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This month is a longer, some would say "sprawling" newsletter about the auto industry retooling, saving the environment and local economies.
So buckle up and let's go
The auto industry execs were in Washington this week with requests for more money. Along with the requests for multi-billion dollar loans from the government came their plans for how they plan to spend the money, save their industry and (I suppose) improve the economy. The problem is that part of the plan involves job cuts, lots of cuts. How that's good for the economy is unclear to me. Other than job cuts and brand cuts there isn't a lot here that convinces me that they're really thinking about how to change to meet the new challenge presented to them. But they did say that they'll need more money in the future.
What do we get for that investment?
Last December I heard Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy speak at the Sustainable Industries Economic Forum. In his speech he suggested that a great way to help the auto industry, re-employ laid off auto workers, help the economy, and help with climate change is to give the auto industry money to retool and start making wind turbines.
This is an industry full of smart people, well educated industrial designers and a skilled work force. Why can't they make wind turbines, or trains or something beneficial other than cars? Not only that but you may have noticed that we're faced with the combination of global climate and economic crises. The time to push the reset button on the way things have been done before is now. Re-thinking how business is done, how we live and move around are all now up for re-examination. What a wonderful opportunity!
Have we been asking the right questions or making the right assumptions?
And does the auto industry really need that much to continue selling us a big part of global warming? Assuming that the government should help the auto industry continue doing what they have been doing all along is incorrect. The suggestion from Van Jones may not be the right one but it's certainly a better one than what's being proposed in Washington right now.
Additionally, there is a lot of talk about funding the development of electric and plug-in hybrid cars. Whether these are produced by the big three American auto makers or smaller startups, there is still a problem with the notion that green cars are the answer. Clean energy vehicles aside, the automobile is responsible (inadvertently or otherwise) for some of the biggest problems other than global warming we face today.
The cost of freedom
Suburban sprawl, health and quality of life issues, highway traffic and grid-locked streets, road-rage, loss of productivity at the workplace, the rise of big-box stores and the demise of local business economies, air quality and global warming can all be attributed to the "freedom" cars once gave us. When the cost of fuel really got expensive like it did last Fall it turned that freedom into a burden for commuters. And although fuel costs are low for the time, they will rise again. Add to that the cost of registration, insurance, maintenance and parking; and even if cars were all electric, we still would be faced with the costs and resources required to support private vehicles on the streets and highways by government.
For the past fifty years so much of the focus has been on moving people around in private vehicles. The idea of transit, pedestrian friendly environments or even bicycling as a solution is scoffed at and dismissed as too expensive or impossible achieve.
Nationally, we spend 80% on highways that support the private mobility of autos and 20% on transit. Users, generally don't pay directly to use roads but you do to take the bus. If there was that additional fee to use all highways or if highways were privatized, the cost of drivingalong with car ownership costs and all the other problems listed above would not be worth it.
Last election, Californians voted for a high-speed rail system that would move people from San Francisco to LA and back a sign that people are thinking about moving away from traveling just by car to get somewhere. This re-thinking of transit could spawn better inter/intra-regional and municipal transit. Certainly a pooling of resources for better, faster service would be viewed as a greater return on investment if we look at it from a business point of view.
Of course, cars are going to be around for a very long time. But getting more people out of their cars for just their commute to work could improve multiple issues. Additionally, moving people between and within communities shouldn't rely solely on cars (green or otherwise) but on more and better transit, redesigned and safer streets in and between communities to provide more livable cities. This in itself could revitalize older, inner-ring suburbs with new citizens and more local businesses while creating a better tax base for that community. Exurbs could benefit from having businesses and employment opportunities closer to its citizens cutting down the need for long commutes and improve the quality of life for the whole community.
City centers could benefit as well by having a better connection to outer communities so that visitors and commuters don't need to clog the streets with their cars. San Francisco used to be a city of neighborhoods. Pushing cars through the streets as quickly as possible has destroyed a lot of the character of what once was. We know that in cities (like Portland OR) when and where traffic is calmed and the infrastructure supports better transit, walking and biking, more businesses are able to start up and flourish. Crime goes down because people are out on the street, which creates a better quality of life for everyone.
And now a word from President Obama...
"...it is not enough to improve vehicle efficiency and promote biofuels. We must also address total ‘vehicle miles traveled,’ which are growing at two and a half times the rate of population growth. Already, public transit saves our nation 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline every year. The fuel savings from using transit are magnified when we add in the ‘smart growth’ that springs up around transit, especially rail transit stations. People use transit for more of their daily needs, such as running errands, and the nation saves 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually. In San Francisco alone, use of the Muni’s system results in an estimated 25 million gallons in oil savings." Read more
Green and Green
To green and improve business and boost local economies we really need to rethink how things have been done for the last fifty years. We now have the opportunity and the need to change all of that. The automakers retooled in World War II to meet the crisis of war. Certainly they can retool to meet the new crises of economy and environment, and employ skilled American labor to do it.
We can reboot the nation's economy, reduce our impact on the planet and improve our communities. What can you do differently to make your business benefit yourself, your community and the planet? Sometimes it takes a re-thinking and asking the right questions.
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