Senator Dodd is ready to take a bus back to Connecticut once he retires. At least thus far this is how it seems, because he wants to promote Detroit as a bus manufacturer to save on the nation’s energy costs and to reduce the associated green house gas (GHG) emissions.
Buses are an interesting idea, harking back to the early days of mass transportation by the internal combustion engine, as the automobile displaced rail in the United States at the turn of the last century. Greyhound was born out of that push to build better highways and more cars. In the early days of trucking and the waning days of rail, trucks would haul the load to the train depots for the trains to carry the freight across the country. Gradually, trucks, buses and cars filled up the increasingly better roads modeled after the German highway system and relegated rail to oblivion. The debate about the co-existence of the various transportation modes had fallen to the wayside and died by the time Eisenhower signed the Interstate bill into law in 1956.
The living habits of generations of Americans since the introduction of Ford Model T in 1908 and the building of better roads subsequently make few take a step back to think how better to use the wheels they own. The automobile is a commodity in the United States because the early push by the General Motors Corporation to literally change cities to sell more cars had changed urban planning. It is difficult to get around in the United States without a car and the ability to drive is an inalienable aspect of American culture, as if it is a tangible manifestation of the rights to liberty, equality and the pursuit of happiness. If this continues, all three of those rights could be at risk.
The problem confronting the United States today which is twice as populous a country today, however, is to moderate the use of the automobile, buses and trucks by allocating their use more efficiently among the various modes of transportation. The allocative efficiency of transportation modes is not a new problem for the United States either. It traces its history to the presidency of Warren Harding. It is time to revive that debate again because there is a more enjoyable and efficient way to organize how Americans move around the country to keep its environs clean, its roads less congested and its energy use less profligate.
The General Motors Corporation, just as it had championed cars in the early days similar to tobacco companies promoting cigarettes, once again did the same in the early ‘90s by killing its own invention, the EV1― its all electric vehicle at the behest of the oil companies. The automobile, similar to the technology of making cigarettes stuffed with tobacco, had become the vehicle for oil addiction.
In the testimony of Detroit executives in front of the United States Senate in 2009, the EV1 was not remembered in favor of the new Chevy Volt which was used by GM executives to drive down to Washington from Detroit for the testimony. It can only be hoped that the irony of that moment has some useful lessons for reviving the debate about the better coexistence transportation modes.
The Volt is being marketed by GM very innovatively. It, unlike the EV1 in California, is built for driving around in cities, within about 30 mile radii from urban centers for local commutes if its consumers want to maximize fuel efficiency. A 30 mile radius is as far as exurban Washington from the Washington monument. Still, the Chevy Volt is not the car to drive from Detroit to D.C. And this contradiction can be revealing.
On the one hand, there is a movement to build a national infrastructure to support electric cars just as there had been a national movement to promote roadways. The Europeans and Al Gore (and Tom Friedman) are promoting companies such as Shai Agassi’s Better Place, another Davos idea from its much touted Global Leadership Fellows program. It is a bad idea because, on the other, it may not after all be necessary to drive as much. For a change, it would be nice for Americans to be driven around. And if it is nice for 450 million Americans to be driven around, it is even better for the more than a billion each Indians and Chinese. Places to plug-in would be fine, but not battery swapping stations.
The Congress therefore must begin the transportation efficiency debate by asking a few simple questions: Do Americans need to drive everyday to work every day to do their jobs? Can they use technologies such as Cisco’s Telepresence over a Giga-bit broadband infrastructure integrated into the smart grid to substantially reduce driving, let alone traveling on business? When it is necessary to drive, what driving distances are best for cars? What driving distances are best for trucks? How many cars do Americans need to own? Can the automobile be a utility, to rent as needed from fleets such as Zipcar? Can the United States shift to a sophisticated rail infrastructure available in other countries, with minimum speeds of 100 miles per hour to maximum speeds of 300 miles per hour, for moving both people and goods to displace short air trips and to complement long air travel within the continental United States to substantially alleviate the rising congestion on the nation’s air traffic control systems?
Asking questions such as these can help extricate the wheels of the cart of the American economy from the mud it is currently stuck in at the turn of the new century.