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Another Suggestion for U.S. Automakers: Build Railroads
A MUNI streetcar in San Francisco
Photo credit: flickr/mickeynick, Creative Commons license

Last week, we published a few words of advice for the U.S. auto industry from sustainable business expert Gifford Pinchot III. In short: build windmills.

This week, architect and New Urbanist John Massengale added his own recommendation to the debate: build railroad cars and streetcars.

An excerpt from Massengale's blog post on the subject:

But as momentum grows for the idea that infrastructure money should be spent on things like rail rather than roads (and even neighborhood centers), how about the idea that we the people give the Big Three large contracts for railroad cars and streetcars? We should have a lot more of those, and we're currently buying them from other countries.
All the state DOTs are used to privileged positions for feeding at the public trough, but we don't need any more highways. We need high-speed rail (much cleaner and greener than airplanes), light rail and even boulevards for the light rail to run on. For fifty years, we've been giving traffic engineers money to build auto sewers that ruin our cities and blight our countryside. As we reinvent the way we live, we need to reinvent the way we move around. Our cars and our sprawling way of life are the biggest reason why we're number one in pollution and oil depletion.

Do you think that Detroit will be able to harness this opportunity for a bright green recovery? We invite you to share your own thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks to the Streetsblog discussion group for bringing John's blog post to our attention.

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I agree! We need money from the feds such as DOL to talk to DOT so that we can employ a good portion of the half billion people to install these railways so the automakers aren't creating unnecessary vehicles, such as the suburban was. We need to also let the feds know that this whole system can be very "sustainable" in the long run by ensuring the environmentally sound becomes economically sound through training and employing people to think along the new ways of green, sustainable, and organic. It's very simple, yet needs to jostle those that are comfortable with business as usual.

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Posted by: Lisa Hines on 10 Dec 08

i think instead of a "car czar" we need a transport czar. people moving, freight moving, and that itself only gets us a little closer. the beauty of the car- and truck-based system was its modularity and decentralization, right, expansion was handled relatively organically, as far as politics were concerned, but this came out as a kind of mob rule situation, where all other criteria were tossed for vendor throughput and the economy became increasingly dependent on household spending on this helpfully obsolescing means.

leaving out the products (and people) themselves, the ecological footprint of all industrial-scale means of transoceanic travel now, and most of inland travel, implies that they're bound for tight management. but how can you lay track, now, when so much rearrangement of residential and commercial is -- well, between tough credit and tight conservation, there will be industrial world migration, where growth was one-dimensional/non-smart.

"it costs too much to drive" won't be the motivator in ten years.

Posted by: hapa on 10 Dec 08

The auto industry must come through.

The National Resource Defense Council and the EPRI found that even if extra electricity is needed from our coal-based national grid, PHEVs are much cleaner than conventional automobiles. Plug-ins can reduce GHG emissions by a range of 3.4-10.3 billion metric tons from 2010-2050, depending on the level of fleet penetration. The two research groups reported PHEVs emit much less GHGs than either the conventional or the hybrid vehicle – ranging from 40-65% improvement over the conventional to 7-46% over a HEV. Studies at the California Air Resources Board indicate that advanced vehicles powered by our electrical grid have at least 67% lower GHG emissions than those powered by gasoline.

Posted by: Jude C on 11 Dec 08

I agree with this, but I want to point out the hilarious irony for those who don't know.

In 1947 various corporations, including General Motors were charged in a conspiracy: under the name of National City Lines, they bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities, then systematically dismantled them to remove what they perceived to be a threat to the oil and automotive industry.

This is what I call sweet, sweet justice. Yes, they should consider getting into the rail industry, just as they should reconsider bringing back the EV1, which some say they also dismantled for a quick payoff.

Posted by: yosh hash on 12 Dec 08

Agreed. The last thing we need is more cars and highways. A proper network of rails will be economically viable and sustainable. The problem, of course, is getting there. Massive changes to our infrastructure such as this fly in the face of all the current momentum. Cars are part of our culture. Maybe this crisis is the shake-up that is needed to change direction.

Obama spoke about rail back in April (, but I haven't seen much recently from him on the subject. Pushing this at the national level is really the way to go, though California, at least, seems to be getting off its butt independently. It's a start.

Posted by: amorette on 12 Dec 08

Automakers are the ones who can't build cars very well. Other companies may be far better suited at being incompetent railroad builders. Or we could just hire Siemens.

Posted by: sheeple car makers on 12 Dec 08

Govt. help for the big three should come with an agressive timetable guarantee for phasing in PHEVs and EVs. /
Beginning now.

It has occurred to me that as coal power is phased out, it should free up a lot of rail freight capacity.
Coal is the largest single commodity for rail freight. In 2003 it accounted for 24% of total car loads and 44% of tonnage on major railroads. It is also carried on dozens of smaller regional railroads.

Rail is much more fuel efficent for long haul freight than trucks. Shifting some of our long haul truck freight to rail would be wise.

Posted by: frflyer on 13 Dec 08

(frflyer wrote):
Shifting some of our long haul truck freight to rail would be wise.

And safer for those of us who currently have to share motorways with 18-wheelers.

Posted by: Victor Escobar on 16 Dec 08

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