What’s good for General Motors is good for America

On March 15 I tweeted, “If America hadn’t decided to create a new national transportation system based on individuals in private cars driving everywhere for everything, climate change would be a very different—and smaller—problem than it is.”

I posted the Tweet on a couple of listservs for urbanists and followed up with some notes, comments, and questions in reaction to comments on the listservs. Some of the answers about data exist in various places. But frankly I’m not great at looking up data, so I wanted to run this by people. At this point, I’m intentionally avoiding extending the comments into conclusions.

    • In 1908, when the Ford Model T went into production, America had a great national transportation system of trains, subways, streetcars, and boats. Many of the services were privately owned but regulation required public access for both passengers and freight.
    • The transportation system connected walkable towns and cities. They had to be walkable since most people didn’t own a car or a horse. The carbon footprint produced by Americans was low. See below
    • Today we have a system that primarily depends on private vehicles on public streets. In more urban situations, that includes the storage of private vehicles on public streets.

    • For freight, railroads no longer have to provide freight service for everyone, and mainly serve large corporations.
    • The highway system and Federal classification of roads the Federal government would pay for was a key element of sprawl. Even if the old transportation system were intact, it would not work for the majority of Americans.
    • America has been the biggest contributor to global warning. We waste energy in many ways, but our cars have been our biggest source of GHG. One figure says cars and trucks are 27% of America’s contribution, with manufacturing slightly behind.
    • I think the production of all the concrete and asphalt that went into building the highways is counted in manufacturing rather than transportation. (True?)
    • The government deregulated freight rail, which now chooses to mainly serve large corporations.
    • Large freight trucks on the highways account for 10% of the vehicle miles traveled on the interstate system but 33% of the pollution. There are financial and ownership issues that make shipping by truck resistant to change.
    • Most Americans now live and work in places where they must drive many miles for living, popsh and working.
    • How much carbon did American transportation by motor vehicle produce in 1908?
    • How much carbon does American transportation by motor vehicle produce in 2023? (One sees different numbers.)
    • How much carbon has America produced building the highway system and other new roads since 1908?
    • How much carbon does America produce building and maintaining roads every year?
    • How much carbon has America produced manufacturing and shipping cars and trucks? Foreign cars shipped here?
    • How much carbon does America produce now manufacturing and shipping cars and trucks?
    • What are the numbers for non-renewable materials used in the production of cars and trucks?
    • Is the carbon produced in manufacturing gas and motor oils counted in past and present transportation?
    • Electric vehicles produce pollution in the form of particulates from brake pads and tires (as do gas-powered cars). There are 250 million registered motor vehicles in the United States alone. The manufacture of 250 million replacement vehicles would be carbon intensive and would consume non-renewable resources (batteries currently require many non-renewable resources). Electric vehicles do not improve location efficiency. Electric vehicles do not work well in shared-space situations.

    I focused on the US. When World War II ended, America had 80% of the world’s GDP. We invented Functional Classification roads and created planning and financial policies to create sprawl. We were the first and the most extreme. And we have 350 million people living in a way that is pushing climate change forward.

    In relation to a related discussion on New York City and the BQE:

    • New York City used to have large factories, warehouse complexes, and docks. Workers walked to work or took public transportation. Raw materials were delivered by rail or ship and manufactured goods taken away by rail or ship. With the exception of a facility on Staten Island disconnected from the rest of the city, New York has one small area for ships and no more rail.
    • There is one freight tunnel across the Hudson. It is just south of Albany. Therefore freight to New York City, Long Island, Westchester County, and Southern New England drives through New York on large, carbon-spewing trucks. Forty percent of the trucks on the BQE do not stop in New York City.
    • The proposed Cross-Harbor Rail Tunnel would bring efficient trains to New York and southern New England. It is or was strong supported by Mayor Bloomberg, Congressman Nadler, Senator Clinton, and Senator Schumer. Governor Andrew Cuomo took money earmarked for the tunnel and used it on the Tappan Zee / Mario Cuomo Bridge.
    • Before sprawl, manufacturing and shipping valued locations that were efficient for that. The highway system and sprawl made it possible for manufacturing to move to previously ineffecient locations with cheap land and cheap labor.

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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