Stephen Rees's blog

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

All revved up with no place to go

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Andrew Clark calls himself “Road Sage” – meaning he is a motoring columnist at the Globe and Mail. He follows the tradition of Jeremy Clarkson: nothing matters to him except cars – preferably fast cars. His piece on Friday was inspired by the story of a 19 year old, given a BMW M5S who wrote ““What’s the point of buying an M5,” he wrote, “to drive as a daily driver and feeling like u are 70 years old?” Except he didn’t buy it, and he went on to admit to driving at 140 km/hr in a residential area – for which he was successfully prosecuted. Clark mentions three reasons why that might be a good thing (“put aside” safety) but then says “I have to admit that “Vlad Max” was onto something”.

No, he wasn’t. There is no compelling reason why anyone needs to drive at more than 110 km/hr. The fact that the Germans still have autobahns with only advisory limits simply reflects the political clout of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche – and the fact that German politicians and others enjoy these status symbols too. Not that it is a Good Idea. Unsurprisingly, Clark ignores the main reason why speed limits get imposed. Not safety – even though collision severities increase with speed. Fuel consumption – which also increases (geometrically at high speeds) is the main reason. The US introduced a nationwide 55mph limit in response to the 1970s oil crisis. The fact that also lead to a reduction in deaths and severe injuries was a bonus – but not nearly enough to keep the limit at 55, once the immediate crisis of gasoline supplies was passed. A lot of attention was paid to air quality – especially in California, which other places needed to follow so that folk could breathe – but not much to fuel efficiency. Wasting fuel was one of the main things that got tackled once emissions standards were raised, since more effective combustion reduces tail pipe emissions – but most of that gain was devoted to higher performance, and hauling around ever bigger, more luxurious personal vehicles – many of which were light trucks to try and get around Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards.

Clark simply ignores the need to reduce fossil fuel consumption. It is the most pressing need in the world: the current floods in Pakistan being an indication of what global warming means to human beings, given that we clearly do not give a stuff about charismatic megafauna like polar bears.

What North America needs is a system like Germany’s Autobahn.

No mention of course of how that would be paid for. Taxes – or tolls? Not a hint. Just bad puns. OK, I will accept that it is a silly season story. And I do recognize that cars as objects are both interesting and indeed desirable. A lot of design effort – and marketing savvy – has gone into making cars as objects cultural icons. Just last night I was watching Hilary Kay going all gooey about an Aston Martin DB5 – one that was used in the early Bond films. (The original James Bond – in the book – drove a red label Bentley.) I am determined to get to the Steamworks Concours d’Elegance this year  – not least for the delightful people who love to show off and talk about their beloved cars.

1928 Bugatti Type 44 Roadster Vancouver BC 2006_0902

There is a real car culture – and for many the point of owning a car that goes far beyond “a daily driver” – and I do not expect anyone aged 19 to fully comprehend that. Apparently males do not fully mature until they are 25.

The fact that someone who writes about cars can ignore greenhouse gases is not surprising either. He depends for his living on the automotive industry – and as that Carjacked piece goes on about at some length, most of that requires the public to be persuaded not just to buy personal transportation – but to spend far more than is sensible, far too often to keep the whole system going. We have not yet abandoned the idea of economic growth, though we OECD countries clearly passed the practical limits of that some years ago. And that requires planned obsolescence – something the automotive industry invented. We could have cars that lasted much longer, or that could be upgraded like many PCs by parts replacement. Except that even there we mostly don’t.

What North America actually needs is more railways – especially electric railways – and ones that allow passenger trains priority over freight. This well known, existing technology can be implemented effectively, and will be much quicker than any  other plausible route to reducing internal air travel and quite a lot of driving of IC vehicles. The current US program for High Speed Rail is a very small step in the right direction. Not that Canada is even thinking about anything similar. BC of course is only spending money on more and faster roads. And one reason advanced for that is the pressure from people who influence the BC Liberals that it was necessary for them to drive faster on the Sea to SkyHighway. NOT that the road was unsafe: it wasn’t. It was just that there was no effective enforcement of the speed limit. Of course photo radar was unpopular – but that does not mean that it was a bad idea. Quite the opposite in fact, even in the incompetent way it was implemented in BC.

But you can bet that many people will pick up the idea that we need more and faster roads. After all that fits into what they have been sold. And also fits into the currently dominant denial that we face imminent annihilation if we do not change direction now.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 17, 2010 at 10:12 am

One Response

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  1. Stephen is right, of course..
    This post does give me a chance to tell the story of a couple of young Frenchmen that were stopped by the police (different days, different guys and they didn’t know each other) doing something like 228 km/hr on a so-called National road in Gascony. These roads are normal, non-divided roads, and tractors, bikes etc. have a bad habit of turning unexpectedly on these roads, coming from secondary roads (D roads) intersecting them in a curve or from behind a clump of trees.
    Both drivers lost their license on the spot, for 1 year I think, and one lost his car as well (the other car was owned by the parents..)

    They could have used a divided motorway (no FREEways as most are tolled in France). 10 years ago my Dad was still driving at 200 km/hr. on them. Guess that the trill for these young guys was in using a dangerous road without any concern at all for unsuspecting normal drivers / passengers just minding their business.

    Red frog

    August 18, 2010 at 11:28 am

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