Michael Moore’s film Roger & Me shows the harsh truth about the demolition of living standards that the American working class was subjected to during the retrenchment of global capital in the 1980s and 90s. This was a time when industrial production had saturated global markets with durable goods. In order to keep making a profit, capitalists needed to lower production costs. They did so by launching a full-on assault on the hard-fought gains won by industrial workers during the huge strike waves of the 1940s, which included the sit-down strikes shown in the film.
The working class has yet to recover from the de-industrialization shown in the film. Real wages have stayed stagnant for workers while the wealth of the top 1% has skyrocketed. Union density has dropped from 35% in the 1950s to only 10% of workers today, even though most workers view unions favorably.
While car manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas or automated out of existence, the need for cars continues to grow worldwide. General Motors itself played a pivotal role in dismantling the efficient mass transit systems that once existed in every U.S. city. The company participated in a conspiracy along with Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and other corporations to buy up and shut down streetcar lines across the country. The growing prevalence of cars in the mid 20th century shifted jobs to the automotive industry, while the Federal government made increasing investments in highways.
The result was an explosion of petroleum-burning private vehicles and a withering of mass transit options. The consequences for our air quality and our climate have been dire. 28% of carbon emissions come from fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks. These are the least fuel-efficient forms of transportation. Cars and trucks burn far more energy per passenger or cargo ton per mile traveled than trains or ships. Only jet airplanes burn more fuel and add more pollution to the atmosphere.
Cars are also an elitist form of transportation. First, you have to have enough money to buy one. But you also have to be an able-bodied and sound-minded adult to drive one. This leaves millions of people immobilized, including young people, the elderly, the poor, and people with physical and cognitive disabilities that prevent them from driving. And cars are the most dangerous form of transportation, with death rates per 100 million passenger miles over 20 times higher than for buses, 17 times higher than for trains, and 595 times higher than scheduled airlines.
Now many of the good automotive factory jobs are gone, but our reliance on cars remains strong. Most people have to own a private vehicle to get to work, but the cost of those vehicles is increasingly out of reach for working people. A new car now costs almost $50K on average. And we are now being told that the way to end our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation is to switch to electric vehicles, which cost around $64,000 on average. Electric car batteries also require large amounts of metals like copper, nickel, and cobalt that are dangerously polluting to mine. Right now, the Federal Government is colluding with Tesla to fast-track the Talon Minerals copper-nickel mine in Tamarack, which would likely devastate important wild rice beds near Big Sandy Lake.
Transportation equity starts with recognizing the ongoing harms that our automobile-based transportation system does, to workers, to disadvantaged people, to the environment, and really, to all of us. Do any of us really want our lives to revolve around driving? Does it help our mental health to spend hours a day alone in our car, or to be stuck in road construction and traffic jams?
We need to move the trillions of dollars that federal and state governments spend to subsidize cars toward instead funding electrified mass transit fueled by renewables. Imagine the hundreds of thousands of jobs this shift would create, both in domestic manufacturing of mass transit vehicles and for drivers and support staff. And mass transit electrification doesn’t have to mean vehicles with big batteries full of toxic metals. Overhead electrical wiring is technology that is over 100 years old and still works, including for modern high-speed rail.
In closing, I’ll share that earlier this month, I took a vacation with my family and rode Amtrak from Chicago to Albany, New York and back. To catch the train in Chicago, you have to go through Union Station, once a grand architectural jewel that is now the cramped, overcrowded basement of a commercial skyscraper. Then you sit on the aging rolling stock as the train stops and goes and has to wait for freight trains that take priority to pass by. The whole trip to Albany took 18 and a half hours, since we ended up an hour and a half late. To get from Chicago to New York takes a minimum of 20 hours.
This is the fourth-busiest flight route in the U.S. If it were a dedicated high-speed rail route, with trains traveling maximum speeds of over 185 miles per hour as they do in Europe and Asia, the train trip could take as little as seven or eight hours. Imagine getting on the train in Chicago after breakfast and arriving in New York in time for dinner, or taking the overnight trip, going to bed when you get on the train, and waking up at your destination. And imagine not having to take potty breaks, worry about falling asleep at the wheel, or fight with crabby kids in the back seat along the way.
This is just one small piece of the transportation system we need to build to address the climate crisis. We need rapid, government owned-and-operated intercity transit that smoothly interfaces with intra-city transit that goes everywhere. And we need rural mass transit systems that work for people as well. Transportation equity would mean that everyone could quickly, safely, and cheaply travel to their destination on mass transit—trains, buses, and taxis—whether going across town, town to town, or across the country. It’s an imperative for the climate, and it will make us a healthier, more socially connected society.