Sunday, February 15, 2009

Talking About Mass Transit and Transforming Our Culture

The Muncie Star-Press reports that this area could benefit from light rail (and where is the Herald-Bulletin in championing this idea?). Read the comments to the Muncie article and then read the second item from The New York Review of Books. We recognize the problems with mass transit but the TNYRB article gives a way of dealing with those problems.

"MUNCIE -- Central Indiana, including Muncie, is one of only two regions in the state with the characteristics and conditions to warrant an investment in commuter rail, concludes an Indiana mass transit study.
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Northwest Indiana is the other region.

'Indianapolis is the growth hub of the state, and continued expansion of the region can be supported by rail transit and commuter rail investments that connect to major commute origins as well as suburban cities such as Muncie and Bloomington,' said the study, completed in December, by URS Corp.

Major transit investment may be warranted in certain urban corridors of the state that have high density of population and/or employment and defined travel patterns that can be served by transit, according to the study.

Commuter rail service connecting Muncie-Indianapolis-Bloomington 'is feasible,' said state Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, 'but it's going to take local elected officials -- mayors, county commissioners, city councils and others -- to make this happen."


Now, to the The New York Review of Books and Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?:
"But there are also intimations of the deep past and the distant future. The present and impending disorder of the automobile companies is a reminder, even more than the decline of the housing and banking industries, of the desolation of the Great Depression. It is a reminder, too, of economic history, or of the rise and decline of industrial destinies. When the listing of the 'Fortune 500' began in 1955, General Motors was the largest American corporation, and it was one of the three largest, measured in revenues, every year until 2007.[2] GM was the 'largest industrial corporation in the world,' in its own description of 1989, and it was engaged, at the time, in 'the most massive reindustrialization program ever attempted.'[3] It was an incarnation of American economic change, as a GM vice-president suggested during the earlier automotive crisis of 1973: 'To say that a company that has successfully grown over a period of 65 years—a period marked by two world wars and a major economic depression—will suddenly be unable to adapt to the changing challenge...flies in the face of common sense'; it 'denies history.'[4]"

***

The US has become more unequal since 1979, in income and amenities. It is less industrial, with only 9.6 percent of people employed in manufacturing in 2007, compared to 20.4 percent in 1979; more open to imports of goods and services, with imports accounting for 17.2 percent of GDP in 2007, compared to 9.9 percent in 1979; and more capitalist, with 7.5 percent of people employed in the private sector members of unions, compared to 21.2 percent in 1979. It is more feckless, with savings accounting for 0.6 percent of personal income in 2007, compared to 8.9 percent in 1979.[9] In what Lawrence H. Summers has called the "new age of markets," it is also a richer country, of "market-led growth" in information and (until 2007) in financial services.[10]

The automobile industry has been one of the losers in the new American economy. US consumers spent less on new automobiles in 2007 than they spent on "brokerage charges and investment counselling"; in 1979, they had spent ten times as much.[11] In 1979, the share of the auto industry in US GDP was more than twice that of the securities and information services industries together; in 2007, it had been reduced to less than a quarter of their share.[12] By 2007, even the expansion in sales of "light-duty trucks," including SUVs, which was one of the main marketing successes of the American automobile companies—"It has a refrigerator. And many other ways to chill" was the headline of a center-spread advertisement for the Ford Flex in TheNew Yorker, at the worst of the crisis of December 2008—had come to an end.[13] In March 2008, General Motors and Ford were together worth about 5 percent of the value of the oil company Exxon.[14]

But the auto-industrial society, with its distinctive organization of American space, cities, highways, social entitlement, and energy use, has continued to flourish. Some 90 percent of Americans drove to work in 2007, 76 percent of them alone. Less than 5 percent went to work by public transportation. The people who used public transportation were much more likely than other Americans to be black or poor; they were more likely to be women than men; most of them lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The states in which population has increased most rapidly—Utah, Arizona, Texas, Nevada —have low population densities, and low rates of public transportation use.[15]

***

An enduring bailout, or a new deal for Detroit, would be different. It would be an investment in ending the auto-industrial society of the late twentieth century. This would involve innovation in public transportation, and in the infrastructure that would enable people to work at home or close to home. It would engage the information industries in making public transport more convenient, more enticing, and more secure. It would be open to the sorts of improvements that have been suggested in the expansion of rail and bus transportation in China, Japan, and France, for example, and in India by the information technology services companies.[18] It would be an investment, even, in the old promise of "automotive" freedom, of owning a car but not having to use it, and of being able to go anywhere at any time, in Asia as in America. The improved public transport would be used for routine travel, such as the "work, school, and medical/dental trips" on which public transit use is already concentrated, according to the National Household Travel Survey. The new hybrid vehicles, in a post-auto-industrial society, would be available for the other trips that the survey describes as "family, personal," or "social, recreation, eat meal."[19]

***


he inequality of income has been made worse, over the past generation, by the inequality of urban amenities. African-Americans who use public transit spend more than a third longer waiting for buses and trains than white transit users; they spend the same amount of time traveling, but travel for shorter distances; African-American men between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four spend even more time than white or Hispanic men in cars: 107 minutes a day.[23] These inequalities would be further exacerbated by the increase in the costs of driving that is an unavoidable consequence of policies to reduce carbon emissions. The poorest fifth of Americans spend 31 percent of their income on transport, compared to 21 percent for the second poorest, 17 percent for the third poorest, 15 percent for the fourth poorest, and 10 percent for the richest Americans.[24]

Investment in the infrastructure of a post-auto-industrial society would provide some compensation for the regressive effects of a carbon tax (or of the increase in prices that would result from a "cap and trade" scheme, as industries passed on the costs of compliance to consumers). It would be an investment in the technologies that are used by poor people, including buses, bus stops, and information about the departures of buses and transit vans. The innovations in information technology that could so dramatically improve public or collective transportation could be used first in the centers of cities: buses with free wi-fi, for example, or with free computers; better information about connections between buses and trains; or a program of scheduling journeys in which all patients with hospital or doctors' appointments could be collected at home, in electric or hybrid vehicles. Public policy would enhance one of the resources in which people who are poor and black are richer than other Americans: the resource of living in densely populated and information-rich cities.

***

One of the early outcomes of the economic crisis of 2008 has been a substantial reduction in the competitiveness of the financial services industry, and an increase in its political power; it has become an oligopoly of corporations that are too big to fail. General Motors is already too big to fail; I hope so, because of the consequences that its failure, or bankruptcy, would have in Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere, and for the hundreds of thousands of people who were in a position, years ago, to negotiate reasonable wages and reasonable benefits. But a new, improved General Motors, or a General Motors–Toyota super-corporation, could be "viable" in the evaluation of financial markets, and also a monstrous leviathan of political influence. "Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen, its counsellors are always the masters," Adam Smith wrote of the British Parliament in the 1760s, and the counselors of the US Congress, as of successive US administrations, have been the "masters" of the automobile industry.[30] This is a failure of government, and it is also a market failure, or a failure of markets to exist.

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