Monday, August 16, 2010

Social Engineering

I was watching a TV show called “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!” this weekend and the episode happened to be about how junk food tax would be a form of government social engineering. For some background, Penn & Teller are libertarian and are of the smaller-the-government-the-better mindset. Anyway, this got me thinking about transportation and social engineering.

If you have read any of the regional newspapers lately, you’ve bond to have read editorials about how the shift of transportation priority in downtown Vancouver to communist pinko active transportation is a.) government mind control and b.) an affront to the free-market capitalist automobile. Since you are reading this blog, I can almost guarantee that you know this isn’t the truth. Let’s really see where government social engineering came into play.

At the turn of the 19th century in North America, transportation was a private enterprise. Railways and streetcar were owned by private companies and all was good in the world. It was at this time that the bicycle became a popular mode of transportation in urban centers and people demanded good paved roads, so they didn’t have to cycle through mud. All was still good in the world and transportation was still a private enterprise. The automobile came along and at the same time people where getting upset about the price that railroads where charging for hauling freight. The US and Canadian government funded what was to be called “farm to market roads” to give farmers a second option to the railways. The world of private enterprise transportation was still going well until the end of World War 2. At this time the auto industry began to lobby government hard and by the US Eisenhower administration with GM President Charles Erwin Wilson as Secretary of Defense, we got the famous quote “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” The National Defense Interstate Highway System was built which tore up the urban fabric of cities and forever changed the shape of transportation in American. Not to be outdone, Canada embarked on similar freeway dreams. Talk about government messing around with things! Of course with the hundreds of billions of public dollars being dumped into socialist roads, private enterprise began to suffer and the rest is history. We are still paying big money for roads and must also pay for transit because we killed any profitable business model for that.

If we step forward to today, we know that the socialist automobile experiment has had huge negative consequences for our health, our pocketbook, and the environmental; yet the Canadian government owns a part of GM! Local governments are trying to correct this imbalance by building roads that give people real transportation choices (and who can argue against choice?). The reality is that if major roads continue to be provided for “free”, public transportation will also need to receive a government subsidiary. It's pretty hard to compete with free.

Just to be clear, I believe that roads under local government control have always and should always remain public space, but should give equal access to all forms of transportation.


Corey said...

Like you said, the government prefers the automobile because it itself is now a stakeholder in the auto being successful.

But so are "we" - look around the Fraser Valley at the number of businesses dependent on the automobile for income. Where I live in Chilliwack, there are literally hundreds of service, dealer and repair shops within a 10 minute walk of what should be the "walkable" downtown.

Until the majority of the populace realizes the mobility (and health, economic, etc) benefits of using other forms of transportation, and votes with their wallets and feet, not much will change. We need to change the way business is done at a number of very fundamental levels.

fpteditors said...

The best way to undo the damage is to recognize that urban public transit is a public good that, like education, benefits all society. Then remove the user-fee (fares) which serve to discourage use and consequently reduce the return on the public investment.