live) to a comparably-sized city in France — which has one of the lowest average national densities in Europe.

    In other words, my point remains.

    And my other point stands, too. Mr Leikanger and too many TTAC commenters want to use my tax dollars to fund their new-urban schemes, and to replace GM’s incompetent hacks with incompetent hacks from Washington. At least Detroit’s hacks stand some small chance of being held accountable. If only the same were true about Washington’s.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    “As I live in a city, losing the cars is easier.”

    It is not even possible outside of an extremely densely populated urban area. And I for one, do not wish to live in a densely populated urban area. That is is one of the many reasons why I am happy to live in the USA and not Belgium. Even if I lived in Belgium I would not want to ride public transportation with the other Belgians, or ride my bike in the long rainy northern European winter.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Steve — I think what Stein and the referenced article were trying to say is that government should facilitate higher density, and should support alternative modes of transport in areas of higher density.

    Point taken about the present differences between the U.S. and Europe. I just find it strange that based on average national population density, people infer that the U.S. is a rural country, despite the fact that 80% of the U.S. population lives in metropolitain areas.
    (Source: http://www.time.com/time/covers/20061030/where_we_live/

    Or that states like Ohio have higher poulation density than France. Or that Spain, with the lowest population density of western Europe (at 78.43 people per square kilometer considerably lower than in Ohio), has perhaps the most ambitious high speed rail development program in all of Europe.

    About Detroit managers being accountable: I am afraid they are not.

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Martin,

    You could cut out the entire American “Empty Quarter,” and the US would still have population densities below Europe. Our metro areas (apart from the Bos-Wash conurbation) have more space, and, well, they use it.

    The comparison of Ohio (one of the most-densely packed states in the Union) to France (one of the roomiest in Europe) is specious. (Er, spacious?)

    Americans have elbow room, and we use it. As a result, we’re not very well set up for grand urban transport schemes. If you want to change that, then you’ve got to do two things:

    1) Force Americans to move.
    2) Force them to pay for their own relocation.

    Which part strikes you as especially American?

    And if you’ll notice, I wrote that Detroit’s hacks stand only “some small chance” of being held accountable. That’s a chance we must take. Because Washington’s hacks are worse (yes, it’s possible) and will never, ever be brought to task.

    If Detroit can be saved, then GM and Ford must restructure, and soon. They won’t do so while sucking on the Federal teat, and they certainly won’t do so while executing directives from Washington.

  • avatar
    davekatz

    Steve Green:

    Uhhh, your precious tax money goes to build boondoggle Pentagon contraptions that don’t work,to fund an entire industry of corporate tax welfare,(see David Cay Johnston), to pay agribusiness NOT to grow food people can eat in favor of monoculture crops, to hokey “abstinence-only” sex ed, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

    Airports and highways don’t exist without tax subsidies, nor are they any kind of model for harmonious human transit.

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Dave –

    Your complaints about wasteful government spending (but I repeat myself) pretty much match my own. The difference being, I’d rather not extend that waste into re-imagining the entire American landscape.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Actually, Steve, I am optimistic about the U.S. You guys held an incompetent government accountable after eight years, and if the new guy doesn’t do his job properly, I am sure you’ll kick him out too. More than can be said about the bums in Detroit after what, 40 years?

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Martin –

    Administrations come and go, but programs last *forever.* We’re still subsidizing mohair production for Great War service uniforms.

  • avatar
    davekatz

    Steve,

    My apologies for singeing.

    I’ve had it with overwhelming American corporate malfeasance that gets gussied up as Darwinian-viable public policy and then attempts to cement its own immutable worldview by casting government as some kind of lurching Frankenstein’s monster that we the citzens should fear and distrust.

    Beauty of the American Experiment? Of the people, by the people, and for the people. When Ronnie Baby said, “Government is the enemy”, he declared war on US. 30 years on,the battleground couldn’t be much starker.

  • avatar
    Steve Green

    Dave –

    Actually, Reagan said, “Government isn’t the solution; government is the problem.” And based on what you wrote earlier, I’m not sure which part of that you disagree with.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    It’s kind of surprising to find that so many ostensible car-people are actually socialists. Weird.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Steve Green,

    Here on the East Side of St. Paul, people commute in from Western Wisconsin (passing many farms along the way) and parts of Minnesota that are, frankly, farm country. They come in to office and manufacturing jobs.

    There’s nothing inherently “rural” about the lifestyle of many people, except that cheap gas and expensive highway subsidies make it possible for them to pretend to be gentleman farmers on their 3-acre lots.

    And, in building our communities this way, we’ve made ourselves reliant on the automobile, expensive highway construction and cheap gas. This was, strategically, a bad plan.

  • avatar
    charleywhiskey

    OK, Stein, you and Bobby Goodman need to spend a little time in, say Prescott, Arizona, or Bozeman, Montana, or Brewton, Alabama, or Daytona Beach, Florida, or any of a thousand other similar American towns before you get too carried away with your “transportmaking” fantasies.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Here is what I love — Europeans telling Americans that they are doing it all wrong and that we need to do it like they do. Of course you can get a professor from a third string college in Northampton MA to write a Op-ed in the NYTimes to give an amen to that. All the bobble heads on the Upper Left Side will join the chorus.

    The 2.8 are not in trouble because I owned 4 cars a year and a half ago and I only own 2 now. They are in trouble because of the last 3 cars that I have purchased over the last 6 years, they made none of them (2 Hondas and a Toyota). I bought American until 2002 when I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

    I have one daughter who lives in Manhattan and one who lives in near north Chicago. They don’t need cars. I live in Ohio and I am quite unlikely to move to either city. I need a car, and so does my wife. I like to drive. I don’t want to walk to the grocery store.

    I don’t like big fat heavy cars. I never have. But the 2.8 are not the only sinners to me. M-B and BMW are just as guilty. I think the newer Accords are too big. But, that critique is not a prelude to claiming that cars are bad. They are not. They maybe inappropriate in some places like the centers of European cities, or even parts of Manhattan at certain times, but cars are generally fun, are more fun if they are light and simple, and I like them.

    Personally, I think the US should build more highways and improve the ones we have. I don’t think we should try to solve global warming on the backs of automobile owners. Lets replace fossil fuel power plants with nuclear, and use electricity to replace fossil fuel for home heating, and railroad propulsion. I would be all in favor of a substantial gasoline tax and an annual curb weight tax, but I think that anyone who believes that Americans want to or will consent to live like Europeans, is just mistaken.

    We like to drive and we like cars. Deal with it.

  • avatar
    wannabewannabe

    Mr. Schwartz,

    I love cars, and I love to drive, too. I live in New York City. I want a car. I miss having one. That being said, the only reason I can reasonably justify one is to get out of town because it makes virtually no sense in town.

    But I think, as car people, we’re in the minority. Most of the non-car people I know love the freedom that a car gives them but aren’t especially enamored of the car itself. It’s a tool, an appliance to them.

    I think the thrust of the article is not to force us all into living like Europeans, but rather to have us evaluate more carefully the choices we make with respect to what our tax dollars subsidize. I agree we need to fix the roads we have and maintain them properly. But I also believe that there is value in subsidizing increased density in large parts of the country, especially in the metropolitan areas noted in earlier comments. Mass transit and density will never make sense in rural or semi-rural areas. However, I believe it’s worthwhile to provide incentives for new development in the suburbs and cities–where the majority of Americans live–to be denser rather than not. Any transformation will of course take many years, but that is no excuse for trying to make prudent development decisions now.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I don’t think anyone is advocating pushing mass transit on the Podunks of North America, but controlling the relentless suburban sprawl that’s girldling major cities.

    Get rid of the sprawl and you both reduce car usage and cut down the need to public transit.

  • avatar

    I think we currently have other problems than changing something that took eons to evolve. Anybody notice the economy is going down the tubes? If this goes on just a little longer, this discussion will be completely moot, we’ll all be pedaling bicycles.

    There is one matter where I agree with BJ-Bill: It’s the economy, stupid.

    Without money, we won’t be able to afford cars, nor mass transit.

  • avatar

    The subway in DC is wonderful, as is the overall mass transit in Germany.

    I lived in DC, about 8 minutes walk from a subway stop. Nonetheless, it took me 40 minutes door to door to get to my doctor’s office, downtown, vs. 20 minutes by car or bicycle. And if I wanted to then go to my health club? Forget it. Public transit is great in cities like Manhattan and Paris and London, and many other places in the European Community, but for most people in most of the US it’s not very practical. Our country was mostly built around the car. It would take 75-100 years of zoning for density to make public transit practical for a large percentage of Americans. (It’s not a bad idea, though, although I’m not sure how it would fare politically.)

    I should also note that for years I lived in DC without a car. I went everywhere on my bicycle. I almost never used public transportation, because the bicycle was far faster.

    Having said all that, I’m all for having some public transit. Some people can’t drive or don’t want to, and public transit takes a bit of pressure off of the roads for the rest of us. But it would be nuts to force the auto companies into a business for which there is little demand and little practicality. For that matter, the US auto companies have enough trouble just making cars. I can’t imagine trying to shift them into being “mobility” companies.

  • avatar

    Robert Schwartz: I don’t think we should try to solve global warming on the backs of automobile owners. Lets replace fossil fuel power plants with nuclear, and use electricity to replace fossil fuel for home heating, and railroad propulsion.

    I agree completely with your first statement. That’s why I keep calling for a carbon tax, and an oil tax as well if it is felt that the cost of military adventures and supply uncertainty needs to be factored into the cost of oil. But these taxes should be applied to carbon and/or oil (probably “and”) and not to a particular source of emissions or use of fuel (i.e. not to cars). Then INDIVIDUAL PEOPLE can decide for themselves how they best want to use the carbon emissions or fuel that they allot themselves, given the price. We would probably find, for example, that a lot of people would prefer to do more driving, and less meat eating. Agriculture causes a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions–somewhere around 20% of all of it, I think, and producing X# of calories of meat causes probably at least five times as much greenhouse gas emission as vegetable or grain production.

  • avatar

    Robert Schwartz :
    November 16th, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Here is what I love — Europeans telling Americans that they are doing it all wrong and that we need to do it like they do.

    Ah, was Stewart Udall, interior secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, a European?
    I didn’t know that. Amazing!

    The US auto industry is in serious trouble. Some new thinking is required.

    I have lived in and been to a variety of places in the US.
    Charleywhiskey writes:
    OK, Stein, you and Bobby Goodman need to spend a little time in, say Prescott, Arizona, or Bozeman, Montana, or Brewton, Alabama, or Daytona Beach, Florida.

    Two out of four ain’t bad. My tours of the US gave me a varied perspective on the place — from areas where congestion means you and a gopher two miles away from you, to areas with cars with effing interlocked bumpers pushing their way to and from work.

    As clearly stated in one of my comments to this blog, it’s going to take time to change, and I would definitely need a car if I lived in a rural area.

    But the solution to the troubles of Detroit does not lie in manufacturing MORE cars, but in providing for SMARTER mobility – there’s a need for that in more places than you’d believe.

    Check out Philly Carshare for one solution.
    Here are their models: The PhillyCarShare fleet includes over two dozen makes and models.[7] Nearly half the fleet is made up of hybrid vehicles, including the Toyota Prius and Camry Hybrid. Other cars include the Honda Civic, Toyota Tacoma, Honda Element, Mazda Miata, Mazda3, Audi A4, Volvo S40, Mini Cooper, BMW 328j, Lexus IS250, Toyota Acura, and Toyota Sienna.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PhillyCarShare

    Where I live, we book the car on the net. Within a half km radius of where I live, I have dozens of cars available, in parking garages. I reserve the type of car I need for the period I require it, and can extend that period if necessary. When through with the car, I drop it off and don’t think of it again.

    Pretty neat.

  • avatar

    Despite what I said above, I agree strongly with the following (and I’ve left some of it off that I also agree with, but it’s the 15th comment, I think, and well worth reading the rest:

    psarhjinian There’s a lot to be said for low-rise tenements and Victorian/Edwardian street planning, as well as integration of commerce and residential units. The best, most desirable, least-dysfunctional neighbourhoods generally follow this trend. The detriment to areas like this? They’re not car- or big-box friendly. Park your car on the street, pay a few bucks more for the privilege of shopping in a smaller store and suck it up.

    Note that this largely obviates the need for ubiquitous public transit because you’ve built a sane community where everything is within walking or short-ride distance. You’re down to improving the commuter rail- and/or bus systems that handle work traffic, rather than pumping money into bus routes to service vast wastelands of suburban sprawl. It also doesn’t eliminate the car–you’re still quite free to own one–it just removes the absolute need for one.

    This is the sort of development in Cambridge/Boston, and a good friend who lives in Cambridge is able to walk to all shopping, and walk to work. His 2001 Civic has about 36k miles on it, and his wife’s Odyssey gets even less use.

  • avatar
    AG

    Dean Kamen’s secret stash of Segways is prepped and ready.

    Living in a big city it would probably be nice if people just drove mopeds or something. Small enough to not need a full sized parking space and can carry cargo. Then again, I’m imagining pictures of 3rd world countries where bikes and mopeds dart between very large trucks…not pretty.

  • avatar

    Robert Schwartz :
    November 16th, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Here is what I love — Europeans telling Americans that they are doing it all wrong and that we need to do it like they do.

    Ah, I didn’t know that Stewart Udall, interior secretary for Kennedy and Johnson, was European! Amazing!

    ===
    @charleywhiskey

    Have traveled extensively in the US, and also lived there. Am quite aware of the vast distances. Did also point out in my comments that I would opt for my own car if I lived out yonder.

    Am also aware that average daily driving distance in the US is 30 miles, and absolutely hate driving in LA, a place where they might as well use magnets for bumpers.

    Think of Mr. Udall’s suggestions, proffered in 1972, as a possible cure. Or else look forward to Google Earth views of fairly monotonous asphalt and concrete.

  • avatar
    Steve_S

    I enjoy driving so even if a train or subway was affordable and convenient I still wouldn’t use it.

    Also the drive to and from work is not gridlock so I count it as me time. I have no desire to share that with anyone.

  • avatar
    geeber

    As someone who has been in Great Britain, Germany (twice), Ireland and Italy within the past four years, I find the constant comparisons of the U.S. to Europe amusing, especially since the comparison is always made by people who want the U.S. look bad. Apparently, people see what they want to see…

    A little injection of reality into this discussion:

    First, when one goes to Europe, one discovers that, despite much higher population densities and more mass transit, there is still plenty of traffic. Cities are clogged with traffic (and it largely consists of private passenger cars, not buses or taxis), finding a parking space in the cities is tough, and yet everyone who can afford to do so owns a private automobile.

    One reason vehicle ownership rates are lower is because many people receive their vehicle as an employment perk (to avoid sky-high income taxes), so they don’t officially “own” a car, even though they are free to use said car as they wish. This is why my German aunt had a VW Polo which she drove to work every day, even though she officially didn’t own a car.

    The Autobahns in Germany regularly come to a standstill during the height of the holiday travel seasons. Remember, the Autobahn is a multi-lane, limited access highway system designed to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. It was the inspiration for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and later the Interstate Highway System.

    During Labor Day weekend, my wife and I drove from Myrtle Beach to Harrisburg, Pa, via I-95, and weren’t held up once by traffic.

    So it appears as though Europeans like cars, too. If I recall correctly, miles driven has been increasing faster in Europe than it has been in the United States.

    Second, surveys repeatedly show that a majority of Europeans want the same housing that Americans want – a detached home on a plot of land. Space limitations and government restrictions price this option out of the reach of a large number of Europeans.

    Third, Americans have always had the option of living in compact communities that can be traversed without a car.

    They are called “cities.”

    Unless someone passed a law requiring people to move out of the cities and into the suburbs, the idea that Americans are being denied this choice of community is nonsense. Here in Harrisburg, there are plenty of neighborhoods that fit this description. Some are on the upswing, and some are collapsing. But the options are available to people who want them.

    So people are not being denied anything.

    The problem is that lots of people are making a different choice than the one deemed desirable by the chattering classes (most of whom have a home in the country in addition to that city penthouse apartment), so we have to invent the fiction that some sort of malevolent force is keeping people out of the city.

    Well, there is a malevolent force pushing some people out of the city – it’s called inept city government, but since the Republican Party hasn’t been a major power in most of our major cities for decades, we have to pretend as though this reason doesn’t exist.

    If people want to live in the city, that is their choice, and I certainly support it, although I would note that it’s hardly as glamorous and exciting as portrayed by Sarah Jessica Parker and the gang. Nothing wrong with mass transit, either, although I would prefer that any subsidies go towards maintenance and upkeep instead of union featherbedding or keeping politicians’ inept relatives on the payroll. We certainly have no intention of driving when we visit New York City. Of course, we also have no intention of living in New York City, either – at least I hope we never have to.

    Lots of us prefer living in a less dense environment, don’t mind shopping at big box stores for certain items (deodorant, shaving creme and soap are the same, whether they come from Costco or the corner grocery store, except that they are usually cheaper at Costco), and have a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to urban living.

    Finally, the idea that we are only looking for mobility misses the key point that many of us like to own our own things, and this includes a car. We like owning cars, we enjoy driving them, and even taking care of them.

    Yes, it costs money, but so do cable television, clothes that are more stylish than the Mao suit, eating out at nice restaurants and regular vacations.

    We don’t “need” those to survive either, but I’m not working just to survive. For me, life is too short to aspire to riding the subway. Others may have different aspirations, which are certainly just as valid, as long as everyone heeds the maxim my parents taught me – “Stay out of other people’s business.”

  • avatar

    (Posted once, but that didn’t appear. Reposted – and apologize for stating the same twice.)

    Forget Europe/US here, gerber. It just obscures the issue.

    We have three major auto companies in dire straits, they have delivered cars to the mindset prevailing in this thread: many of us like to own our own things, and this includes a car. We like owning cars, we enjoy driving them, and even taking care of them.

    Let me take this item-by-item.

    Now – quite a few people in the US (and Europe) do not own their cars (or homes). They are owned by banks or financial institutions. Because of easy credit, the car companies loaded up the vehicles with tonnage and extras, knowing that customers would still find the proposition affordable, until the credit disappeared.
    And when said credit disappeared, GM/FORD/CHRYSLER went belly-up, and the rest of the industry is hurting.

    Not seeing this, and thinking it will go away as a major problem all on its own, is folly.

    I also enjoy driving cars, and will continue to do so — though congestion, rush hour, parking problems, etc, are taking some of the lustre off the fun.
    Since car companies are dependent upon spewing out millions of cars, and people just keep adding up, while space remains the same — it’s not difficult to figure out where this proposition is headed. It will become increasingly inconvenient and expensive to own and operate vehicles in areas where congestion is an issue. (City planners are even designing roads that make maneuvering large cars tricky inside habitable areas.)

    The number of cars on the roads will not rise at the same rate as we’ve seen; and cars overall will become smaller.

    This does not mean that people will stop owning cars. (Heck, if I dislike the conclusions I reach after my experiment in carshare I’ll go back to owning one or two again).
    Put people are looking for alternatives that afford mobility, with as little inconvenience as possible, while flexibility remains high.

    And the company (companies) that figure out how to provide that will make a hell of a lot of money, which is the point of it all.

    If an alien sentient being was introduced to today’s car manufacture, and got an explanation of the process and its result, they’d probably conclude we’re all completely insane. Just think of all the metal GM has been desperately moving around the world, at a loss, for years and years.

    Things are going to change. Stewart Udall saw the need at an early point, but people weren’t receptive. Today, you’ll find a much higher receptivity, and we’ll see some very interesting (and profitable) solutions.

  • avatar
    volvo

    To Geeber

    That was a fabulous post. Should be on the editorial page of a major newpaper and lead article in the next issue of Mother Jones.

  • avatar
    geeber

    Volvo,

    Thank you.

    Stein X Leikanger: We have three major auto companies in dire straits, they have delivered cars to the mindset prevailing in this thread: many of us like to own our own things, and this includes a car. We like owning cars, we enjoy driving them, and even taking care of them.

    There are several major auto manufacturers who have made a lot of money, and remain viable today, by meeting this desire.

    Do not confuse the inept management of some companies and a temporary (though increasingly severe) economic recession with a wholesale desire to repudiate automobile ownership.

    Stein X Leikanger: Now – quite a few people in the US (and Europe) do not own their cars (or homes). They are owned by banks or financial institutions. Because of easy credit, the car companies loaded up the vehicles with tonnage and extras, knowing that customers would still find the proposition affordable, until the credit disappeared.

    That is called, “don’t buy more car than you can afford, and don’t buy it so often.” That is a call for fiscal prudence, not a repudiation of automobile ownership.

    And, for the record, I own my car – a 2003 Accord EX – free and clear. I like owning it, and driving it.

    Stein X Leikanger: GM/FORD/CHRYSLER went belly-up, and the rest of the industry is hurting.

    Not seeing this, and thinking it will go away as a major problem all on its own, is folly.

    Again, this is the result of a recession, and the failure of GM and Chrysler (not so much Ford) to adequately downsize. GM, in particular, is sized for about 35 percent of the market through its divisional structure, dealer body and retiree commitments, but it will be lucky to claim about 15 percent.

    Plus, markets are driven by aspirations as much as anything else. People may not be able to afford a new car NOW, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t want one.

    Also note that some of this year’s huge decline in sales is being driven by:

    *Fear, as even people with solid incomes and decent jobs pull out of the market, in reaction to the unceasing bad economic news. The herd mentality works regarding bad news, too.

    *Improved durability of modern vehicles. I can remember when some of the cheaper cars – both imported and domestic – showed signs of rust after 3-4 years. A car that hit 100,000 was basically shot, unless it had been babied. Now a car with reasonable care can be expected to travel 150,000 miles, and 200,000 miles isn’t out of the question, with the proper care.

    Stein X. Leikanger: I also enjoy driving cars, and will continue to do so — though congestion, rush hour, parking problems, etc, are taking some of the lustre off the fun.

    Those aren’t much of a problem around here, although I can understand why, say, a New York City resident would not want a car. But that is the choice for the New York City resident to make. What works in New York City may not work – or be wanted – in other places.

    For the record, every New York City resident who wasn’t poor or low income that I’ve ever met not only owned a car, but a place in either upstate New York or New England. I guess carless city living isn’t so bad if you can escape from it regularly…

    Stein X Leikanger: Since car companies are dependent upon spewing out millions of cars, and people just keep adding up, while space remains the same — it’s not difficult to figure out where this proposition is headed.

    That problem stems from population growth, not automobile ownership, and much of U.S. population growth is fueled by immigration. Which is a completely separate issue.

    Stein X Leikanger: It will become increasingly inconvenient and expensive to own and operate vehicles in areas where congestion is an issue.

    It’s already inexpensive and inconvenient to drive in the city, and people do it anyway.

    Stein X Leikanger: (City planners are even designing roads that make maneuvering large cars tricky inside habitable areas.)

    Which is an artificial constraint, not some sort of natural reaction to automobile ownership. I wonder if those city planners have taken into account delivery vans, taxis, etc.? Or will people and goods be transported via levitation to those areas?

    Stein X Leikanger: The number of cars on the roads will not rise at the same rate as we’ve seen; and cars overall will become smaller.

    Very true, but a reduction in the rate of growth of auto sales reflects a maturation of the market and limited population growth, especially in western Europe, where the population of several countries is either stagnant or falling.

    A reduction in the size of typical vehicle sold – which, I agree, will also happen – does not mean that people are repudiating automobile ownership.

    Stein X. Leikanger: This does not mean that people will stop owning cars. (Heck, if I dislike the conclusions I reach after my experiment in carshare I’ll go back to owning one or two again).

    But, you said this in the original post: Here’s the thing: people don’t want cars, we want mobility.

    Which is a completely different line of thought.

    For some people, no doubt this is true. But, as I said before, people like to own things, and lots of us like to own a car.

    Stein X Leikanger: But people are looking for alternatives that afford mobility, with as little inconvenience as possible, while flexibility remains high.

    But that will not help GM, Ford and Chrysler. Given their current financial condition, the last thing that they can afford to do is retool for a completely different line of business, even with government aid.

    Stein X Leikanger: If an alien sentient being was introduced to today’s car manufacture, and got an explanation of the process and its result, they’d probably conclude we’re all completely insane. Just think of all the metal GM has been desperately moving around the world, at a loss, for years and years.

    You are tarring an industry with the problems of one or two companies. Overcapacity in an industry, which is limited to a few companies, is not the same thing as a complete repudiation of automobile ownership and use.

    If the alien looked at Toyota or Honda, he’d probably be impressed.

  • avatar
    RetardedSparks

    Well, not to be TOO repetitive…
    You can be a “car guy” and still be what is branded here as a “socialist.” I am a car club and SCCA member, turn my own wrenches, autocross, got to track days, etc. I also live outside Manhattan and commute to work in the City every day by train. (And if someone would just sell me a goddam plug-in electric car for my 2 mile drive to the train station, I’d buy it!)
    I see tremendous value in public transit of all sorts, but agree it cannot work everywhere. That’s OK. But the model of endless suburban sprawl is not viable in the long term, so the laws and economic incentives that encourage that behavior need to change.
    So it’s not either/or (as Detroit has advocated since the 50′s) it’s both/and. Why can’t GM build buses, trolleys or trains? Seems like a complementary technology to me?

  • avatar
    volvo

    Who is this Geeber and why is he so reasonable?

  • avatar
    geeber

    Volvo,

    Thank you.

    People need to realize that just because others make choices or have preferences that they may not agree with or don’t even like, it doesn’t mean that said people are “stupid” or “manipulated by evil (insert the villan du jour here).”

    We’ve been going to hell in a handbasket since I was a kid in the early 1970s, and people have been predicting the “death of the car” since about the late 1950s.

    I picked the wrong career – as a professional doomster, I could have simply dusted off the old arguments, updated them for curent events, and received plenty of time on CNN. Which would have enabled me to afford a bigger house, lots of first-class travel to interesting places and maybe even a luxury-sport sedan, all while I extolled the virtues of green, urban living.


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