Saturday, February 19, 2011

1997: Perils of the Auto

One reader responded to my recent post on high speed rail  by passing along a column from Robert Samuelson decrying the potential boondogglability of it all. Samuelson's views have been adequately debunked elsewhere, but one nagging point in the original is the laughable claim that automobile transit receives "no net subsidy" (of course, the weasel word in that sentence is "federal"). I'm guessing that the study Samuelson cites may have omitted some of the subsidies discussed below:

I just got back from the SF Bay Area, which really puts my previous complaints about Tucson's traffic and air quality into perspective. Before I really start ranting, let me just say this: the automobile is a wonderful invention. Like any technology, it has its pros and cons. And within another ten or fifteen years, fuel cell technology will make the automobile virtually non-polluting.* That's a good thing, though it won't solve our traffic problems. But just remember that an automobile wastes over 90% of its energy just moving its own fat self, not to mention idling. For the most energy efficient vehicle ever invented, look to the bicycle.

 Americans have long had a love/hate affair with the automobile. Every car owner loves the freedom and mobility of a personal vehicle. What everyone hates, though, are other people's cars. And with good reason. Not only do they get in the way of your commute, but they contribute 25% of the gasses leading to global warming. The oil, gas and chemical runoff from roads is equal to 21 Exxon Valdez spills a year. Automobiles kill nearly as many Americans every year (50,000) as the entire Vietnam War; and the annual bill for injuries and related expenses runs to some $400 billion. Respiratory diseases due to auto exhaust kill 120,000 Americans prematurely every year, with medical bills stretching to over $100 billion. Another $100 billion goes down the drain annually in crop losses and property damage due to auto pollution.

 These costs, of course, are paid by auto users and nonusers alike. If every car were priced to reflect its true cost to society over a ten-year lifespan, they would cost over $200,000 apiece. Needless to say, US gasoline taxes (the lowest in the industrialized world) and DMV fees don't begin to cover those costs. The true costs of the automobile are being subsidized by present and future generations of taxpayers.

 The combined support of local, state and federal governments for automobile use runs to over $300 billion a year-or nearly 100 times the amount spent on public transport. This includes some $71 billion in road construction and maintenance funds, and $85 billion in subsidies and tax breaks for parking lots. According to the Media Foundation, the true social cost of the automobile, adding government gas and auto subsidies to pollution-related disease, auto injuries, road construction and maintenance, and lost work-time due to congestion, is $1.4 trillion a year.

 The huge government subsidies, and the masking of the true cost of the automobile, encourage car owners to use their vehicles far more than they would if they had to bear more of the cost. They also encourage the public to rely on the automobile more than other, less heavily subsidized transportation systems. Republican budget-cutters like to decry the amount of public funds spent on Amtrak and other mass transit systems. The fact is that riders on these systems pay much more towards their cost than auto users do - and at much less cost to society.

 Of course, subsidizing the automobile is also a huge subsidy to the oil companies who supply the fuel to run them, as well as to the mining companies who supply the raw material for the production of one new car every second, and the construction companies who have paved over 70,000 square miles of the North American continent. It has also been a great boon to the real estate industry, which benefitted from the vast tracts of land opened up by the Interstate Highway System.

 This cozy setup didn't just happen by accident.It was the result of collusion and conspiracy- as in criminal conspiracy. in 1949, when the skies over the nation's cities were still relatively clear, a consortium including General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires was indicted and convicted for conspiring to buy up and destroy over 100 electric trolley systems in 45 US cities.The companies were fined $5000 each, while the individuals who organized the scheme were fined exactly one dollar each. This slap on the wrist allowed the automobile to go on to the hegemony it maintains today.

* Okay, it's 14 years later. Maybe another ten or fifteen?

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