The Trouble With The Automobile

WASHINGTON – Recently, President Barack Obama has made orchestrated appearances at several US auto manufacturing plants. In each case he pointed out that, thanks to the costly sector bailout arranged by his administration in 2009, hundreds of thousands of jobs at GM and Chrysler have been saved. And to these we should add, says Obama, jobs at scores of auto parts suppliers, plus thousands of people employed by car dealers and by the whole economic universe sustained by the auto sector. So –says our President– thanks to US government inspired actions, domestic brand auto manufacturing survived. With the aid of tax payer money it had a chance to retool and reorganize and is hopefully getting ready to spring back as good as new. So, can we say that smart public policy saved iconic private sector car enterprises that had got themselves into terminal crisis? Well, yes and no.

Auto bail out: good public policy?

In the short term, the answer would be “yes”; if you are looking at the economic and especially political upside, (America votes for congressional elections in November), of salvaging a substantial chunk of American manufacturing and all the jobs that depend on it. In a recession ravaged economy, with millions of unemployed, every bit of shoring up helps, and the auto sector, especially in the Mid-West, is still a traditional anchor.

Not so good

But, if we are looking at the long term, this massive auto bail out may not be as inspired a policy as it may appear. Years from now, an economic and transportation strategy still predominantly and stubbornly focused on private cars will not appear that smart. The big auto bail out may be viewed in the future as just another case of a “sorcerer apprentice” government unwisely trying to be entrepreneur, pouring huge resources into ill fated industries. To put it differently, even assuming near term success in the government funded reorganization of General Motors and Chrysler, it is not so clear that auto industries should be and will be the backbone of healthy manufacturing ten, twenty years from now.

The future of the automobile: not so promising

And I am not talking about growing public backlash against pollution connected to car use. Of course, the systemic threat of global warming largely tied to the still unresolved issue of transitioning away from internal combustion engines that use gasoline or whatever other polluting fuel is a problem. Yet, I submit that even if we assumed a totally transformed auto industry, (let’s dream for a moment), ushering us into a new era of large scale production of affordable, zero emission electric cars running on electricity produced by renewable sources, this way magically eliminating the whole environmental dimension, I would still question the continuing value of the private automobile as the primary means for individual transportation in densely populated areas.


And the problem is massive, growing and intractable congestion, due to too many vehicles fighting for more and more crammed road surface. And congestion is not just a minor inconvenience that comes along with cars. Congestion levels are so high in large population centers that drivers are forced to crawl to most destinations at ridiculously low speed. Too many cars causing constant gridlock mean that the most basic value of the car, moving around fast, is essentially voided.

…..And its huge costs

The data is out there. Congestion, in America and elsewhere around the world has reached horrendous proportions in all large population centers. It means longer commuting time. It causes economic damage in terms of countless hours wasted every day by millions of drivers stuck in traffic, (not to mention rivers of gasoline burnt for no purpose). All these hours wasted affect economic productivity and quality of work performance by people stressed out by hours spent in traffic before getting to work. All this should amount to a fundamental reassessment as to the actual value of the car. Oddly enough, the car, a tool that is supposed to enhance quality of life, ends up diminishing it.

Congestion in emerging economies

Congestion has been an intractable factor already for decades in rich countries. And developing or middle income countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brazil and others are catching up very fast. I have seen constant traffic jams and gridlock in Cairo, in Bangkok, in Paris, in Johannesburg, in Dhaka and in Beijing; but also in Maputo, Mozambique and in Lusaka, Zambia. All this indicates that, given the physical constraints of limited road surface and millions of motorist, (mostly only one per vehicle), competing for it, saturation point is quickly reached.

“Bus Rapid Transit” is an alternative to cars in cities

So, common sense would dictate that we have to devise alternative solutions, based on mass transit systems that can give people the same advantages of the car, minus the impediments of gridlock. And, among the many alternatives, Bus Rapid Transit, BRT, seems to be the most cost effective; with the advantage of having been implemented in many different cities. BRT systems have been tried, tinkered with and refined in many large cities around the world, starting decades ago following inspired actions of forward looking city planners in Curitiba, Brazil. (More on this below).

Myths about the car linger

But, while these alternatives are known and none of this is news, all of us, in the developed as well as in the developing world, are still psychological prisoners of a completely and demonstrably untrue idea whereby the car is still by far the best tool to get around. 

Perverse parameters: gridlock is a sign of affluence

Beyond this, almost perversely, many cars on the roads are still touted with pride by policy-makers as evidence of increased societal affluence. Thus, more cars indicate more wealth. Plenty of cars: well, this means that we, as a society, “really made it”. It does not seem that we can get to a point of “too many cars”. As cars are the most tangible proof of increased wealth, then total gridlock must be “the sign” of true prosperity. Talk about being confused about the nature of “real” progress: i.e. a process that would deliver tools that truly enhance the quality of life. What value is there in being stuck in constant gridlock?

Was it better when we were poorer?

A funny sequence of vignettes I recently saw in a modern art museum in Beijing illustrates this point.


Vignette 1: On one lane in a street hundreds of cyclists pedal away. But their eyes are fixated on the other lane in which a lone official car speeds away. Clearly there is an element of amazement mixed with envy in the expressions of the cyclists. The lone car and its passenger, probably a high ranking official, goes along very fast, while all the cyclists have to pedal to get to their destination.


Vignette 2: On one lane in a street hundreds of cars are stuck in infinite gridlock, inching forward in gigantic traffic. But all car drivers are fixated on the other lane in which a lone cyclist speeds away without any traffic impeding progress. They have the same expression of amazement and envy displayed by the people in the previous vignette.

OK, you get the drift: too much of what was supposed to be a good thing, in the end is not good at all. The car, supposedly the tangible sign and the symbol of new wealth for an emerging Chinese middle class, is actually making life worse. The lone bicyclist goes much faster than all the new cars stuck in traffic.

If there are diminishing returns with too many cars, then what?

So, the vignettes illustrate –convincingly– that there are diminishing returns to the ever expanding presence of the automobile. But this fact has not percolated into the realm of economic activities and innovative public policy. We are stuck in a past era in which different criteria were appropriate simply because cars were not that common and there was plenty of room for more. But today the rationale for focusing on the private car as the primary means to provide the benefit of personal mobility, especially in the context of large population centers, is no longer there. The continuing exaggerated weight of the auto sector in the general mix of a modern industrial society reflects outmoded thinking and a gigantic misallocation of resources –including the US, Washington-led, 2009 auto bail out.

The car in perspective

The car was a fine innovation when it was first introduced more than a century ago. For the first time in human history some people had the real chance to go places on their own, at unprecedented speed, using a mechanical contraption that became more and more affordable thanks to the assembly line and mass production. The car did away with horses and all that was necessary to keep them as the only motor force that mankind had known for millennia. (Railways had already provided solutions for long distance travel long before the car. But trains do not get you around in cities).

Good for a while

Historically, as cars became more affordable and their numbers on the road increased, we increased capacity of cities and roadways. We built highways that could accomodate more cars. But, overall, when we started reaching a saturation point, we could only make only marginal, less and less effective improvements: ranging from building more roads, adding more lanes to the existing ones, building large underground parking garages in cities and new shopping centers away from city centers, and so on. In many mature, large metropolitan areas this is it. There is no more room for more cars.

Lessons not learned

And yet, perversely, we continue doing pretty much the same thing — buying more cars– hoping that, somehow, congestion will be magically eliminated. In some large cities, such as London, local authorities tried to discourage the use of the private car by imposing a congestion charge to enter the central areas where traffic is worst. But this economic deterrent produced only moderate returns. And why is it that many prefer to pay extra and continue to drive? Because the alternatives are not that good. Yes, there is underground rail and there are buses in London. But the underground does not go everywhere; while buses move at the same speed of the surface traffic. And so we are still stuck in slow moving traffic.

Developing countries: also over reliant on cars

And apparently no lessons are learned from the experience of diminishing returns for the car in developed economies. In developing countries the story is unfortunately repeating itself. In now more affluent India or China as millions of people get better jobs, they immediately rush to buy a car. Soon enough too many cars create gigantic road congestion, (Beijing is a perfect illustration of this, and so is Indian high tech city Bangalore); thus doing away with the theoretical advantage of owning one’s own private means of transportation: speed of movement. 


As for remedies, theoretically there are many. But the most popular ones come with staggering price tags. Of course, we know about underground metro rail systems. Several have been built all over the world. And this is good. The problem is that expanding or building from scratch these underground networks is horrendously expensive, given the huge cost of digging tunnels and underground stations. Thus new or significantly expanded underground rail systems that could provide a real alternative to the car for most people are inherently unaffordable in most instances.


But, as mentioned above, there is a viable, affordable alternative in Bus Rapid Transit, BRT. Yes, I say “bus”. I know that in general the “bus” conveys the notion of unreliable service; of overcrowded, noisy, smoke belching, old vehicles; of people waiting and waiting at a stop in the rain, cold weather or suffocating heat, depending on where you are. And then, when the old bus finally arrives, there is the hesitant journey, proceeding slowly because the bus, beyond its many stops, is constrained by the speed of the rest of the traffic. So, how can the old bus be a good idea, a true innovative breakthrough?

…Provided that we have “bus only lanes”

Well, it can be truly innovative; but only if we stipulate that the bus is an advantageous alternative to the car only if it can use dedicated, “bus only lanes” with no cars or other vehicles slowing the flow of bus only traffic. If we can get to the creation of bus only lanes, at the same time building modern bus stations with the same features of metro stations for quickly boarding and changing buses, then we shall have the same advantages of underground systems in terms of speed and convenience; but at a substantially reduced cost, because you do not have to do the extremely expensive and time consuming underground digging. Buses travel on surface roads.

Why don’t we do it?

Well, if this is so simple, then why don’t we do it? Because there is still this fantastic psychological and truly emotional attachment to the car that makes it almost impossible for most people to think that it can be displaced in favor of public transportation. And this is the major obstacle for introducing BRT systems, as in most instances there is not enough space for both, dedicated bus lanes and private cars. If we go in favor of BRT, we have to ban or at least restrict cars. And this would be a tremendous change from all that we are accustomed to regarding mobility within large urban centers.

And so, gridolock notwthistanding, nobody dares to say that cars are the problem. There is fear of public backlash. It is assumed that people would idiosyncratically resist a ban or restrictions on cars, the only means of transportation they know and rely upon; while they will be suspicious of a public transportation alternative system that may not work as advertised and that may end up costing a lot more in terms of daily use.

Too many obstacles?

And here is the issue: psychological and ultimately political. Public administrators and civic leaders would have to stick their neck out and push forward something that most people would regard, at least at first glance, as crazy and unworkable. But, assuming the successful conversion of the public to this new way of getting around, how does all this work?

Bus Rapid Transit in reality

The bus system would work by creating a network of interconnected, dedicated bus lanes that would function just as the tracks work for metro rail, guaranteeing the unimpeded flow of buses at a consistently high speed. The buses would have user friendly, covered stops and stations that would allow easy and quick connections with other buses. These would function just like metro rail stations, allowing fast and easy transfers.

And there you have it. The same advantages of an underground metro system, minus the horrendous cost of digging the tunnels in which metro trains run. Conceptually this is simple. But is this unreachable utopia? Not really. While not main stream, BRT systems do exist. Decades of good records would indicate that this is a viable mass transit solution. Large cities have experimented with BRT and overtime have improved its functionality creating now models that can be replicated in different localities.

Successful implementation in Latin America and Australia, among others

Diverse large cities such as Curitiba, (population 1.6 million), capital of the state of Parana in Brazil, Bogota, (population 6.8 million), capital of Colombia and Brisbane, (population 1.8 million), in Queensland, on the east coast of Australia and the country’s third largest city, are good examples of the successful introduction of BRT systems. Through these bus systems people move around easily and comfortably at a reasonable cost.

Private cars still exist

Private cars still exist and they are used in these cities. But they are no longer the only default system for lack of alternatives. Indeed, data show that many people, while they still own their cars, use them far less. They prefer to go to work by bus, thus making their daily commute faster and far less stressful. Beyond that, fewer cars on the road mean less pollution and less money spent on gasoline –an added bonus.

Improved quality of life for city dwellers

Moreover, and perhaps most important, it is obvious that a user friendly public transportation system improved the overall quality of life for citizens. As moving around gets easier, it is also easier to access parks, public places, cultural and business centers and shopping. And this intangible impact that improves the way citizens experience city life is probably the most valuable positive change brought about by easy mobility. So, we know that BRT solutions that strongly reduce the multiple disadvantages of gridlock are out there. They are not utopias.

Can we get Americans on board this bus?

But, if this is indeed so, why is it that novelty hungry and efficiency obsessed Americans have not been in the forefront of this transportation revolution aimed at improving quality of life, something that we Americans always seek and appreciate? Why is it that we do not see delegations of US local authorities flocking to the municipalities around the world in which BRT systems have been successfully implemnted, in order to learn more? Who knows exactly why. 

A key reason is that America is the country in which the love affair with the automobile is so old and so deeply rooted that it is almost impossible to create the mental space for alternative thinking about mobility solutions, let alone alternative experimentation.  So, concrete evidence of successful bus based systems notwithstanding, there is little interest in them.

The powerful headwinds of the US auto and oil sectors

Of course, US public opinion has been shaped by powerful forces. For decades in America the auto and oil industries have had inordinate influence. The two combined have used their vast economic power to pay for lobbying aimed at safeguarding their vested interest in the endless perpetuation of transportation policies and systems founded on the private, gasoline fueled car. Their lobbying actions, resulting in direct and indirect subsidies to the oil sector, cars and road building, blended with the force of habit of people who never thought beyond owing a car, created an extremely powerful economic and political coalition favoring the status quo: in America there will be cars and nothing else. All this was and is still aided by a deeply entrenched popular culture that reinforces the enduring love affair with the automobile.

Cars forever?

As a consequence, most Americans honestly believe that the car is and will continue to be the only way to get around. And, as the conventional wisdom tells them that there are no alternatives, then millions of Americans are prepared to suffer in daily traffic, if this is the penalty to be paid for moving around in private vehicles.

The massive failure of the US auto makers in 2008 could have been an opportunity to pause and rethink the whole idea of the car as the default choice for getting around. But this was not done, because, in the midst of economic chaos, public officials in Washington did not think that they had the luxury to start a national conversation about the future of personal mobility strategies. In that chaotic period, public policy was all about containing the damage of economic meltdown. The decision to bail out Detroit was not made in the context of a careful rethinking of future personal mobility choices. The bail out was about salvaging jobs in a sinking industry, once upon a time a national icon. And so it was.

Will there ever be political space for fresh ideas?

But, by doing this, and by showing no interest in any new thinking on this subject more than one year after the emergency bail out, as illustrated by the President telling America how good the prospects are for US car manufacturers, the Obama administration is proving to be just as unimaginative and timid as all its predecessors. We are stuck in this vicious cycle whereby we still bet on cars because we do not even consider alternatives. The only reason why congestion is not getting much worse in this recession is because people do not have money and thus they buy fewer cars.

In the meantime, the citizens of Brisbane and Curitiba have the choice of moving around in convenient, affordable buses. And we thought that America was leading the world in user friendly innovation.


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