In the early 1900s, workers flocked to Detroit for the promise of ‘the good life’ that automobile manufacturing plants could offer. Today, one out of every ten Americans is employed by the auto industry. This is quickly changing as the current economic crisis hits the motor vehicle and parts industries the hardest. The last 100 years of automobile making has come to a definitive crossroads. Will change include a future for domestic automakers?
Look deep into the American landscape, and you’ll note that life ain’t easy without access to a personal vehicle. I have never driven; I have no car, no license and no desire to have either. But that has been my choice because I have availed public transportation, walking, biking and occasionally bumming the needed ride. For most people, this lifestyle choice would not work without massively altering the way they live, work and play, not to mention the additional infrastructure changes that would be required.
The power and privilege of automobiles has left a legacy in America’s growth patterns. Cars overshadowed trolley systems that once lined intercity streets and outpaced investment in train line expansions. Individual autonomy became of the utmost importance and changed the way infrastructure and lifestyles were shaped forever.
America created the first car culture revolution, but has since lost its competitive edge in the global market. Foreign automakers’ fuel-efficient vehicles have dwindled the export potential for inefficient domestic vehicles. It was America who started this disruptive technology, and it is our opportunity to equip our country with proper infrastructure for alternative modes of transportation.
For a time, Detroit could produce vehicles faster than concrete could be poured for freeways. The remnants of ‘progress’ have equated to massive expanses of urban development with little consideration for locally available public amenities. But Detroit’s auto industries have been the backbone of the economy for decades. What is to come of a falling economy without long-term assistance to dodge total economic meltdown?
The Center for Automotive Research, in an article published on Nov. 4, puts forward two scenarios; one with the support of the federal government in providing $25 billion to $50 billion in aid from the bailout plan and the other with no support. Both scenarios outline a dramatic cut in jobs and production capability. So, even if America does subsidize the auto industry, it will never repair the significant damage that has been done.
President-elect Barack Obama has made a clear commitment to support the auto industries with guidelines for improving fuel-efficiency, and supporting those who will be out of work. However, nothing short of a massive civil works project will save America from economic and infrastructure collapse. In the spirit of change, we need to invest in leading-edge technology, rather than subsidizing people for unemployment. There is work to be done, and its time to start promising innovative solutions to America’s challenges.
Now is the time, during this lame-duck period, to influence the next presidential leader. The awe-inspiring thing about Obama is that even in his position of power, he implores everyone to speak up. So, tell him what you think about the current auto industry crisis or any ideas you have at www.change.gov.
Nancy Cole is a city and regional planning senior and the former vice-president of the Empower Poly Coalition.