June 1, 2009

Wanted: New Ideas

General Motors is not on the scrap heap yet, but will its make-over save it from ending up there eventually? Will the new leaner, meaner company be different enough to stay on the road, or will the wheels fall off, again, in the near future? My guess is the latter.

The governments of Canada and Ontario have pledged 9.5-billion to help in restructuring the once mighty company. If GM takes our money, then continues with the same ideas, its repeated failure is inevitable. Taxpayers should not be paying to prop up this dinosaur of an industry. The inventors of planned obsolescence have themselves become obsolete. Let them join the eight track and VCR. Their time has come and gone. Go gracefully. Go now. Let's evolve!

Driving a car is convenient and fun, but it is not necessary, and it is very expensive personally and environmentally. We need alternatives to individual large personal vehicles, and we need them now.

The alternative vehicle of today is the bicycle, the most efficient use of energy in the known universe. A quality bicycle will give years of service. Much of the maintenance can be done at home with a few basic tools. The fitness benefits are huge, as is the enjoyment of moving along under your own carbon-free power.

For longer trips, supportive infrastructure such as bicycle racks on hydrogen buses and allowing bikes on solar powered electric rail transit networks will help people get around without cars, and without oil.

At one time many cities in industrialized nations had steetcar, or trolley, systems. America had its systems, too. Today's "Red Rocket" streetcars in Toronto are part of a system that started in 1861 with cars drawn by horses. Major US cities had their own extensive systems. New Orleans has the longest continuously used streetcar system in the world. European cities never gave up their early trolley lines and use them to this day. Melbourne, Australia has the largest network in the world.

Even Sooke had its own passenger rail service between 1922 and 1931 when the Galloping Goose, a 30 passenger car plied the CNR rail line between Victoria and Sooke twice daily. Now the route has been transformed into a trail for cyclists and hikers. What happened in North America?

Partly what happened was the Great Streetcar Conspiracy of the mid-20th century. Between 1936 and 1950 a holding company in the US bought out over 100 electric-powered streetcar rail systems in 45 large cities and replaced them with General Motors buses. The rails were either torn out or paved over and streetcars were scrapped.

The holding company represented big players that would benefit from individualizing and streamlining commuters into buses, and then cars. Corporations such as General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum did not single-handedly kill efficient light rail in American cities, but they did not help, either. The Supreme court of the United States found that some charges were warranted.

"In 1949, the defendants were acquitted on the first count of conspiring to monopolize transportation services, but were found guilty on the second count of conspiring to monopolize the provision of parts and supplies to their subsidiary companies. The companies were each fined $5,000, and the directors were each fined one dollar. The verdicts were upheld on appeal in 1951.[1]

The scandal's consequences were the rise of a permanent car culture in the United States and the lack of any cohesive intercity mass transit network." Wikipedia

Our painful addiction to cars is coming to an end, as shown by recent sales numbers. They have changed enough to send one of the largest corporations in the world to the scrap heap. It is time to get out of the Hummer and into a pair of hiking boots. The wonderful book "Wanderlust: A History of Walking" by Rebecca Solnit will make you feel like walking away from your car, GM or otherwise, forever. Cars are a mobility aid we can no longer afford to use.

GM is not a sound investment. We should be investing in new, big ideas. We need to take risks and be willing to try new and exciting things to solve our transportation challenges. We may have to re-uptake old ideas that worked.

Like street cars.

1 comment:

  1. My city passed a public transit bill this year that has me very excited. It's going to invest more in public transit - more buses (not trollies, alas, I do wish our country had kept all of them! Ugh!) and maybe a tram. Already in the past year or so we have had more and more bike lanes painted in on our streets. It's so exciting! I can't wait to be able to park my old car for the work week break she deserves (and the environment needs!) so I can take public transport to work in the future.


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