American automakers are surrendering big cities like Chicago
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You can’t blame residents of the cities and towns affected by GM’s 14,000 layoffs for feeling abandoned.
The company did not even wait for the economy to sputter before shutting down up to seven plants, damaging local economies. GM didn’t hesitate to shutter its Hamtramck Assembly Plant — a factory built atop a 465-acre city neighborhood leveled at GM’s request — despite the rivers of public money it took to construct it.
GM serves its shareholders, not cities, and the bump in GM’s stock price indicates shareholders are happy.
But make no mistake: Though intended to please shareholders, GM’s announcement was very much about cities — not just those that make cars, but also those in which it sells cars. It suggests cities can expect big changes in transportation, as traditional U.S. carmakers restructure and give way to services such as Uber and Lyft.
GM’s layoffs show that U.S. automakers are stepping away from dense cities such as Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Every model GM is scrapping is a small car or sedan, vehicles suited to crowded urban streets and tight parking spots. At the same time, the company is doubling down on bulky SUVs, crossovers and pickups.
And it’s not just GM. Ford soon will sell only two models of car, the Mustang and the Focus Active, with the rest being SUVs, crossovers and pickups. Fiat Chrysler made similar moves a couple years ago.
U.S. automakers helped build the cities of the 20th century, but now they’re looking elsewhere. Pickups are selling just fine, mind you — but who wants to squeeze an F-150 through rush hour in the Loop?
It’s not just the emphasis of car companies on big trucks and SUVs that suggests a fundamental shift. They’re also trying new business models in cities. Uber and Lyft have long declared the impending decline of car ownership in cities, and now Detroit seems to agree — thanks in part to Uber and Lyft themselves, which are now worth more than the Big Three combined.
Rather than beat these tech juggernauts, car companies are joining. GM owns a 9 percent stake in Lyft. Ford, now a self-proclaimed “mobility company,” is working with Lyft on a self-driving taxi, and Toyota has invested $500 million in Uber.
The old automotive industry is ceding cities to the new mobility industry, which sells services (Uber rides, bike share, and e-scooters) instead of products like the ill-fated Chevy Cruze.
If history is any guide, the new urban mobility industry will bring big changes to urban infrastructure and transportation policy. American automakers spent the past 100 years building and rebuilding cities to accommodate their product. They funded research institutions such as the Erskine Bureau at Harvard to help cities deal with the crush of car traffic; they promoted stoplights and crosswalks, removed pedestrians, and designed the bulk of the street —– the roadway — for fast-moving car traffic.
In some cases, these were welcome interventions on city streets that had become too chaotic to function. But most of all, they made driving downtown easier.
It was not all rosy. In the 1950s and 60’s, a broad-based automotive lobby championed gargantuan urban expressway projects that mangled downtowns, demolished neighborhoods, and displaced tens of thousands of people, often black and brown. The massive infrastructure of the automobile created a feedback loop: it enabled more driving, thus creating more traffic, and thus requiring costly new interventions to accommodate traffic.
Public health crises ensued, from toxic emissions to obesity to millions dead from crashes — including more than a million U.S. crash deaths since 1990.
But the automotive lobby also helped enable suburban living for huge numbers of Americans, particularly the whites who also benefited from federal housing programs.
For some, the automotive lobby was good; for some, it was bad. For nearly everyone, it mattered.
Now the new mobility industry — not just Uber and Lyft, but a range of companies offering everything from private buses to electric bikes — is following suit. It, too, is forming a lobby, sponsoring research, establishing government relations offices and joining groups to agitate for new policies.
Mobility companies say their goal is the opposite of the goal of the automotive companies: to reduce car ownership and make living without a car easier. Uber and Lyft have lobbied cities to implement congestion pricing, which could price some car-owners out of driving and clear streets for more ride-hailing vehicles. Other proposals include pick-up and drop-off zones, reduced parking, and more bike lanes for use by bike-share and scooter riders.
The vision, in the sanguine words of Lyft co-founder John Zimmer, is to “design cities for people,” not cars.
After the century-long tumult of the automotive lobby in cities, the new mobility lobby might seem fairly benign. But it raises more questions than it answers — about public transit and privatization, equity and whether this will even reduce car traffic. (Studies suggest no.)
As GM reminds us, corporations exist not to advance visions or ideals, but to serve stockholders. As long as we depend on their better angels to fix society’s problems — whether providing the nation with good jobs or building livable cities — we are likely to be disappointed.
Samuel Kling is Global Cities Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He earned his PhD in urban history at Northwestern University.”
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