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Bill Ford: Future traffic gridlock a bigger problem than global warming

July 05, 2011 By: Peter Smith Category: Advocacy

I had a little time to burn on this past Saturday afternoon, so I tore through the Streetsblog Network RSS feed and stumbled upon a post titled “Finding Sanity in the July 4th Gridlock: Bill Ford’s TED Talk“. Bill Ford is the great-grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. Bill Ford is a car guy. He claims to care about the environment. Fine.

In his TED Talk, he suggests that we, as a society/global community, have a lot of work left to do, but that we’re well on our way to solving the global warming issue. Confident guy. The real problem we face going forward, he suggests, is traffic gridlock.

Here’s the TED Talk — it’s clownish and amateurish, and is just PR for Ford and the automobile industry, but at least it’s boring:

There are a couple of points I’d like to make:

  1. ‘Intelligent roadways’ won’t work: This ‘intelligent roadways’ stuff has been given attention and some credibility because honorable, decent, smart people like Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar, have touted the idea — Chase has referred to the ‘mesh network’ (presumably of roadways and cars and intelligent road pricing, and ancillary ideas/technologies). But ‘intelligent roadways (for cars)’ is a horrible idea if only because it seeks to delay the point in time at which humanity finally gives up on automobile transport, with its myriad lethal effects, locally and globally. But practically-speaking about today, we know that any tool/technology/policy that decreases auto congestion will only work to induce/increase demand — simply put, more people will want to drive because traffic is not quite as bad as it used to be. With cars and car technology — including ‘intelligent roadways’ and ‘mesh networks’ — even when you ‘win’ with cars, you lose — the only possible way to win, then, is not to play the game. Cars are a failed endeavor and now are threatening the survival of the human species. Biking and walking work pretty well — we should allow people to do them. You know those expensive and maddening freeway on-ramp meters? They decrease congestion by 10-15%. For some period of time — 3 months? 6 months? Until more people are driving and fill up the extra road capacity. You know, induced demand and all that. Everything about cars is just one giant FAIL. We need to let cars go the way of the dodo. The imaginary ‘hypercar’ will not save us. We know people who drive ‘clean(ish) energy cars’ drive more than people who drive regular cars — as we’ve said, even when you ‘win’ with cars, you still lose. Cars suck. They are inherently a sucky solution to the problem of mobility/transport — it’s difficult-to-impossible to fix ‘inherently sucky’. We shouldn’t work so hard to try to keep cars a viable transport option. And I’m not saying cars can’t be useful in some capacity — for instance, it’s fun to go watch a demolition derby — watching cars destroy each other is my idea of a good time — so cars can address ‘the boredom problem’ pretty well, but ‘the boredom problem’ is not ‘the mobility problem’.
  2. Have we hit peak car travel? Folks are talking peak car use and peak travel and peak (motor) vehicle miles traveled and whatever else, but I’m not buying it. I don’t think it’s overly important for everyone to focus on whether or not this number is growing, holding steady, or shrinking — I think we should all do our best to concentrate on giving people the option to walk and bike to their destinations. If we take care of that, the car problem with take care of itself. In the TED Talk above, Bill Ford suggests that his company believes the world will be inhabited by 2 to 4 billion cars by 2050. There are ‘only’ 0.8 billion cars today. That represents up to a four-fold increase in the number of operational cars on the planet. Most of that growth will come from the developing world — China, India, and large and rising middle classes in countries around the globe. Some other folks think it is possible to sustain billions of cars on earth if we figure out how to make them…burn pixie dust or something — I have no idea. Sounds deranged to me. Global warming and its crazy effects are happening right now, with less than a billion cars in the world — someone thinks it’s wise to keep and even grow the number of cars we already have on this planet? Are we supposed to wait until San Francisco and Manhattan are underwater before we get serious about allowing people to get around on bikes?

The auto industry already invests billions in advertising and public relations — including the funding of high-profile operations like Streetsblog member TheCityFix — not sure why the TED conference felt the need to let a Ford executive jump on stage and read from a teleprompter for 17 minutes. C’est la vie.

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