The Last Thing This Nation Needs

I hate to nitpick at an outstanding and historic speech but it’s January 21 and time to start talking about the stimulus bill, so, well, I’ll let James Howard Kunstler do the nitpicking…

“We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars…”
Barack Obama’s inaugural address.

“The last thing this nation needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at
the development of non-gasoline-powered automobiles married with
extensive rehabilitation of the highway system.”
James Howard Kunstler

  • Jason A

    There’s also (from JHK):

    “I detect in this strident plea the desperate wish to keep our “Happy Motoring” utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system — or even a fraction of these things — in the future.”

  • R. VanDyke

    I increasingly believe it’s time to regulate automobile advertising in the same way that we currently regulate liquor and tobacco advertising.

    In 2007, the automobile industry spent US$18.5 billions on advertising; down from US$19.8 in 2006.

    The central theme of virtually all that advertising is single cars “flying” down roads “uncluttered” with other cars, red lights, or pedestrians and bicyclists; in fact, the latest generation of ads eschew actual cars in favor of computer-generated imagery of cars flying, floating, transmogrifying, etc. The key point being that those whose extensive research has made them most familiar with the issue — the automobile manufacturers themselves — have firmly concluded that the realities of automobile ownership and operation are, at best, unsaleable.

    The problem is that this preponderance of one-sided commercial messaging has distorted our essential public discourse on transportation policy as well as transportation policy’s fraternal twin, energy policy.

    Stated another way, what might the world look like if non-automotive transporation was to swap advertising budgets with the automobile manufacturers for, say, five years?

  • Rhywun

    And there’s this from Obama:

    “We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.”

    Very Bush-ian.

  • “The last thing this nation needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at the development of non-gasoline-powered automobiles married with extensive rehabilitation of the highway system.”

    Actually, rehabilitation isn’t that bad. The last thing we need is expansion of the highway system, but that was at the top of Obama’s lists of projects to promote economic growth:

    “For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges,….”

    I think this is just stimulus-mania, and once the current recession eases, I expect Obama will be more pro-transit than any previous president. But this statement does show that he is not focusing on this issue.

  • Jeff Prant

    For many people talking about transport infrastructure, the phrase “roads and bridges” has become like some kind of mindless mantra. And while Obama is usually thoughtful in his choice of words, on this issue he has joined this cult of unconscious chanters.

  • Sounds like a good opportunity for street theater. We need a group of people dressed as Hari Krishnas, marching down the street and chanting:

    “Roads and bridges.
    Roads and bridges.
    Roads, roads.
    Bridges, bridges.”

  • Sam

    “The last thing this nation needs now is a stimulus plan aimed at the development of non-gasoline-powered automobiles married with extensive rehabilitation of the highway system.”

    I’m wondering how Mr. Kunstler plans to handle all the people who live in the suburbs where development is so spread out that it doesn’t make economic sense to build a mass transit system. Does he favor forcible relocation of the population to the central cities? Because short of that, those people are staying where they are.

    Clustered development is a great idea but you can’t do it retroactively. Over time fossil fuels will certainly be phased out but electric cars are coming, like it or not.

    There was a documentary on PBS last night which showed California’s efforts to massively reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Solar and wind power were major components, along with hybrid and all electric cars.
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/energy/

    I recommend it. It’s a whole lot more realistic than Kunstler’s wistful thinking.

  • Ian Turner

    Sam,

    Actually, they are moving. That’s why cities continue to grow. But at the very least, making suburbanites pay for the costs of the suburban lifestyle will ensure that fewer people move to the suburbs in the first place, that suburban development is curtailed in favor of higher-density development, and also give that extra nudge to people already living there.

    We have a free-market economy. No “forcible relocation” required, except that people must pay for their choices.

  • “Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.”

    Sam, you fail to understand that the ground has shifted beneath you. Stale political arguments like “Americans will never give up their cars,” and “The suburbs are too spread out for transit” no longer apply.

  • Obama does not appear to know any better regarding transit vs cars — either hasn’t thought about it, hasn’t read about it or hasn’t been told.

    When gas was $5/gallon, people were sprinting to transit. Unfortunately, most cities’ rail systems are nowhere near comprehensive enough to get people anywhere conveniently.

    I can’t believe we are going to throw more $billions down a dead end road.

  • Edgar

    I’m wondering how Mr. Eisenhower plans to handle all the people who live in the city where development is so dense that it doesn’t make economic sense to build a sprawling system of superhighways. Does he favor forcible relocation of the population to the suburbs? Because short of that, those people are staying where they are.

    Spread-out development is a great idea but you can’t do it retroactively. Over time trolleys will certainly be phased out but efficient, clean subways are coming, like it or not.

  • Sam: There are many projects to retrofit existing suburbs to make them walkable. For example, see http://www.cnu.org/taxonomy/term/1336 and http://www.cnu.org/taxonomy/term/1333.

    California’s efforts are, unfortunately, led by our Hummer-loving governor, who has done more than any other politician to deny the need for better transit. Note that our gov wrote the introduction to the book “Two Billion Cars: Driving to Sustainability,” which “describes cleaner auto technologies but dismisses transit’s role.” see http://www.planetizen.com/node/36959

  • Edgar

    ^^ My point is that the economics are not bottom-up/popular-demand in this case, but are rather top-down and fueled by spending policy decisions at the highest levels. We have subsidize roads and other suburban infrastructure while starving urban mass transit. This has made it economical to drive 60 miles to work from a gated community, leading to a demographic shift in Americans from the cities to the suburbs.

    By cutting off the highway lobby, we can reverse the economic calculus and start a new, more efficient, socially equitable, and environmentally-friendly long-term demographic trend.

    And I’m tired of the “expansion bad, rehabilitation good” mantra. The true maintenance expenses of the road system have been revealed to be gargantuan. We are ready to rehabilitate the roads now through a one-shot stimulus, but are we willing to keep putting in the money to prevent the roads from once again falling into disrepair? Our road system is just over-extensive. Even if we defer highway maintenance like we have done over the past few decades, we won’t escape the expenses in the long run. Rather, we’ll just find ourselves back here in 30 years, deciding how many billions more need to be injected into refurbishing the re-crumbling highways.

    Disclosure: I’m a conservative free-marketeer

  • Sam

    Good one Edgar! What a great rebuttal.

    Ian: I’m all for making suburbanites pay for the cost of their lifestyle. The suburbs were created via highway subsidies and housing subsidies too. The cost of the highways needs to be paid by the people who use them.

    Angus: Things are changing somewhat. Total miles driven has dropped off but it’s still a *very* large number. A big part of those miles aren’t discretionary. People live in areas where jobs, stores, schools, etc. aren’t reachable by public transportation. I think you’ll see some retrenchment, some people will move closer to cities, but a lot more of them will shift to electric cars in the next 20 years. They’ll be *expensive* electric cars (see my comment to Ian) but that’s the price they’ll pay for their lifestyle.

    The 20th century lifestyle is going away but that doesn’t mean the 19th century lifestyle is coming back.

  • oscar

    i agree with Sam
    it would be foolish to expect or even want a mass movement of virtually all people to our cities. Imagine the burden on urban infrastructure, housing costs. So yes to less sprawl, much less sprawl…and yes to suburbanites paying fully for their lifestyle…and yes to suburbs becoming more livable-streets oriented…but lets not assume that there wont be need for automobiles, and lets be happy that finally the trend towards clean vehicles is happening

  • Doug

    Perhaps people won’t move, en masse, to cities, but what we might see is a radical rezoning of the suburbs to encourage more density, shorter car trips, or no car trips whatsoever.

    I’ll give a great example of a mentality that will have to change.

    In my hometown, a old gas station located on the corner of a residential area had been grandfathered into a new zoning law that prohibited commercial property from being developed in the area. Because of the law, it was the only business for a few miles and would likely remain that way for the foreseeable future at the time of the law’s enactment.

    About five years ago, the gas station went out of business after decades of serving the community. And so sat an empty building, rotting away and blighting the otherwise nice part of town. A local entrepreneur wanted to open a deli/cafe/market in the space, but zoning laws prohibited him from doing so. (Amazingly, one of the criticisms was that the business would encourage too much traffic in and out of the property; never mind that it had once been a gas station, the sole purpose of which is to have cars come in, fill up, and leave.)

    The zoning laws would not be changed and so the cafe never materialized. So, there sits an empty building. Meanwhile, people have to drive at least two or three miles just to get a gallon of milk or a sandwich.

    My prediction is that one day, when gas is over $4 or $5 a gallon and stays there, towns will have to start rethinking zoning laws like this to keep people from moving away. The vacant house at the end of your cul de sac will turn into a small grocery store. An old office park will become more integrated with apartments, stores, and other services. The acres between houses may get filled in with services that once were located on the outskirts of town. If people can’t afford to drive to the superstores, then stores will have to come to the people.

    The suburbs may not become ghost towns if they are remade. In effect, suburbs will have to become mini cities — or at least divided up into areas with actual town centers — if they want to make the case that living there is economically viable.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I’ll see your disclosure Edgar and raise you one. I’m a Socialist and I agree with you.

    What I think we are all dancing around is the essential parasitic character of the suburbs as property value harvesting machines abutting cities. What needs to happen is the demise of the political entity of suburbia, metropolitanization. It is really the only way either the Free Market or the State can limit the wasting of the landscape pushing agriculture and wilderness further and further from urban agglomerations.

    Small and medium-sized free standing towns are one thing. But suburbs that feed off of major cities and other suburbs must go to the ash heap of history.

  • Sam, there is plenty that can be done to make suburbs transit friendly. for starters, establish spider BRT networks with feeder systems comprised of smart paratransit, smart car/van pools and protected bicycle paths. if you look at the rate of car use in some low density european suburbs (the netherlands, for example) you can get a good sense of how this is possible. people only drive if they have to, relying mostly on a variety of efficient feeder strategies to get them to the far-off transit stations. this is a GREAT thesis topic for any urban planning students out there: compare the car use, CO2 emissions and household transportation expenditure of a low-density euro suburb with a US suburb of the same density. then watch the scrilla and props flow to you.

  • and Niccolo: that is the most eloquent, descriptive and downright delicious definition of suburbia i have ever read. is it yours?

    “the suburbs: property value harvesting machines abutting cities”

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Unfortunately yes, I write my own stuff.

  • Stimulus package? You mean dumping more money into the big corporations to help them stay in business. What I want to know is why no one seems to have seen the fall of Merrill Lynch, Lehman, Citibank, AIG, GM, and the rest. I knew back in 2007 that Merrill was in trouble when they fired the CEO because of the billons of dollars in losses that they posted. How is it that these auditors missed all of this?

    My project has been struggling since its creation due to lack of funds, yet you don’t see me running to the Fed for $$$.

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