Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Perfect, the Good, and the Acceptable

In my post yesterday, I argued that the current crisis in the automobile industry (which is most acute in -- but hardly limited to -- the U.S. auto industry) presents a rare opportunity to completely change the way the industry designs, manufactures, sells, maintains, and disposes of cars. The final paragraph of that post raised a specific example of a conundrum that we face in a number of areas:
All of this, of course, assumes that we should be encouraging people to have access to cars at all. The more fundamental challenge is to make driving less and less desirable and necessary, through better regional planning and investments in rail, etc. As we attempt to do so, however, there is no reason to squander this opportunity to require auto makers to improve both the cars they make and the ways we buy and rent them.
It is not at all obvious that the final sentence of this quote is true. That is, if we want to make driving less attractive, we might be better off doing nothing to help the industry improve the way it does business. In fact, we might want to do the exact opposite of what I suggested and instead make driving as miserable an experience as possible. (The second comment on the comments board explored this conundrum and anticipated some aspects of today's post. It raises some very important questions and is definitely worth reading.)

I briefly lived in central Pennsylvania, where the roads are notoriously bad (poorly designed, poorly maintained, and thus disturbingly dangerous). One thing I learned the hard way while driving on those bad roads is that it makes a person appreciate trains. While part of me wished that, for example, the on-ramp to the highway did not enter directly into a lane of traffic with no merge lane (and with the added joy of being on a steep uphill incline, with no sight-lines for oncoming traffic), I realized that a gleaming new highway would make me and others much less likely to want to get out of our cars. Similarly, if it were not a miserable experience to buy a car in this country, I probably would not have kept my car for 10 years and over 200,000 miles and would thus have contributed to the profits that extend the life of a bloated and globally disastrous industry.

One response to this observation, therefore, is to be aggressive in our efforts to make driving unappealing. Stop maintaining roads and bridges. Allow traffic jams to take up ever more hours of people's time. Repeal consumer protection laws designed to rein in a few of the worst excesses of car dealers. Repeal auto safety regulations and fuel economy regulations. In short, do everything we can both actively and passively to make people want to support a car-free alternative approach to transportation.

Readers will recognize this as nothing more nor less than the classic reformist vs. abolitionist (or liberal vs. radical) dilemma. Do we, for example, support laws that make feed animals slightly less miserable before they are brutally killed, if such laws will make people feel good about themselves for having been "humane" in their treatment of their victims? Do we expand medical coverage by HMO's, knowing that doing so will make people less likely to support universal health care coverage? Do we require businesses to treat their workers a bit better, knowing that doing so will make the workers less likely to support fundamental change in the way the workplace is organized? Do we, in other words, believe that things must be bad or worse before they can become better?

There has never been satisfying answer to that fundamental question. Certainly, there is no answer that applies convincingly to every situation. In part, there are consequentialist questions that can only be addressed by making empirical guesses. (How many more people have to die in auto accidents before people will finally say, "Enough!") In line with Mike's recent post on pragmatism (or at least my imperfect understanding of pragmatism), it seems to me that there can be no universal answer. The answer for the automobile industry might be different than the answer for health care, and that's (as Stuart Smalley used to say) okay.

The best case that can be made for the reformist approach to automobiles, I think, is found in Berlin, Germany. I had the good fortune of spending a week in Berlin last year for an academic conference, and I was astonished. A city that is not particularly densely populated (or, in fact, all that large) in a country renowned for its love of fast automobiles has made it possible to live quite comfortably while driving rarely or not at all. Riding in a taxi from the airport during the morning rush hour, I saw no rush hour. People were lined up for trolleys, subways, trams, and buses, all of which arrived frequently. People rode bicycles in well-marked and ubiquitous bike lanes. There were cars, but not many of them. (I admit that I might have happened to miss the bad traffic, but being able to drive from a major international airport to the center of a capital city at 8:30am on a Tuesday morning without seeing heavy traffic is pretty impressive.) Earlier this year, Paul Krugman reported on his recent visit to Berlin, noting the same phenomena.

It is, therefore, at least possible to have a society in which people own and drive cars that is not the environmental and human disaster that cars are in the U.S. It is, it seems to me, thus possible to get automakers to make cars that are a huge improvement on their current models but to get people to drive them less and to want to live in more sustainable neighborhoods and cities. I might be wrong, but it seems worth a try.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan