Automakers Should Love Public Transportation

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in Marketing:Automotive on Aug. 21, 2014.

Some industries have been doing whatever they can to back-track mass transit in this country. Even though President Obama has thrown billions at getting moveable objects like trains up and running, nothing has come of it, because where there's no political will there's no political way. But the auto industry should support mass transportation because, at the end of the day, alternatives to cars are in the industry’s interests.  

Data from traffic study and intelligence firm Inrix this year reported traffic congestion up three times GDP, and up in 6 of the 15 countries and 105 of the 194 cities it analyzed.

The industry response to congestion-related wheel time has been to try to make a silk purse of a sow's ear, focusing on a how in-car technology can make this hideous situation more tolerable.  

I understand that automakers are product companies and have no choice but to adapt products to conditions, which today means making cars more and more like digitally interactive living spaces, and entertainment centers on wheels, and soon self- driving transport that frees those behind the wheel to be "productive" while going to pick up the kids, or shop (an ambition that is largely self-defeating because the very technology that keeps you connected in your car will keep you connected in your home, not to mention allowing you access to some of the very services that have traditionally involved driving.) 

But I wonder if long-term solutions to congestion involving electronic prescience and interaction are no more realistic than adding lanes to highways. It might make no sense whatsoever to perform multiple coronary bypasses on a sedentary smoker whose diet consists of nothing but fudge. After all, service roads and country byways get backed up fast when the main artery is jammed. In such a case, telematics just makes that frustrating process even faster, as I discovered this past weekend.   

Automakers helped dismantle the public transit sector a century ago, and have historically fought transit alternatives since then (as have oil companies when government has tried a gas-tax as a funding channel.) Conservatives fight mass-transit because people want their freedom, and investment in bullet trains means more new taxes. But desperately needed road and bridge repair is also expensive and that money has to come from somewhere. 

Good news for the Tea Party: your freedom to fix your roads and bridges won’t be encroached upon by the Federal Government for too much longer, as this year, per the Obama administration, the highway trust for roads and bridges is running as dry as California faucets. Now, there's one more place on which the government won't spend your money. 

But it seems a pyrrhic victory for a car-only society. Having to get everywhere solely on four wheels your hurts the economy long-term and therefore hurts the car business long term. People lose jobs every day because they can't afford wheels to get to their relatively distant jobs. And vast improvements in MPG notwithstanding, worsening congestion means a functional worsening of fuel economy, as a car in stop-and-go traffic gets, let's see, zero miles per gallon. And higher gasoline prices, consequently, as most people can’t afford a Prius and will opt for used cars, with diminished performance.  

The tendrils extend from there to elevated driving stress, wasted time, lost productivity, worsening quality of life and perhaps even a consequent rise in healthcare costs both from stress and from being absolutely sedentary for several dozen hours per week above and beyond work. Automakers' business is going to take a hit as fewer and fewer people are able to afford new cars. 

Yes, I've seen the salubrious predictions from  analysts, and I have seen the PowerPoints on new-vehicle growth curves post recession, but I don't see it as signs of a solid recovery because of structural issues. I don't see how it  can last. I don't believe the enthusiastic growth predictions that extend graphs through the roof through 2020 or so. Who will buy these cars? People are moving to cities and even the "medium-sized" cities are jammed. 

Automakers ought to support mass transit investment because it will help the business in the long term and the country. A structure where public transportation is at odds with the car industry helps nobody.

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