Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Automobile as an Example of Economy in Transition

Back in 1900 very few people had automobiles. If you wanted to travel any distance you took the train. For urban dwellers there was a transit system based upon trolley cars. For everything else that moved in the city, the horse provided the traction. As a result, streets were full of manure, urine and swarms of flies. In the summer the manure became a fine dust. The noise of thousands of iron shod horses hooves on pavement was often unbearable. Thousands of horses had to be barned and fed within the city and the in-going hay and out-going manure added to the traffic.

In the small towns and rural areas – which at this time accounted for 75% or more of the population – there were no trolleys and often no rail access. This meant that people did not go very far from where they lived, walking, horse and bicycle gave a limit as to how far one could go in a reasonable amount of time, say a radius of thirty kilometers. Roads were terrible, which did not help matters.

By 1910, transportation was showing the signs of change. Motor trucks were replacing horses, and though very slow by today's standards (Maximum speed 25 k) they were twice as fast as a nag. While needing repairs, they also did not need as much attention as an animal, you could lock it in in a garage and forget about it until needed. Out in the country, better-off farmers bought trucks allowing them to get to the rail head faster and with a larger load.

There was one major problem that without resolution would have limited the automobile to urban trucking and taxi cabs. This was the appalling state of the roads. Association of auto enthusiasts, backed by the motor companies pushed for the various levels of government to improve existing roads and build new ones. Keep this in mind, the GOVERNMENT was to foot the bill, not the drivers, and definitely not the auto manufacturers. So began a massive infrastructural expenditure that only slowed down in the late 1960s. For fifty years, hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions in today's money – was spent on roads, bridges, tunnels, highways, and freeway over passes. Along with this the cost of expropriating land, signage, traffic lights and policing.

1910 was still a horse-drawn world. By 1930, it was gasoline powered. The transition took only 20 years and was paid for by government. Keep that thought in your mind!

The mass use of the auto had important progressive cultural aspects. Parochialism broke down as people could leave their communities and visit different cities and regions. (If they were white, otherwise you needed the Green Book) If your town was run by religious fanatics, a half hours drive would take you to one where you could drink moonshine and dance to the "devils music." For the youth, the car was a mobile bedroom, parking miles from the puritanical eyes of their parents. A book like "On the Road" is unthinkable without the automobile. A nation-wide bohemia was in large measure created by the auto-born Beats visiting each other in New York, Denver and San Francisco.

The late 1920s had created a rather balanced transportation system. Internal combustion served short-haul trucking. People in small towns or the country could get around with their cars. Long distance freight and travel was by train. In the cities people had the trams and inter-urban light rail. How nice it would have been had things stayed that way. Yet the auto companies came up against their capitalist nature, which is the necessity to continuously expand or go into crisis. Few city dwellers had cars, and here was an untapped source of customers. It is this point where we see something that has been positive begins to become negative and eventually start devouring its host.

The auto manufacturers began to put pressure on the cities to eliminate the trams, even going to the point of creating their own company to buy up transit systems and dismantle them. Nor was it just a matter of dismantling existing systems, the bulk of government expenditure was for highway and freeway construction and public transit was deemed a distant second. The movement toward the auto-centered city really took off after WW2. It was during this time that most trams and inter-urbans were destroyed and there was also a new and even more insidious development on the horizon.

This was the auto-suburb, or suburbia American style. Everything scattered and sprawling, the automobile was now an absolute necessity. This was the worse expenditure of resources in history, a development that was overly expensive, environmentally and socially unsound. Governments footed a large part of the bill, as tax money paid for the freeways, the new streets and utilities. In time, the ever-growing suburbs with their shopping malls destroyed the down towns in most smaller cities, adding more hidden cost to the governments who had to deal with this problem.

We were still an urban society in the late-1960s-early 1970s. By the 1990s most people lived in the suburbs. The transition had taken about 20 years, just like the transition from horse to auto. And just like in that earlier transition, it was the government that largely footed the bill.

Here it is 2019 and there is a blizzard of propaganda against doing anything about the climate crisis. "Oh, it can't happen so quickly. Where is the money going to come from? We can't do without oil, green energy isn't feasible" You know all the right-wing pro-oil talking points. Well, you have the answer. If it can take 20 years and government money to transition from horse to automobile and a further 20 year transition with government cash to turn that mode of transportation into a threat to our very being, we can damned well have a 20 year transition with government money to a green economy! What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.
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