The end of car dominance?

The panic over the imminent collapse of the US motor industry demonstrates the importance of car manufacturing to the economy.  If, as expected , one or more of the Big Three goes bust next year, the knock-on effects will be horrendous. Every job in a car factory supports half a dozen or more outside.

Henry Ford claimed that the success of his company was the catalyst for the enormous growth in the US economy that saw the country become the world’s greatest power. Similarly, in China, the car industry is seen by the country’s rulers as the driving force underpinning the economy. Much of the growth in the economy is down to the ability of relatively ordinary Chinese people to be able to buy their cars.

Of course, as the recent Chinese experience shows all too well – Beijing has seven ring roads – the unrestrained growth of car use is a disaster from virtually every point of view – except, at least in the short term, economic.  The increased mobility may initially seem like a boon but it soon becomes a myth as traffic jams replace empty roads. We all know that the environmental consequences are dreadful, ranging from the loss of sense of community as traffic makes life unberable to increases in respiratory and other diseases caused by pollution. But as the motor industry creates millions of jobs, ranging from car showroom sales staff to the guy at the end of the road with his little garage to fix cars.  But while this has created jobs in the short term, ultimately the depletion of resources and the degradation of the atmosphere will have a huge negative effect on the economy

Therefore, it seems like schadenfreude to rejoice at the problems of the car industry. So many people will suffer from its collapse that it appears cruel to cheer. But I’m afraid I do. The motor industry has been at the heart of transport policy for far too long. The driving force has been a desire by politicians to increase mobility and therefore encourage all of us to travel more and more. If the collapse of the car industry leads to just the tiniest bit of  rethinking over this policy, then it is worth it.

In any case, most cars are sold not because anyone particularly needs a new one, but they just want a bigger/faster/brighter/shinier one. If the downturn makes even a few people rethink their attitude towards their ever growing consumption, and, say, keep their cars for five years rather than three, then surely we should all cheer.

It is easy to be cynical and suggest that once the economy returns to normal, then all these wider considerations will be quickly forgotten. I remain optimistic. The downturn and consequent recession will be so strong that it will be impossible to go back to where were before. Whether we use this opportunity to create a more sustainable way of life is the greatest challenge.

  • Kevin Steele

    I think the proof was in the pudding when Bush’s administration (of all people) was talking about spending more money on the long distance, interstate railway network in the US, and it looks like Obama will continue this – maybe even increase the level of federal subsidy to Amtrak. At a local government level there’s been talk of developing local rail links in some states. A breath of fresh air. Perhaps the American readers would like to comment more on this.

    Although I’m as guilty as most people about changing my car when it needed a wash, in the last couple of years I too have started to lose interest in driving – admittedly as much down to the total lack of courtesy, selfishness on the roads as much as anything else which makes it such an unpleasant and wholly unrewarding experience. in fact I’m almost at the stage where if there was a railway or regular bus service near where I worked I’d quite happily do without the thing.

    But hey-ho – I have to soldier on behind the wheel as Dr Beeching removed the branch line that goes to the town where I live………

  • Dan

    Yes, it’s a weird one – because all that we are talking about is jobs in economic activity – it could be providing another service – like careing for old people – instead of building cars – the thing is though that building cars (or anything) presumably ‘adds value’ to raw materials and generates wealth in that way. Caring for old people does not seem to be seen (by economists I suppose) as ‘generating wealth’ in the same way – so it does not have such economic importance.

    But in the course of history ways of making money have come and gone, and new ones been found. Thatcherites would of course say let the industry go to the wall – somethign else will come along – although it is sad to see the skills die (which of course could be used to solve some of our other problems – like sustainable power generation). Cars won’t go away though – they will just be made somewhere with cheaper labour – like clothes now are…

  • Another way of providing much needed jobs would be to support the building of infrastructure which results in higher bicycle usage and lower car usage.

    I don’t mean the half measures that the UK has seen in the past, but proper infrastructure such as exists in the Netherlands and which transforms cycling from an activity for a few brave people into a truly useful means of transport for everyone.

    Surely this also “generates wealth”. It also increases the UK’s independence from foreign energy imports and reduces the load on the NHS.

  • Kevin Steele

    Building on David’s point on building infrastructure, I think that this is key to getting motorists out of their cars. At the moment the policy seems to be “tax first, spend later” – in other words, lets introduce more motoring taxes and road pricing schemes and then promise to use the money to fund public transport improvements.

    Most motorists are cynical with this policy and will at best probably expect their hard earned money to be squandered on useless schemes like more bus lanes, traffic calming rather than the “big hitters” like the reopening of closed railway lines, light rail schemes etc. At worst they will see it as another tax for which they will get no return. In the meantime they are supposed to suffer an overpriced railway system, unpleasant and infrequent buses that don’t go where we want to go, and existing metro systems which are begging for more investment, in the hope that things will get better in the future. Sorry, but the car driving fraternity have a right to be sceptical, and I as a reluctant motorist and staunch supporter of the railway have a point.

    I would rather see the government make a concerted effort to get the infrastructure put in now, and once it is there then by all means introduce the financial measures to wean people out of their cars and onto public transport.

    After all, if the Government suddenly found hundreds of billions under the mattress to cut taxes and bail out financial institutions, we can surely put some money up front into steel and concrete. Which will also give our beleagured construction industry a jobs boost.

  • JOHN HOWARD

    I gave up my car in 1983 when Mrs Thatcher slashed our (Civil Service) ‘fair pay’ comparisons with similar jobs in outside industry. I am lucky living in Hornchurch where public transport is very good; also, the schools and a supermarket are very close. My interest in railways obviously influenced my decision, as I was keen that my children should get used to buses and trains. I was also fed up with the constant repairs and the fact that you have to keep your car in ‘showroom condition’ to maintain its’ value rather than paint it yourself with a brush!
    I can honestly say I’ve never looked back, and hopefully I’m fitter and better-off than if I was still a motorist. We'[ve had holidays by train–on the Sleepers to Scotland and Cornwall–a great adventure for kids! I’ve hired a car where absolutely necessary but now I go to places accessible by train.
    I’ll finish by adding that I don’t feel any less ‘masculine’ being without a car and remain happy to ignore the seduction of the motor industry’s advertising.

  • Ben Hughes

    Perhaps the people who make engines like the one for the Ford Focus should have their work transferred from Ford Focuses to Parry People Movers like the Class 139 at Stourbridge. It uses a Ford Focus 2.6 litre engine and stores energy from braking using a flywheel.

    Seeing as there is a huge need for extra tramways in Britain, I am sure there would be a lot of demand for Ford Focus engines to power these trams. Although it would never reach the previous or even current demand from British car buyers.

    The Hold Fast Carpet Track is already available and would cost 4 times less (£1.5 million per mile) than conventional tramway building methods (£6 million per mile).

  • MickeyMouser

    John H, dead right on two counts. My 5 year old seldom gets inside a car and her fitness and stamina put my nephews of the same age and her classmates to shame. As for making a conscious decision to eschew car ownership, right on, what a liberation from the vast onslaught of motoring ads that attack from every channel, getting into the minds of every car owner or wannabee. To me they might as well be in a foreign language. Without one I am much more masculine and human that the car owning consumer droids.

    Now if I could only liberate myself from following the moronic, spiritually bankrupted, overhyped monotony of following a premier league football team. No luck, sadly that would leave me less masculine.

  • Bob Battersby

    Nice to see some contributors having given up owning a car. Now if that were translated to about, say two million households, wouldn’t that have the Government panicking. Since over 80% of these cars not bought would be imported, it’d be a great help to the UK balance of payments. And we’d save more:Perish the thought. Oh, yes SAVE is a four letter word in the Government’s eyes at least.

  • RapidAssistant

    I’m just back from the US, and I was in Dallas. Interesting being in the most car obsessed state in a car obsessed country – if anyone thought that there was a credit crunch you’d be most mistaken by the behaviour of Texans – running around in massive pick up trucks that must register on the Richter Scale when they are revved up, whilst getting drunk on $1.87 (about £1.30 at the current exchange rate) a gallon gasoline. Speaking to the locals, when gas hit $4 a gallon last year it almost brought the city to a standstill!!

    One interesting observation despite this madness was that Dallas does seem to have its head screwed on when it comes to developing public transport – they are currently extending the city’s suburban railway network by reinstating disused freight lines that radiate around the suburbs. Reading the local press however, it hasn’t come without much controversy and opposition mostly from right wing conservatives that’d rather see the money spent elsewhere.

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