Tag Archives: cars

Auto industry requires massive public subsidies to survive

When are capitalists in favour of public ownership? When it earns them a profit. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than when looking at car companies.

As auto interests have pocketed stupendous profits over the past century they’ve also pushed to socialize huge amounts of urban land. While this may contradict textbook economics, capitalists often prioritize socialized costs/privatized profits over “free markets.”

Ignorance of the auto industrial complex’ drive to socialize public space was highlighted in a number of leftists’ recent criticism of tolling two Toronto highways. Bemoaning Mayor John Tory’s “neoliberal policies” and “neoliberal lens of public infrastructure,” Nora Loreto argued the tolls might pave the way to privatization. “Getting people used to paying to use the Gardiner and the DVP [Don Valley Parkway] would make it possible to start talking about full-scale privatization of these roads,” she wrote. “If you’re opposed to privatization, a toll plan under a right-wing administration is effectively creeping privatization. If you can’t put that cat back into the bag, do everything you can to not let it escape in the first place.”

While it’s not inconceivable the city would privatize the Gardiner and DVP, the broader concern reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the auto industrial complex (car, tire, oil, asphalt, etc. companies, as well as big box retailers and suburban developers). Cars are produced for profit, owned by private individuals, but are completely dependent upon public roads. It is even hard to conceive of a large-scale privately owned road network. While there are a good number of toll highways financed and operated by private corporations, it is almost impossible to envision an entire city road system — let alone that of a province or nation — financed and operated privately. Simply put, cars need roads and the state must pay for them; otherwise most of us would still be riding public transit because an unsubsidized private automobile would be too expensive and too inefficient.

The private car’s ability to offload costs onto the public is at the heart of its rise to dominance. German auto historian Winfried Wolf explains: “In road transport there is a possible separation, based on modern technology, between the transport infrastructure (the motorway or road) and the means of transport (the car, truck etc.) This transport technology can therefore be easily organized according to the principle of private appropriation of profit, socialization of costs and losses. Private profits are appropriated by the vehicle manufacturers, the insurance companies, and the motorway construction firms; costs are socialized by means of public financing of motorway construction, policing, hospitalization of the injured and repairs to the environment.”

Out of every economic sector, the auto industry receives by far the most public support. In 2001, reports Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning, the world’s 30 richest governments spent $1.1 trillion (1,100,000,000,000) on road transport. The costs of auto infrastructure are so great Carfree Cities claims: “The savings on street maintenance in a car free city probably exceed the operating costs of the transport system.”

Curbside parking alone sucks up tens of billions of dollars in government subsidies each year. A century ago North American cities began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, Donald Shoup, argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands. But, often the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet. Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to the climate crisis.

Of the 40 per cent of Toronto that is public land, roadways make up 27.4 per cent, while parks and open spaces cover 13 per cent. Many beautiful, walkable, old cities have less than half as much public land. On the Old Urbanist blog Charlie Gardner writes, “the traditional city of narrow streets and small squares, typified by towns of medieval plan, find ten or fifteen per cent [public space] perfectly adequate.”

So, privatizing the arteries that feed the automotive cancer could lead to healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable cities.

Or, an alliance of environmentalists, urbanists, public health advocates and housing rights activists could campaign to turn roadway into co-ops/social housing. But, a prerequisite for this type of “Leap Manifesto coalition” is leftists recognizing the need to move beyond the private automobile.

This is the second of a four part series on the “Great Toronto toll debate’.

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Unions will thrive if they promote alternative to capitalism

At their finest labour unions are class conscious organizations that check the corporate elite’s influence over public policy. But, even the best Canadian unions have largely failed to provide an alternative vision to the existing system and challenge the power of big business over important areas of our lives.

Alongside collective-bargaining activities, unions have spearheaded efforts to expand the Canadian Pension Plan and Employment Insurance coverage, to raise minimum wages and to improve labour laws. While these campaigns have directly benefited all workers, unions have also been heavily involved in fights for Medicare and public daycare, programs that serve a wider interest than just people who work for a living.

Over the past few decades most unions have devoted resources to combating sexism, racism and homophobia. They have done so out of a sense of solidarity and an understanding, built upon internal union struggles, that these forms of oppression take their toll on many members and society in general.

But unfortunately unions have generally deferred to the business class regarding much of the social, cultural and even economic sphere. Advertising provides a striking example of this implicit class compromise. On a typical day most people come across hundreds of ads, which greatly influence their consumption habits and social outlook. Additionally, a media sphere funded through advertising gives corporations significant leverage over the news agenda (companies regularly pull or threaten to pull ads when they are unhappy about a story and simply refuse to advertise in leftist media outlets). Yet most unions have little to say about this expression of capitalist power or the particularly acute psychological burden advertising places on low-income people. Few (if any) unions have called for blanket restrictions on destructive corporate advertising. In fact, some unions representing media workers have called for more advertising. In response to layoffs at the Toronto Star two years ago, a union representative was quoted in a release saying, “Why cut ad staff when the thing we need most is more ads?”

In another example of how unions concede much of the social/cultural/economic arena to big business, they have given a free pass to the private automobile even though orienting our living spaces around cars is particularly damaging to working class interests.

As the least accessible and most expensive form of land transportation, car-dominated transport eats up a disproportionate amount of working-class income. Rather than promoting cars, unions should be promoting access to employment, lodging and goods by foot, bike or mass transit as this would greatly benefit lower income people, as well as society in general.

But why not “cars for all” some might ask. One important answer is the environment. A transportation system based on the private automobile is simply not sustainable. Preventing global warming requires drastically reducing the number of cars.

But even aside from the critical environmental question cars are bad for ordinary people.

For example, the automobile gives wealthy people an important means to assert their dominance through their fancy vehicle. This has been an important factor since the dawn of the auto age. Even before they had significant utility, cars grew to prominence as technological toys for the rich. As the technology advanced and the infrastructure was laid, the car became popular among the wealthy because it strengthened their dominance over mobility, which had been slightly undermined by rail.

(Prior to the train’s ascendance in the mid-1800s, the elite traveled by (the very expensive) private horse and buggy. With respect to mobility, the train and streetcar blurred class lines. Unlike the train and streetcar, which were more available to all classes of society, the automobile provided an exclusive form of travel.)

The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers and continues to appeal to supporters of inequality. In a car, one can remain separate from perceived social inferiors (blue-collar workers, immigrants, etc.) while in transit.

Unions have largely ignored the ways in which the private car strengthen wealthy people’s grip over mobility and culture — to be fair so has much of the so-called left. Even the financial burden that a car-dominated transportation system places on the working class has seldom been challenged.

In fact, many unions contribute to automotive hegemony by locating their offices in auto-dependent suburbs, subsidizing staff parking and providing car allowances (over $10 000 a year) to employees who have no work-related reason for a vehicle. In a particularly disturbing example of this pro-car attitude, Unifor calls for greater public subsidies for auto manufacturing and for individuals to “buy a car”.

Most union leaders and officials seem largely indifferent to capitalist dominance over culture/space. For them, the class struggle (they might not use this term) is generally confined to the relations of production and getting ‘more’ stuff (not necessarily more power or even a better life) for members.

But rather than simply accept corporate dominance over culture and the status quo in the way something as important as our transportation system functions unions should fight for something better. They should offer an alternative, a vision of the good life in an environmentally sustainable economy.

As the corporate elite drive us towards an ecological precipice, it’s more important than ever for members and activists within unions to push for a broader definition of class struggle. If we don’t, there may be no good jobs left for our grandchildren.

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Let’s reclaim Montreal from the automobile

For those of us of left-wing persuasion, it’s counterintuitive to call for the privatization of public lands.

But, generally, the less public space there is in a neighbourhood, the more pleasant it is. And the less of a toll it takes on the planet.

Why is this? The answer is simple and so overwhelmingly a part of our shared existence that we have trouble seeing it: Most public land in urban areas is devoted to noisy, dangerous and polluting vehicles, which contribute significantly to global warming.

The private automobile is a city- and planet-killer.

So much of our civic resources are spent on enabling cars that we have become slaves to their requirements. It is not just the money we spend to build and maintain roads and the other necessities of automotive existence, but also the way the car shapes the very form of our city. Or, to be more accurate, misshapes.

The problem can best be illustrated by the way many of Montreal’s genuinely attractive public spaces are ruined by our car craziness. A little park I pass daily at the corner of René-Lévesque Blvd. and Amherst St. is a case in point. It’s barely frequented because few people want to relax next to six lanes of traffic. And oddly, the Ville-Marie Expressway has been rarely mentioned in the debate about demolishing the expansive Agora sculpture in Viger Square. Agora or not, Viger Square is uninviting largely because it sits atop the expressway and is surrounded by multi-lane roads with drivers speeding on and off the highway.

Of course, roadways are not the only public lands devoted to automotive worship. The Maison Radio-Canada devotes more space to parking than its building and satellites. In the early 1960s, 5,000 people were forced to move to make way for what’s now largely a parking lot. While socialists don’t generally favour privatizing the public broadcaster, a plan floated in 2008 to sell CBC land to build 2,000 housing units would have done wonders for the neighbourhood.

On a lesser scale, the same is true of the Hydro-Québec headquarters, Jeanne-Mance Housing project and central police station. Their parking lots are blights on the Quartier des spectacles/ Quartier Latin corridor and encourage vehicle use in an area well serviced by transit and lodging options. Privatizing these parking lots would raise tens of millions of dollars for the respective public institutions and the land could be put to commercial or other uses.

When public space is taken from cars and given to businesses, the improvements can be startling. Allowing restaurants, bars and stores to set up terrasses or sell their goods on 15 blocks of Ste-Catherine St. E. four months of the year is incredibly popular, with pedestrians swarming the open streets. Local business profits improve, along with the atmosphere — both ecological and cultural.

We need to build on this experience, to be bold. We need to harness the capitalist drive to privatize with urban planning principles and ecological sustainability.

Our first demand should be to sell off René-Lévesque and turn the street into dwellings and businesses. Large swaths of René-Lévesque are wide enough to build a row of lodgings with a narrow street on each side. Privatizing René-Lévesque would be a major step forward in rebuilding a walking city, a healthy city for its inhabitants and the planet.

Privatizing the arteries that feed the cancer weakening Montreal could lead to a healthier, more pleasant and ecologically sustainable city.

Urban dwellers, ecologists and capitalists unite! We have nothing to lose but the public spaces killing us.

(This article originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette)

Listen to Yves’s interview with Tommy Schnurmacher on CJAD 800  here.

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Private automobiles and public health

When a plane carrying 239 people disappears and everyone is presumed dead, the world’s TV networks devote hours of coverage to the tragedy. Newspapers run long and detailed stories. Experts are interviewed to discuss probable causes and remedies.

Government safety boards investigate and produce reports. There seems a genuine attempt to learn from what happened in order to prevent the same death and destruction from ever occurring again.

Contrast that to the reaction of death by automobile.

The latest year for which we have statistics (2010) 1,240,000 people died in vehicle crashes across the globe. That’s 3,397 people per day or 142 per hour. Vehicles kill more people every two hours of every single day than died in the Malaysian Airlines crash. And that’s only counting so-called accidents.

Hundreds of thousands more are felled by cancers and other ailments linked to automobile emissions. According to an MIT study, in the US alone 53,000 people die every year from illness attributed to automobile pollutants.

The greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles have also put millions at risk from diseases, disasters and droughts tied to climate disturbances. The Climate Vulnerability Monitor estimates that climate change is responsible for some 400,000 deaths per year, a number expected to hit one million by 2030.

But the deadliest feature of an automobile-dependent transportation system is the resulting sedentary lifestyle. The World Health Organization calculates physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths annually.

Researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital recently concluded that diabetes and obesity rates are up to 33 per cent higher in suburban areas of Toronto with poor “walkability”. Another study published in Diabetes Care found that new immigrants who moved to a neighborhood with poorly connected streets, low residential density and few stores close by were 50 percent more likely to develop diabetes than long-term residents of walkable areas.

The rise of the private car has greatly undermined active forms of transport. At the start of the 1900s the typical US resident walked three miles a day; today the average is less than a quarter mile. As a result, most adults fail to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity (30 min. of light activity five days a week).

The major reason for the reduction in walking is that the private car’s insatiable appetite for space has splintered the landscape. Distances between living spaces, work and commerce have simply become too far to make walking or biking practical.

But there is another reason people have stopped walking: Cars have made us lazy. The more we use them the more we cannot fathom traveling without them. One survey suggests the extent of psychological dependence is extreme. An average American is only willing to walk about a quarter mile and in some instances (such as errands) only 400 feet. Otherwise, the people private vehicles have created, let’s call them Homo Automotivis, take the car.

The true extent of auto-dependence is revealed by drivers willing to wait five minutes for the closest parking spot to where they are going rather than park a block away and walk. The car has produced a state of mind where walking a few extra feet is a defeat.

It has also produced a paranoid state of mind, particularly among those caring for the young. A recent British study of four generations of eight-year-old children in Sheffield found a drastic decline in the average child’s freedom to roam. In 1926 an eight-year-old in the Thomas family was allowed to go six miles from his home unaccompanied, while today’s child, notes The Daily Mail, “is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.”

Canadian children are much less likely to walk to school than their parents’ generation. According to Active Healthy Kids Canada, 58 per cent of today’s parents walked to school when they were young while only 28 per cent of their children do. Partly as a result, only 5 per cent of Canadian children get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Driving children to school is an outgrowth of the greater distances that have come with automotive focused urban planning. But it is not only children living far from school who aren’t walking. One US study found that 87 percent of students living within a mile of school walked in 1969 while today only a third make the same trek.

It is less that children cannot walk to school and more that Homo Automotivis parents, fearing for their children’s safety, prefer to drive them. The most commonly cited fear? Not bullying or kidnapping. The major reason cited by parents for restricting unaccompanied travel: traffic danger.

But when parents use cars to protect their children from other cars, it results in notoriously dangerous schoolyard pickup areas and the very justification for driving their kids to school: a deadly vicious circle.

How have we gotten ourselves into this auto-produced mess? More important, how do we escape?

A  start might be taking death by car as seriously as we take plane crashes.

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