Why is U.S. industry a generation behind Europe and Asia in producing rapid surface transit technologies and systems?

In the early 1900s cities in the USA were typically developed around streetcar and electric railway and suburban railway technology. That technology did tend to concentrate people and activity near the transit lines. In order for the USA to develop its urban civilization in a more walking-oriented manner like Europe, it would have been necessary to create public institutions with adequate public funding. That didn’t happen largely because of (1) the successful fight of the capitalist railway and public transit industry, with backing of local capitalist elites, against city and public entities taking it over, and (2) the real estate development industry’s switch to reliance on private automobiles from at least the 1930s on.

The innovations of Henry Ford’s “progressive production” system destroyed the old craft system of making vehicles, pushing workers to their limit through mechanized systems of pacing. The soul crushing discipline and low wages in the auto industry in the ’20s (typically less than $2.50 per day) allowed Ford to reduce cost of autos to around $270 by mid ‘20s. This made mass car ownership feasible. But in the ’20s and ’30s central cities did not have enough free parking to support mass car ownership — just like Euro cities now. So after World War 2 jurisdictions changed development rules to require free parking everywhere. The banks also came to demand this, as they saw free parking as necessary for competitive value.

The commercial builders of retail centers entered into a competitive game of building new centers in outlying areas where there was (not yet) much traffic for new car-oriented centers. The state & federal governments ramped up production of freeways and wider roads on a vast scale. The result is the auto-oriented urban layout we see in U.S. metro areas today. This pattern didn’t just fall from the sky nor is it explained by individual consumer preferences.

Had the U.S. moved to public ownership of utilities & transport in early 20th century and focused on encouraging a continuation of the older pedestrian oriented city pattern, it would have required a vast pubic investment in collective transport. But that didn’t happen. Instead a market oriented and private capitalist oriented policy let big developers shape the environment and oriented the society completely around the private cars being cranked out by the big auto companies, and the petroleum products produced by big oil.

And so now the USA is stuck with an anti-social and environmentally destructive land use pattern that greatly ramps up greenhouse gases. It’s a big reason USA contributes 25 percent of greenhouse gases with only 5 percent of the world’s population.

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