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December 24, 2008

Travel Now, Talk Later

I love my cell phone. But I’m not crazy about other peoples’ cellphones, especially when they use them in a selfish or illegal manner.

You do know it’s against the law to talk on a cellphone while driving in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, right? Yes, cellphone addicts are allowed to drive and talk if they use a “hands-free” device, but even this begs the question of where their attention should be, i.e. on the road.

I honestly wonder what soccer moms with an SUV full of kids are thinking when they drive down busy streets juggling a latte in one hand and a cellphone in the other. Don’t they love their kids?

Local police have told me writing tickets for this offense is like shooting fish in a barrel. The first offense is usually just a warning, but some people never learn and have piled up three or four tickets.

Once, when stuck in crawling traffic on I-95, I actually saw a guy reading a book. I’ve seen other drivers shaving or putting on make-up. Give me a break!

In the words of the NPR “Car Talk” guys’ bumper sticker: “Drive Now, Talk Later”. But I’d carry that message to other travel environments as well, especially on the train.

When people leave the personal cocoon of their private car and move into mass transit they cannot take their selfish behaviors with them. In my car I can turn up the radio and enjoy a cigar, but on the train I have to share my ride with others.

For several years now the CT Rail Commuter Council has been trying to persuade Metro-North to establish “Quiet Cars” on commuter trains… cellphone- free environments where riders seeking peace don’t need to hear some self-centered hedge-fund dealer yelling at his trading desk in a voice that carries through the entire car.

Amtrak pioneered the “Quiet Car”® concept to rider acclaim, but Metro-North refuses even to experiment with the idea, instead pushing its “please be considerate of other riders” public service campaign, to only modest success.

If we used to have smoking and non-smoking cars, why can’t we have “Quiet Cars” as well?

What I enjoy most is watching cellphone users with the new Bluetooth wireless ear clips, chattering away to nobody in particular… “It’s me.” Who cares? “I’m on the train”. Yeah, I can tell. “Just thought I’d check in.” I wish I could check out. “What’s happening?” “My blood pressure is rising!”

But wait, fellow travelers… it could possibly get worse. Recently the FAA was considering allowing cellphone use in-flight. Could you imagine a 5 hour trans-con, crammed into a center seat, between two people determined to talk the entire way… and who’ve brought extra back-up batteries just to be sure? Fortunately, saner minds prevailed and that idea was shot down.

On a recent flight I had to ask the Gen-X’er sitting next to me three times to turn off her cell phone and stop texting her “buds” as we revved up for take-off. Finally, a call to the stewardess separated the gal from her toys until we landed. But if looks could kill…

OK…I’ll admit that I do use my cellphone on the train, but I always make the call short, and cup my hand around the mouthpiece… something like “I’ll be home by 7, but you guys go ahead and eat.” If a longer call is necessary I get out of my seat and use the vestibule area so as not to intrude on others’ peace. And to make sure that incoming calls don’t bother anyone, I leave my phone on vibrate.

Remember: A ticket on the train buys you transportation, not the right to annoy your fellow passengers with a recitation of your woes. And when you’re driving, will you please hang up?

December 13, 2008

Bankruptcy is the Only Way to Save Detroit

One of the most chilling images of the debacle that was the Vietnam war was a US soldier using his Zippo lighter to ignite the thatched hut of a small village, setting it ablaze as residents looked on in shock. “We had to destroy it to save it,” he said.

The same is true with the big three auto makers in Detroit. Bankruptcy is the only way to save them.

THE UNIONS:
Any tax dollars spent on “bailing out” Detroit would be a waste. Sure, they might prop up a few over-paid UAW jobs and pensions for awhile and maybe keep some local auto dealers afloat, but they are all doomed.

UAW auto workers make an average of 30% more than non-union labor at Japanese auto plants in the US. Union wages and benefits add more than $2000 to the cost of a big-three built car. Sorry guys… the party’s over.

Bankruptcy will allow Detroit to go back to square one and negotiate reasonable labor contracts. Sure the union workers would be screwed, but they’ve been living pretty well for years, even getting paid for not working.

THE FRONT OFFICE:
Big three’s management must go. These guys drove their industry into this problem agreeing to fat union contracts while designing cars that Americans don’t want.
Robert Lutz, is the Vice Chairman of GM now in charge of the make-or-break Chevy Volt electric car. Yet he admits he doesn’t believe in global warming and recently described the car’s potential buyers as “no make-up” lady environmentalists with hairy legs.

This guy needs to be taken out of the executive gene pool. Ignorance and arrogance like Lutz’s have no place in Detroit’s future.

Grounding your fleet of corporate jets and agreeing to work for a dollar a year are sacrifices of too little and far too late.

THE PRODUCT:
Why has Detroit continued to build gas-guzzling behemoths while the Japanese have innovated with hybrids to great success? Gas may be cheap today, but the days of $4 and $5 a gallon will return.

Watching “60 Minutes” the other night, I heard the Saudis unapologetically explain that because their future is in selling oil, they’ll do all they can to stop an electric car from being built.

Detroit’s big-three are clearly OPEC’s best customers, so why not let Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar bail them out?

But please, do not waste another US taxpayer or Treasury dollar on a bailout of Detroit. They’ve squandered their own money. Don’t let them misspend ours.
Detroit and the big-three’s unions are victims only of their own greed and incompetence. A bailout is like handing booze and the car keys to an alcoholic because he promises to drive to an AA meeting. Bankruptcy would give them a clean slate, like going to rehab.

THE FUTURE:
One silver lining: Senator Chris Dodd’s observation that Detroit used to build more than cars and trucks. GM also used to build passenger trains and buses.

So in a post-bankruptcy auto industry, let’s use their engineering expertise to think of transportation as more than one person in two tons of steel guzzling gasoline.

As of today the US doesn’t have a single large domestic rail passenger car builder: Kawasaki, Bombardier, Alstom and the others are all foreigners with token domestic plants. This lack of competition drives prices up: the new M8 cars on Metro-North cost $2.5 million each.

Imagine a post-bankruptcy Detroit putting its engineering skill, production facilities and labor to work on mass transit and maybe, just maybe, there’s a silver lining in this mess.