Obama’s sprawl-promoting industrial policy: electric cars

During the past few decades, “industrial policy” was an epithet, and you still won’t see Obama going around calling his “green jobs” projects industrial policy in speeches any time soon. But some think it’s time to shed the stigma, and the flagship Obama industrial policy seems to be electric vehicles – or more specifically, the batteries that power them:

“It was a calculated risk — a lot of money, to be sure, but given the stakes, I think it was a pretty thoughtful bet,” says Ron Bloom, who recently served as an assistant to President Obama for manufacturing policy. “If vehicle electrification really does take off, as many, many people think it will, and we’re not part of it, then we could lose our leadership of the global automobile industry.” Which would be catastrophic. By some estimates, as much as 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs are directly or indirectly related to the automobile industry. Bloom points out that the United States is not the only country betting on batteries; a number of Asian countries have done so as well.

And if a bunch of Asian countries jumped off a bridge, would you do it too? The Times calls it “less like Google and more like Ford,” and I’m not sure if they mean that as a bad thing. I’m not going to lay out a long case against electric cars right now, but suffice it to say I think they’re just another subsidy to the auto-based system, and that the true environmental harm in cars is not their actual emissions, but the land use patterns than they necessitate, and an electric battery doesn’t change this one bit.

I’m certainly not going to lay the blame on urbanists for Obama’s electric car infatuation, but I think it should be a wake-up call when it comes to green jobs and re-industrialization, which planners have been embracing lately. Too many urbanists idolize America’s lost days as a manufacturing employment powerhouse (we’re still a manufacturing powerhouse, just without the “employment” part – or rather, without the large-scale semi-skilled jobs of the days of yore), but as I said on Twitter once, the zoning code is not an appropriate place to take out your resentment at the passing of America’s industrial age. And as silly as Obama’s sprawl-promoting electric car subsidies are, local industrial policy is even worse – I’m pretty sure they got this one from a Simpsons episode, for example.

And yet, there are many urbanists who believe that industrial land should be preserved, even when it is adjacent to a central business district. The area to the east of the train tracks at the New York Ave. Metro stop in DC is a perfect example – currently it’s a mix of low-slung, low-density food wholesalers and auto body shops, which a healthy sprinkling of vacant buildings and lots used to park cars. And then there’s the “Central Armature Works,” which looks to be still churning out those armaments, and pretty “centrally,” at that – just a block or two away on the other side of the tracks is a mix of class A office space and expensive new condos. But the are urbanists are more concerned with “unpermitted signs” on vacants than rezoning the vacants themselves, and the Office of Planning thinks – well, why don’t I just reprint what someone from the department said to me in an email:

The land that is zoned industrial is mainly along the CSX Railway lines, and traditionally land proximate to railway lines has often been industrial in nature. We completed an industrial land use study a few years ago, which identified that industrial zoned, service oriented land is in short supply in the District. It recommended retention of most of the industrially zoned land in this particular area, although it did recommend intensification of the use.

It’s hard to see how they’re going to “intensify” the use if half of it is vacant now – where’s the demand? Is there some kind of local industrial policy they’re going to try, and if so, what is it? And I’d love to see that “industrial land use study.” As for the CSX line, that might have been relevant back when there was enough land for a factory complex big enough to justify building a railroad siding, but that ship sailed back when the city started redeveloping the area, and there’s no way in hell any company nowadays is going to be able to take advantage of those tracks.

She also mentions in the email that the zoning has been changed one stop up the line at Rhode Island Ave. to allow more appropriate development, but I think that just illustrates how ill-equipped planners are to be making these decisions in the first place. I don’t blame the Office of Planning for not knowing the the NY Ave. station, which is closer to DC’s core, would do better than RI Ave., but I do fault them for believing that they have the ability to know such things, and then not correcting their mistake once it became obvious that the industrial zoning near NY Ave. was just not working out.

Anyway, this is just a long-winded, 4 a.m. way of me saying: I hate industrial policy. Manufacturing is never coming back downtown, so stop trying to force it, planners (both urban and other)!

  • Lisa

    A couple of observations from displaced inside-the-beltwayer:
    1)  Manufacturing a la 1900 may not be coming back, but new processes are.  Additive manufacturing (or 3-D) printing is likely to be a big thing.  Imagine the plastic cap that holds your dishwasher detergent breaks.  Now you have to go online, order the part and have DHL ship from China.  Imagine the ability to go online, order the part and have it “printed” down the street.  Same goes for drawer pulls, the knob thingy in your car or even customizable party favors.  Shapeways does this now.  It won’t replace all the manufacturing overseas, but it can make a dent.  The person who invents the franchises will be a billionare.  But, these are light industrial processes – with potential fumes, traffic, noise depending on how big they are.  These are businesses you want near people – even urban dwellers.
    2)  The issue of retaining industrial property came up in Arlington years ago.  A fancy business was allowed into an industrial area in South Arlington, and then they started complaining about the businesses that actually represent what should be in an industrial place.  What DC is doing is not so much industrial policy but land portfolio policy.  Industrial land is one of the more vexing aspects of planning because once industrial land is upscaled you can’t go back, whether it is making things, fixing cars, selling lumber, welding broken parts or whatever.  Cities will always need “grunge” land.  I am unsure whether the CSX tracks have potential for urban mobility, which would be an important factor for the surrounding land uses so this observation is conditional…
    3)  For the electric cars.  I agree it’s pathetic policy if a million electric cars just replace a million gas-powered cars.  But here in Sarastoa, there are entrepreneurs making solar/electric trams and and low speed cars (kind of like golf carts, but more and more like cars).  Operators have bought the trams and are shuttling people around (not just tourists) filling a gap between use of private car and bus service. I am unsure if new technology, no matter how promising, can break through the thicket of vested car and transit interests, entrenched regs and lack of creativity. Transportation needs it own Disrupt movement like tech to match mobility to the setting, especially in suburban areas.  That’s where electric can make a difference.

  • Lisa

    A couple of observations from displaced inside-the-beltwayer:
    1)  Manufacturing a la 1900 may not be coming back, but new processes are.  Additive manufacturing (or 3-D) printing is likely to be a big thing.  Imagine the plastic cap that holds your dishwasher detergent breaks.  Now you have to go online, order the part and have DHL ship from China.  Imagine the ability to go online, order the part and have it “printed” down the street.  Same goes for drawer pulls, the knob thingy in your car or even customizable party favors.  Shapeways does this now.  It won’t replace all the manufacturing overseas, but it can make a dent.  The person who invents the franchises will be a billionare.  But, these are light industrial processes – with potential fumes, traffic, noise depending on how big they are.  These are businesses you want near people – even urban dwellers.
    2)  The issue of retaining industrial property came up in Arlington years ago.  A fancy business was allowed into an industrial area in South Arlington, and then they started complaining about the businesses that actually represent what should be in an industrial place.  What DC is doing is not so much industrial policy but land portfolio policy.  Industrial land is one of the more vexing aspects of planning because once industrial land is upscaled you can’t go back, whether it is making things, fixing cars, selling lumber, welding broken parts or whatever.  Cities will always need “grunge” land.  I am unsure whether the CSX tracks have potential for urban mobility, which would be an important factor for the surrounding land uses so this observation is conditional…
    3)  For the electric cars.  I agree it’s pathetic policy if a million electric cars just replace a million gas-powered cars.  But here in Sarastoa, there are entrepreneurs making solar/electric trams and and low speed cars (kind of like golf carts, but more and more like cars).  Operators have bought the trams and are shuttling people around (not just tourists) filling a gap between use of private car and bus service. I am unsure if new technology, no matter how promising, can break through the thicket of vested car and transit interests, entrenched regs and lack of creativity. Transportation needs it own Disrupt movement like tech to match mobility to the setting, especially in suburban areas.  That’s where electric can make a difference.

  • Stcamp

    I think we need to separate the problem of industrial demand — that of firms for real estate — from the question of industrial land supply. If you ignore land values, certain industrial uses remain viable in urban (or urban peripheral) locations: food manufacturing, highly specialized or just-in-time manufacturing, building materials, R&D flex uses. All tend to serve local markets or need feedback loops from suppliers and customers to thrive. 

    But the problem that DC planners see as scarcity is actually more a question of uncertainty. It’s not that these industrial firms can’t find space. It’s that manufacturing is increasingly capital-intensive, and few tenants are willing to invest in their physical plant without long-term security. The majority of urban industrial firms are renters, and few landlords are willing to dedicate their property for industrial uses in perpetuity if they see even the faintest potential of conversion to a higher and better use — and nearly every improved use is higher and better than industrial. 

    The few examples of urban industrial parks that are owned by public, quasi-public, or non-profit entities — like the Brooklyn Navy Yard or the PIDC waterfront lands — are active and utilized because they offer certainty to their tenants, not because they are zoned for industrial uses. Is it worth taking these lands off the market? That’s another question all together.

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  • Scott Johnson

    Improved battery technology has more uses than just electric cars–for one thing, they provide potential benefit to transit as well.  At worst, I would suspect that trading a zillion gas-powered cars for a zillion electric ones would be a wash as far as land use is concerned, and would have beneficial environmental outcomes even if VMT were not reduced a bit.

    But still–there is the issue that one major segment of the manufacturing which domestic industry still commands significant market share is production of automobiles.  If you think that subsidizing any industry is bad (and that we should let “uncompetitive” industries die regardless of social costs), you’ll not likely be convinced by proposals to do just that–concerns about its effects on urbanism strike me as a smokescreen.  If you think there is something else which would be a better recipient of Uncle Sam’s attention than Detroit–what is it?

  • Seward1872

    At one time MITI was supposed to be the wave of the future and the U.S. needed to get onboard; then Japan’s economy went south and now they’ve suffered now two “lost decades.”  Now correlation doesn’t equal causation, etc., however, if it had been up to MITI Honda would not exist as a car company; I’m sure similar mistakes (that company owners were not willing to buck as Honda was) were made and it added up to a whole bunch of malinvestment.  There are basic Hayekian knowledge problems involved in other words that seem insurmountable. 

    As for your query, how about nothing?  Most of the time that ought to be the primary option.

  • Wad

    Headline suggestion for this post: Obama’s sprawl-promoting industrial policy: coal-powered cars.