Stephen Rees's blog

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

Where clunkers go to die

with 2 comments

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

Tagged with ,

2 Responses

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  1. At least one progressive media outlet is proclaiming it as a success

    Stephen Rees

    August 11, 2009 at 2:37 pm

  2. This might make for interesting follow-up reading:


    August 13, 2009 at 9:38 pm

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