Monday, June 1, 2009

GM Bites the Dust

Today brings news of GM's long awaited bankruptcy. Now that the public seems to own a major manufacturing operation, perhaps we'll get into the business of building things the further the public good--trains, buses, etc...

The great irony of this whole situation is that the strategy that drove GM under was an unrelenting focus on heavy vehicles at the expense of their lighter, passenger counterparts. In my mind, heavy cars are the only cars that should exist in the country.

Of course, GM wasn't just selling half ton chunks of steel to farmers, loggers, miners, construction workers... etc. They were marketing these vehicles to ordinary (sub)urban dwellers, who had no other use for them then towing their outlandishly large boat 150 miles each weekend (why not rent out some marina space?).

I'm not opposed to cars and I'm certainly not opposed to big powerful ones. Millions of Americans need a car to do the work they do--not just a car to get there. While Michael Moore thinks "It will take a few years for people to get used to the new ways to transport ourselves"--I suspect we need abrupt changes in virtually every area of our society to make our urban areas function normally without the car, and it will probably take a few years just to start.

Our expensive and unwieldy legal system leaves too many disputes outside the law and any other enforcement mechanism--the car spread us out to avoid those disputes. Our corporate system has identified every conceivable way of externalizing their costs to the society as a whole--the car brings people from miles around to big box stores. Most importantly, we have created a built environment on the basis of profit alone--and nobody noticed because you can't see the sad looks on people's faces through the windows of their car.

Somehow, this made sense in America, the land of unlimited land and opportunity. But it seems like we are running into the design limits of the infrastructure that our predecessors left to us. Freeways are getting to expensive to expand and maintain, water systems need rebuilding, schools are crumbling and the electrical grid is dying. It's time to forget the frontier.

Now we have the chance to revisit our built space, take stock of what we have and what we need.

Most of all, we need to find a way to live that does not encumber future generations with debts that they cannot manage and damage they cannot restore. I can't see how driving a car to work fits into that.

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