February 2, 2009
Have You Driven a Bus or a Train Lately?
By ROBERT GOODMAN
AMHERST, MASS.—The federal government is giving General Motors, Ford and Chrysler $25 billion in low-interest loans, and the companies are asking for up to $25 billion more. These same companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying against federal fuel-economy standards and are suing to overturn the emissions standards imposed by California and other states. In exchange for the loans, Congress should first insist that the automakers stop fighting these standards. But it should also make sure that better outcomes will result from these billions than just fuel-efficient cars.
The Obama administration should ask the companies, as a condition of financial assistance, to begin shifting from being just automakers to becoming innovative “transportmakers.” As Barack Obama’s new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recently said: “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do important things you would otherwise avoid.”
As transportmakers, the companies could produce vehicles for high-speed train and bus systems that would improve our travel options, reduce global warming, conserve energy, minimize accidents and generally improve the way we live.
This better way forward has been kicking around Washington for more than 35 years. In a prescient 1972 article in The Atlantic, Stewart Udall, an interior secretary under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, warned of America’s excessive dependence on cars and called for this approach.
At a time when almost no politicians and industry leaders were paying attention to this problem, Mr. Udall made a bleak but accurate prediction. He wrote that “the oil needs of the other industrialized countries are growing faster than ours” and that this “surge of demand will soon begin to send shock waves through the American economy and transportation system.”
“Unless we exercise foresight and devise growth-limits policies for the auto industry, events will thrust us into a crisis that will lead to a substantial erosion of our domestic oil supply as well as the independence it provides us with,” Mr. Udall wrote. He predicted that the cost of petroleum imports would “give the Middle Eastern suppliers a dangerous leverage over our transportation system as well.”
But Mr. Udall recognized that the country could not afford the economic consequences of losing all of the automobile industry’s jobs and profits. He 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.
As we now know, warnings like these went unheeded, and Americans became ever more car-dependent. And now, the auto industry is asking for government money that promises, even with more fuel-efficient cars, to give us more of the same. Instead of supporting companies that want to put as many cars on the road as possible, we need a transformational strategy.
As part of its loan package, the government should insist on the development of “transportmaker business plans” from the car companies, with specific timelines for developing more fuel-efficient cars. The companies should also provide detailed plans to transform some of their factories into research and manufacturing centers for the development of light-rail cars and high-speed trains and buses. (In some cases, these could run on existing tracks and on the median strips of Interstate highways; in others, entirely new lanes and tracks would be built.)
Even before Mr. Udall, there was ample precedent for these ideas. In the early 1930s, G.M. joined with other companies to develop the Burlington Zephyr, a radically innovative train that broke world speed records and cut train travel times in half. During World War II, the auto companies converted their factories to build not only military trucks and jeeps, but also airplanes, weapons, tanks and other vehicles. Ford’s Willow Run plant built thousands of B-24 bombers, becoming the world’s biggest bomber plant.
The research and production capacity that the car companies built during the 20th century could be adapted for the needs of the 21st. But other companies should be able to bid for the same opportunities.
Stewart Udall rejected the view that American prosperity depended on Detroit producing ever more cars. The financial crisis gives us a second chance to make his vision happen.
Robert Goodman, a professor of environmental design at Hampshire College, is the author, most recently, of The Luck Business. His new book, Changing Lanes: New Directions for Curing Car-Dependence and Urban Sprawl, will be published late next year. This column originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2008, issue of The New York Times, and is reprinted with permission.