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Harris Silver Headshot

What's Good for GM Is Not Good for America

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It's time to set the record straight. What's good for GM has never been good for America. Not in 1955 when this was first said and not now.

Selling cars has always been disconnected from reality. Car manufacturers sell dreams -- the dream of freedom, the dream of the open road, the dream of youth, the dream of sex, the dream of speed. The reality, of course, has been completely different. Clogged roads, 50,000 road fatalities a year, the evisceration of urban transit systems, the suburban buildout, which has led to class divisions and cultural isolation, an unsustainable oil infrastructure that requires unfathomable resources to maintain and defend, and closer to home a built environment that is blighted when new as the building tectonic shifted from people to cars.

What we call progress is nothing more than the environmental destruction of this country in order to accommodate the automobile. Even some of our country's most famous and spectacular architectural landmarks, like Frank Gehry's Disney's Hall in Los Angeles, are merely artful covers of massive parking structures. It's just not buildings that have more square footage for cars than people. This is why when you look at our cities from the air and you see something that may not be obvious from the ground.

The amount of space given over to the automobile is greater than the amount of space given to people. If intelligent aliens were to observe planet earth from above they might very well conclude that people are servants to their cars and not the other way around. The dream that was sold has turned out be a nightmare that we bought.

When an automaker decides what type of car to build they don't think of a context or a need. Rather they think like marketers, of a demographic, much the way a soap company does -- gender, age groups, and economic status are identified. They then sell these fantasies through the power of advertising. The way this usually plays out is that young men get fast cars, guys going though mid-life crisises get even faster cars. Soccer moms get overpowered SUVs and cities get shafted. If you ever wondered why cars are too big, too fast and boring, this is the reason.

This is also why that even though taxis are needed in every city around the world, Detroit's answer has been to take a fuddy-duddy highway cruiser, paint it yellow, put a meter in the front seat and a plastic divider between the back seat and the driver and call it a day, instead of building a contextually relevant taxi that would have world-wide market appeal. This is also why police cars, like taxis, are mostly the same car just painted another color without the meter and door handles in the back. This is why cars sold in Hawaii come with heating systems that are never used.

Cars aren't built for the places they operate or for a specific purpose -- rather, they are built for an idea that is reinforced by billions of advertising dollars. And the only truth in advertising is that if you spend billions of dollars telling people something, they will start believing you. Automobile advertising is especially pernicious as it often shows cars being used in ways that are mostly illegal and dangerous.

We can begin to understand the problem more clearly by looking at one of the 66 models GM currently manufactures. Generals Motors' 2012 Corvette ZR1 is a seriously fast car. Its 638 horsepower engine accelerates it from a stop light to 60 seconds in 3.4 seconds and it has a top speed of 205 mph, which is almost four times the national speed limit and seven times the speed limit of a city street.

This racecar-type speed brings up an interesting question now that the U.S. government is the largest GM shareholder after bailing out GM in 2008 with $50 billion. Namely, how it is it possible that a government that mandates a speed limit of 55 mph on our nations roads for safety and fuel economy, pays law enforcement to enforce these speed limits, fines its citizens for driving above the speed limit, now is the majority shareholder in a company that builds a car that flouts speed limits so spectacularly?

The Corvette is one example of many cars that seem disconnected from the reality of the space they operate in, there are many others. The 7,400-pound Cadillac Escalade comes to mind -- a car whose front hood is higher than most elementary school children, making kids hard to see when they are in crosswalks.

This brings up an overdue conversation, which is an opportunity for cities to decide what types of vehicles are best to operate within their topography. Specifically, I am suggesting that it is time for the idea of cities to choose the cars that inhabit their urban space rather than this anti-urban alien called Detroit. Detroit doesn't care about New York, Cleveland, Chicago or Los Angeles. Heck, Detroit doesn't even care about Detroit. Have you seen what happened to Motor City? Detroit the city, because of Detroit the automobile industry has gone from a population of 2 million in 1950 to 700,000, making Detroit perhaps America's first ephemeral great city.

What I am suggesting and what I think is reasonable is for cities to look at all the offerings from car companies and decide what type of cars they would rather have operating in their space and then through a system of policies and incentives that encourage residents to purchase the types of vehicles that are best suited to urban environments.

Let's look at another vehicle. When Honda came out with the first generation Insight in 1999, it got about 90 miles per gallon. Honda stopped selling the Insight in 2006 because it sold less than 5,000 of them. Kind of amazing when you think about it. A reliable, safe car that gets almost 100 miles per gallon is pulled off the market because it can't find enough buyers at a time when gas prices and concern for the environment is rising. And a car that can be driven at speeds of over 200 mph is still produced. Perhaps, if such an urban tool kit had been in place in 1999 that helped cities have a role in what types of vehicles were purchased there would be a lot more highly efficient cars in our cities today.

Development of this urban transportation tool kit is also an opportunity for cities to flip this the script written by Detroit. Cities have various tools at their disposal to do this.They can incentivize the vehicles that they want to save time, money or both.

It's fairly obvious that if given a choice, cities would choose smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles to ply its streets. So, based on that it would make sense to capture those type of vehicles in a series of policies. This has been done before. Los Angeles, in order to jump start sales of Hybrids, developed special stickers that allowed them to be driven in high occupancy lanes as single drivers. Los Angeles currently has more hybrids than any other city. New York could offer special parking regulations and tolls that would make owning smaller cars seem like a big idea.

What's good for GM has been horrible for America. But that's not to say what's good for America has to be bad for GM.