Monday, December 29, 2008
Yesterday I was riding a JR train, and in front of me was a map of the JR lines. To pass the time, I counted how many lines there were and was amazed to find that there are no less than thirty six (36) different Japan Rail train lines in the Tokyo area. Now that is just the lines owned and operated by East Japan Rail. After switching to the subway for the last leg of my return journey home, I counted the subways. There are also fourteen (14) subway lines (private and public) that crisscross Tokyo. Now that is a round FIFTY (50) DIFFERENT TRAIN LINES in just the Tokyo area! Next time when I have a LONG train ride I might even count the number of stations, but at a very conservative 15 stations per line that is no less than 750 train stations just in Tokyo. Absolutely incredible!
Now Tokyo has its own transport problems - not least of them being the fact that it actually lets motor vehicles into the city for free despite all this public trasport, that it does not have any bicycle sharing program and that people are brought up to give cars right of way everywhere and in every situation. But despite all of this, public transport in Tokyo wins hands down on both convenience and cost - not to mention all the knock-on improvements in individual health and sense of community that use of public transport bring at a societal level.
All this made me think just how much infrastructure development work other cities around the world have ahead of them if they really want to improve public transport to a level that makes it compete favorably on convenience. New York, Sydney, London - man, oh man you guys have a LOT of work to do.
Is this what government was created for? To encourage people to shop more?
No. I have no doubt that, in the long term, the credit crisis will be a good thing for society - or it would be if the governments of the world could just accept it rather than try to prop up the status quo with free money for banks and automobile companies so that they can keep doing what they have been doing, and what we now are coming to realize was probably the wrong thing.
In the USA, Obama seems to have realized that while Keynsian infrastructure spending may be necessary to avert a "car crash" in the economy, this money must be spent in ways that will transform US cities from auto-culture to networks of walkable communities. This is a none to easy task given the cumulative effect of about 80 years of money and effort already spent on developing auto-culture and the sprawl, pollution and waste that goes along with it. This article from Reuters highlights the fact that the fight is still far from won.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is striving to revolutionize infrastructure through a proposed stimulus that may reach $1 trillion. States, however, seem to have other plans. Missouri, Utah and other states are planning to use the federal funds on highways rather than the environmentally friendly mass transit and rail lines that Obama envisions. Bloomberg (24 Dec.)
National governments now understand what needs to be done. Local governments mostly understand what needs to be done. This fight needs now to be taken to State governments as it appears this is perhaps the last stronghold of those dreaming of a return to the failed pork-barrel auto-dream of last century.
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
I have not verified this yet, but I recently heard on the radio that in order for a highway to carry the same capacity of people at the same speed into town as a regular commuter train line, it would need to be 60 lanes wide. Even if I misheard and it was only 20 we are talking many times if not orders of magnitude greater efficiency by rail than by car. It is simply that efficiency which makes it more friendly to the environment than the automobile.
Must try to look into that line a bit further. It is a compelling one.
Monday, December 22, 2008
There is a lot at stake and the signs are not good. From the front page of Reuters today, just a week after the auto bailout, these stories:
Post Bailout Chrysler Still at Risk
Commercial Property Seeks Bailout Aid
Jeez, and people say they don't understand GenX or GenY ! The boomers seem to want to have their cake and eat it - and if there are any consequenses, they should be held off at all cost until the boomers are long gone. That seems to be the attitude.
At least Obama seems to be saying the right thing - promote the shift to a greener economy ASAP. I just hope it does not end up like the promises of so many NSW state premiers for so many rail and subway networks for Sydney that have never materialized despite billions spent on new roads and tunnels in the meantime.
ps - another article along a similar vein here on Reuters: Fed Unleashes Greatest Bubble of All
Sunday, December 21, 2008
I started this blog a few years ago as a celebration of our family life without cars (despite having two small children), but recently with all the auto industry news around the world it has become something of a political commentary on the dangers of giving in to pork barrel support for sunset industries.
So I thought I would post this to get me back on track and remind myself, and readers of just why it is that we are so against cars in the first place. And of all the reasons, this is perhaps the most personal - your own health.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Nasa researchers have shown that the highly publicised controls on auto traffic and other pollutants during the Beijing Olympics really did have a significant impact - reducing NO2 by as much as half. Some had argued that the controls had had no impact - but clearly they did, and thanks to NASA for showing us that. Here is the news from the NASA site itself.
But look at this image closely. Hmmm. One small area of China gone from red to green for just one month, while the other red areas are so big... pollution really is a major issue for China... and neighboring Japan... and the USA, where the wind blows....
And of course, pollution is just half the problem with automobiles...
Thanks to Eureka Alert for this one.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
That is, until you think of these things:
1) Once you already have a road network, you don't need ANOTHER one, even if people are driving more. We already know that nearly a third of all the land space in US cities is already allocated to automobiles. What are you going to do - make more space for them? Oh yea, that's what we are doing with the billion dollar cross city tunnels we are building. No - building more roads because people are driving more and the roads are getting blocked is like a doctor saying that a patient with high blood pressure just needs more veins to carry blood - by that logic he'd pretty soon be all veins and nothing else because the underlying condition is not treated. No, what we could really do with is a different kind of network - a proper rail network or a pedestrian roads network, as it has been shown that the only reason that a lot of people drive at all is because there IS no other option. And I am not talking about railway networks that will just carry coal to the coast - which seems to be the biggest rail item on the recently announced Australian infrastructure spending plan.
2) Secondly, just because "Highway System Mileage" has not gone up does not mean that we have not built more roads. If you measured "Highway System Mileage" by miles of lanes rather than miles of roads, then the line would probably look steeper than the other line showing total miles driven. In other words the graph is a complete illusion. Roads and highways in the US have swollen to rediculous proportions like the cancerous growths that they are - so much so that experts seem to agree that adding new lanes actually does not alleviate traffic problems - it has become part of The Traffic Problem. And the new infrastructure - bridges and tunnels etc., that have been built to accomodate those new lanes have cost the nation a FORTUNE. And of course the more such infrastructure is built, the more needs to be spent on maintenance.
To be fair, the thrust of the Economist article seems to be that just such lasting metro rail and other infrastructure should be built in that the US and that it should be paid for by an increased gasoline levy, which would have the added positive effect of discouraging discretionary driving even further.
But at first glance, that is not what the picture says.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Even if they manage to retool, any hybrid or EV market that develops will be a far cry from the scale of current auto markets, because people have discovered that automobile society itself is not ideal. It does not matter what kind of automobile, the just won't sell like they used to. This graph shows that clearly.
And thank God for that. Many people have been praying and hoping for the demise of Automobile society for a very long time. It looks as though they may be heard.
The Australian - 11 hours ago
KEVIN Rudd has urged the nation's pensioners and families to "go out and spend the money" as the first wave of his cash handout plan to avert a recession hits bank accounts from today.
Spend bonus now ABC Online
Aussie PM pushes Christmas splurge with welfare bonuses USA Today
Sydney Morning Herald - The Canberra Times - Sky News Australia - The Age
all 97 news articles »
This story really reads from the plot of The Story of Stuff, a fast-paced 20minute clip looking at the underbelly of our consumption-driven economy.
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
NEWS.com.au - 3 hours ago
By staff writers THE Government has struck a $2 billion deal to prevent the financial collapse of the car sales industry. Car dealers facing closure as a result of the global financial crisis will now be underwritten by a Government debt guarantee, ...
Car dealers get a $2b bail-out Sydney Morning Herald
Car dealers welcome $2b lifeline Ninemsn
Forbes - ABC Online - CNNMoney.com - Adelaidenow
all 47 news articles »
The Australian government seems convinced that it needs to support the automobile industry in order to maintain the capability to build vehicles in Australia at all. They are probably right. Australia is a small market and it costs money to maintain such large factories there. But why spend 5 billion dollars supporting a foreign owned auto industry in the country, and then another two billion supporting foreign owned dealers? Chances are probably quite high that a lot of this will flow out of the country - or at the very least it will save head office from having to support them themselves.
No - if the goal of the federal government really was to support and maintain a local auto industry, why on earth did they not wait until these companies - Ford and GM primarily, announce they are going to pull out, as they probably would have to without local Australian government support, and THEN step in with a local buyer, pick up the assets at or below replacement cost and Bob's your uncle, you have a locally owned industry - albeit smaller scale than it was before for obvious reasons.
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Individual investors who bought SmartNotes from GMAC Financial Services are being left out of a plan by the General Motors financing unit to exchange cash, preferred shares or new debt for existing debt held by institutional investors. In the event of a bankruptcy, retail investors could end up with nothing, analysts said. Bloomberg (01 Dec.)
Putting this another way, not only does GMAC want taxpayers to foot the bill and rescue them when they have finally got themselves stuck in a hole with bad auto-loans after years of massive profits from shafting high priced loans on unsuspecting car buyers with doubtful credit, NOW they want to shaft individual investors who bought the company's debt in favour of their institutional lenders. So if you are a US taxpayer and one of these individual investors in GMAC debt you would get doubly shafted if the bailout were be passed - and if you happened to also be a borrower of one of their auto-loans, you're triple shafted. That's a hattrick. If there was a prize for shocking ethics, surely they would win it.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
This article from the Japan Times quotes a 39-year low for auto sales in Japan. All of a sudden people are realizing they don't need new cars, and maybe cars aren't so cool anyway after all.
This auto-slump is similar to the sub-prime mortgage crisis in many ways. For years the auto industry - in cahoots with credit card operators and others in the finance industry have contrived to convince the population that they NEED to buy the latest coolest sexiest extension of their personalities (on credit...). But just like the shiny new hovel in a deadpan suburban outpost miles and miles from the city with no public transport, people eventually realized that the dream they were sold is more of a nightmare - the financial and emotional burden of the debt combined with the un-fulfilled promise of a better life that a sterile suburban existence cannot ever provide.
Time for a little reality folks.
But the interesting thing here is that reality doesn't have to be all that painful. In fact it might actually be pleasant and preferable to our overly hedonistic existence of recent years (decades?). More emphasis on building walkable, livable communities (not "suburbs") has to be a good thing. Ride a bike, lose weight, meet and greet the neighbors on the way to school and work. Frugality can be surprisingly fulfilling.
No. You have to give them credit for persistence, but hang in there senators. Don't give in to the threats. There is a better way. For example, liquidate and help the workers and communities as they find new occupations and develop new - sustainable economies.
Because, as well all now know (and probably have known or suspected for the last 40 years or more) auto-society is not sustainable. It is not even desirable.
Even Devine, the condominium builder in far off Queensland Australia has realized that the new future is one of localized, mixed-use, walkable, safe, quiet, socially strong communities with good public transport. And that is one where the cars are mostly left in a big ugly building in the corner of the site and only used occassionally.
There is a very limited future for any auto maker - US or Japanese or otherwise, in this world. The price of oil may be down, but Hummers are just as un-cool as they have become lately. This will not change - even if the advertising (taxpayer funded or otherwise) continues.
Monday, December 01, 2008
This has to be about the most beautiful anyone anywhere could possibly make highways look. Does this look like a place fit for human habitat? The automobile is all about getting from A to B and in-between be damned. Does anyone else also get the feeling that everywhere is becoming that "in-between" these days, and that "A"s and "B"s are few and far between?