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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 10th, 2009

Where clunkers go to die

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Danny Westneat is a Seattle Times columnist and he has doubts about the US cash for clunkers program. Now, to be clear, their program is designed for the current US problems and is not nearly as well thought out as our own Scrap-it program.  The US program is about stimulating demand for new cars at a time when the US car industry is in deep trouble – mostly because the big three were not building the sort of vehicles that people need (i.e. fuel efficient cars) but also because of the credit crunch. They made more money out of financing car sales than they did out of building cars.

What bothers Danny is that the cars bought up by the program have to be scrapped. Programs similar to this are common in other countries for similar reasons. Indeed, it is one of the reasons that you can buy cheap, but really good quality old cars here imported from Japan. But some of the cars that he sees on the lot of a dealer clearly have more life in them – and would offer either a good cheap ride to someone on a low income or maybe parts to keep their old cars going longer.

Some cars -including Danny’s – are too old to qualify, as they have become collector’s pieces. And here I must confess that I find old cars interesting. As do lots of other people.

1974 Plymouth Satellite Sebring Plus
The fifth most viewed photo on my flickr stream

All I do is take pictures of them, much in the same way that I would of an old steam engine. Historically, old transport equipment is interesting and educational, and it should not all be in museums. The San Francisco cable cars are a national historic monument but they also still provide daily transit service in a very challenging environment. British railway preservationists have managed to build quite a significant business and some lines are being reborn as community railways. Fifty years later, Dr Beeching has been proved quite wrong. And I am sure that a big part of the attraction of Cuba for tourists are the old American street cruisers that still run there thanks to the absurd US embargo that keeps the island impoverished.

But I have also been a bit of an enthusiast for the world view that says repairing things and keeping them going is a better way than simply throwing things away and buying new as soon as something goes wrong. A group of British car owners has kept the Morris Minor going long past its last new build, by constant repair and replacement. The car is easy to maintain for the individual and the parts are still being made, as many have no desire to scrap their old faithful.

Morris Minor Convertible Southwell

Now there have been a number of significant advances in car design, and I am not going to be a complete purist – which is the philosophy behind the ICBC collector plate. A fuel injected engine is a lot more efficient – and pollutes much less – than one with a carburettor. Indeed an old car sitting on a hot driveway switched off can produce more pollution in an hour than a new car commuting every day for a week. Things like basic occupant safety – and reduction of injuries to pedestrians – have also been improved significantly in recent years. Even so I cannot say I like the new “retro” cars – the new Mini is not even a small car, and the new Beetle lacks the charm of the old one.

“I think giving people a gift because they drive a piece of crap, and then encouraging them to go further into debt, is the kind of thinking that got us into this mess.”

That’s the view of a dealer in old trucks – but he has a very good point.

Cars are at the heart of the unsustainability of our society. They created the “need” for highways – and the consequent sprawling nowhere that has replaced real human settlements. But we are stuck with our built environment, and it will take time to change. Getting North Americans into more fuel efficient vehicles is a small but necessary intermediate step, even if only because it costs so much and takes so long to build new electric transit systems and high speed rail lines – but both are what are really needed. Going from 17 mpg to 19 mpg really is not much of an advance. Yet currently that is what congress is voting more money for. As usual, short term thinking and popular appeal counts for much more than careful analysis.

1995 Dodge Caravan 2007_0608
The seventh most viewed image on my flickr photo stream

I wish when I had traded in my old minivan for a Yaris that I had got $4,500: though the Canadian government did send me a cheque for $1,000, I think that money was in reality wasted since I would have made the trade anyway. Though without the incentive I concede I might have picked a cheaper, less fuel efficient car. And $2,000 was not nearly enough to get me into Prius. But I did not think that my old minivan needed to be scrapped – simply because it had a genuinely low mileage, had been regularly serviced and just needed a new water pump. I got rid of it since I no longer had any need for a vehicle that size – or with a tank that big. But I am sure that some low income family was pleased with it. A 1995, low mileage, aircared Dodge Caravan was not, in my view a clunker – but I did not get anything like $4,500 in trade in either.

On the whole I do not think that there should have been any bail out for the auto industry. If there is any credibility left in the ideas of market economists, surely failed business should not be given public funds to keep on doing the wrong things. Society is much better off now that Enron has collapsed and Bernie Madoff is in jail. The failings of the banks and big car companies were not quite so criminal – but the distinction is a fine one. They certainly were not helping the general well being. And by most measures, the US cash for clunkers program is a hugely expensive exercise that does not seem capable of producing very much positive change.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 10, 2009 at 10:39 am

Posted in politics

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B.C. taxpayers to pay millions for 2010 Olympic Games ‘volunteers’

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Miro Cernetig in the Vancouver Sun

It’s August. There is not much news. And not much to comment about, for newspapers – or bloggers. The rain is of course a welcome relief, but not really worth a lot of column inches.

Miro does his best to whip up a froth of outrage over the way that once again Olympic spending is coming out of our pockets, and predictably the commenters under the story note that if civil servants can be released on full pay for months at a time then their jobs cannot be all that necessary. It does say a lot about this government’s priorities that in the same week that they cut discretionary funding (lottery proceeds) to libraries and arts groups, that a two week sports festival get yet more attention and money. Especially since the Olympics have been one of the things that major corporations had been elbowing each other out of the way in their rush to get their media exposure and advertising benefits (“the rings! the rings!”). Of course businesses now are mostly too busy trying to survive – and few are expected to second staff to fill the lack of real volunteers.

What moved me to write was the sloppiness of Cernetig’s analysis.

When the government quietly posted its call for 250 volunteers a few days ago, it got triple the number of applications.

The cost of this to the taxpayer isn’t being released. But it’s not hard to figure out.

An average civil servant makes about $50,000 a year. So, assuming 1,400 government employees sign up for Olympic duty, the secondments would cost at least $7 million a month. Assuming an average of four months on the Olympic roster and you reach a cost of about $28 million.

But is it “average civil servants” they want?

The sort of highly skilled people the Olympics are calling for are at the higher pay grade and they are often unionized employees. You can bet there will be scads of overtime to go around.

If they are to be highly skilled and “higher pay grade” (whatever that means) aren’t they more likely to be management? And thus exempt – both from union membership and overtime? And what happened to all those people who really did volunteer? Did those numbers start to decline? I seem to recall that the Olympic organisers were pretty choosy about who they selected from those who put themselves forward with no expectation of pay but probably hoped for a close up views of events and the chance to rub shoulders with the famous athletes.

In the strange world we now occupy, none of the real issues facing us are getting dealt with in any effective way. But huge amounts of effort are going to propping up failed corporations, failed policies and politicians who get elected by telling people only what they think people should hear. There are academics who study what happens when civilizations collapse. And there seem to be some common features – especially the behaviour of elites. And this is more than just facile parallels to the “bread and circuses” of the Roman Empire that Olympic critics are fond of pointing to. It really does seem that our elected leaders care more about their own hold on power  than what they are doing with it – other than, of course, enriching themselves.  For the last twenty years we have known about the connection between fossil fuel use and climate. The idea of peak oil is similarly well established – as well as the other limits to growth. Yet we have continued to be obsessed with doing everything possible to expand consumption and ignore the consequences. We continue to find reasons to fight each other and spend more and more on ever more destructive wars. The number of species continues to decline – mostly because we devastate landscapes – burning down forests, blowing the tops of mountains, dragging huge trawl nets along the sea bed and discarding much of the catch, poisoning our rivers and wrecking soil fertility. You can even Choose Your Own Apocalypse

That site is about the collapse of America – but the rest of the world is no more secure. And neither the BC government or the government of Canada is doing anything significant – other than messing around in the hopes that the economy will pick up again soon and business as usual can return and enough people can be persuaded to vote conservative (note the small “c “please) next time.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 10, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Olympics, politics