I live in a part of North America that is dependent on the auto industry and I am seeing it break down around me.
Every day it seems the local media has a story on another layoff, if not of the Big 3 but of the many hundreds of firms that supply them. Every day it appears that one more factory has a For Sale or For Lease sign up. Every day one more track in the local railroad yard is taken up by a string of empty auto-rack railcars.
So I am not without sympathy to the families, indeed neighbors who are being hurt by what is happening in that industry.
Yet at the same time I have no pity for the companies themselves, Chrysler and especially GM. And should they end up in the scrap heap so be it. They the espousers of 'planned obsolescence': that philosophy of producing crap, gas-guzzling, air-killing products (I used to own a Dodge Intrepid, 'nough said) are now obsolete.
GM deserves such a fate and more. The tech 'evil empires' are benign when compared with this outfit. In 1949 GM, along with Firestone (now Bridgestone) and what is now Chevron were convicted of conspiring to rip up clean, efficient, electric streetcar lines and replace them with polluting, traffic-prone, and less attractive buses. GM handicapped the market for its now-sold Electro-Motive division that produced (and still does, under its present owners) fine, rugged diesel railroad locomotives that was largely responsible for displacing the romantic if comparatively inefficient and very labor-intensive steam engines. GM's locomotives continue to growl away on freight and passenger trains long after similar-vintage bus, car, and truck counterparts had become scrap metal; its designs are being used in ultramodern commuter rail and freight engines.
The growth in the auto industry, aided by taxpayer-financed roads, led to the near destruction of the rail and transit industries, and the demise of those jobs. But back then it was called 'progress'...
There is now a coming of minds to a solution to the dilemma of putting highly-skilled people back to work and at the same time cleaning up our air and relieving congested highways: investing in the green alternatives of high-speed rail and getting moving on telework. While green vehicles are nice they eat up much more land than rail or fiber optics: land that is used to replenish oxygen and water supplies, and to grow food on.
California is getting into the act by passing its high-speed rail measure. My sources tell me that has sparked renewed interest in the Pacific Northwest, which has, under the branding Amtrak Cascades, a nascent intercity rail network supported by Oregon, Washington, and the province of British Columbia. The premiers of Ontario--which has been especially hard hit because Canada's auto industry is centered there--and Quebec have been pressuring the Canadian government for high-speed rail. Bombardier, which built the now de-bugged Acela trains, has plants, conveniently enough, in both provinces. California, the Pacific Northwest, and Ontario and Quebec plan to power their trains eventually with mostly non-carbon-emiting energy: hydro, nuclear, solar, and wind. Ontario has a couple of nuclear power stations near the proposed right of way, where today's VIA Rail intercity passenger trains 'speed' by at no more than 95 mph on regular railroad tracks that are shared by freight trains.
And one can be sure that should the California plan progress to the stage where bids will be going out that the savvy manufacturers will promise to locate assembly plants there. Just as Siemens had done when orders began pouring in for its light rail cars from across the Western US and Canada; it was ironically, Edmonton, Alberta, the province's capital and the so-called center of the Canadian oil industry, that kicked off the light rail boom when its first line opened in April 1978.
The other part of the equation is telework (including conferencing or 'telepresence). For no matter how good high-speed rail systems and mass transit networks are and can be they cannot substitute for the many commuting trips and intercity business travel that are now taken by car and air.
The Telework Coalition has been invited by the Province of Ontario to make a submission to its pre-budget consultation. The organization plans to make some policy recommendations aimed at encouraging virtual work which too would put people to work, such as those at embattled tech firm Nortel that is headquartered there.
The pieces supporting telework is already there. What is needed is putting them together. On Thursday Nov.20, IEX is sponsoring a TMC Webinar on this topic. I'll be moderating the session, and I encourage anyone who is interested in telework to register, take part, and ask questions.