Jim Motavalli Interview

Jim Motavalli
Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli is the editor of E: The Environmental Magazine, and has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon, and many other publications. His latest book, Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, explores the possibilities and merits of alternative means of transportation. His first book was Forward Drive: The Race to Build "Clean" Cars for the Future, a look at electric, fuel-cell, and other types of non-gasoline-powered cars. He lives with his family in Connecticut.


BookSense.com: Personal transportation in the USA is an issue often connected to individual rights. Do you see communities' rights (the right to clean air, to not be stuck in traffic, etc.) ever outweighing these individual "rights"?

Jim Motavalli: Mass transit opponents always cite the fact that Americans "like" to drive, as if it were some kind of feudal right. In the first place, that preference is eroding in the face of intractable traffic jams in nearly every metropolitan area, and second, there's no "right" to drive. Municipalities can and do restrict car access, and some -- like Singapore -- actually restrict the number of cars (via a licensing system). In Latin America, car-free days brought on by horrible air quality are mandatory. So, yes, individual rights in this case can be outweighed by the greater good of breathable air.

What kind of shift (political or financial) would be needed to switch more commuters to trains? Are the freight companies (who own most of the train tracks) interested in having more passenger trains running? Do you know if the transport companies are independent, or are they tied to other companies who might wish to keep people in cars?

The Bush Administration has proposed a radical restructuring of Amtrak that would effectively end passenger service, particularly on long-haul routes. They would open the rails to competition, but no company is likely to want to offer serious passenger service, and the freight operators don't care about it, either. The likelihood, instead, is that there will continue to be some privately offered luxury services for tourists, but no longer a viable national passenger rail system. We're very far politically from offering any serious incentives to get commuters out of cars and into trains. What it would take is higher gasoline prices (and I support raising gas taxes, a la Europe, to make that a reality) and even more serious congestion problems than we already have. The latter condition is rapidly evolving, but the former remains unlikely with oilmen in charge of the political process.

I don't believe in conspiracies to keep people in cars. It's (unfortunately) just the American way.

Why are trains slower now than a hundred years ago?

Because we've failed to keep up with innovations in equipment, and badly neglected our rail infrastructure. We've only electrified a small part of the system, so we can't run the kind of high-speed electric trains that are commonplace in Europe and Japan. In many places, tracks are outmoded or in poor repair, further hampering progress. It's true, the American rail commuter of 1880 probably moved faster than the hapless traveler of today.

The major part of car journeys in this country are people commuting to and from work. However, public transport is sometimes not competitive compared to the cost of driving. If we are to get people off the road, train and bus speeds need to rise and costs need to fall. What do you think are the first steps toward these goals?

Breaking GridlockThis is one of the main points of my book, Breaking Gridlock. I believe mass transit has to be competitive in time and convenience with plane and car travel. This is beginning to happen with the popular Acela Amtrak service between Boston and Washington, and with certain high-speed ferry links, but for the most part, traveling by mass transit is much slower and even more expensive than driving or flying. We're beginning to see a political consensus emerging to support high-speed transit. Cities are willing to subsidize very expensive light rail systems, and states are coming together and forming high-speed rail compacts. In Florida, Jeb Bush vetoed a state high-speed rail network, but the people overrode him in a referendum vote. People want these services, and they're willing to pay for them, too.

Doesn't the government basically subsidize car and plane travel already? So maybe if someone took up this issue, they would begin subsidizing light rail and other commuter systems.

Yes, the auto industry is subsidized with tens of millions of dollars every year via the highway lobby, and the public pays for airport construction and maintenance. It's interesting to note that the entire net loss suffered by Amtrak since its inception in 1971 is approximately equal to one year's highway subsidy.

In the early 1990s there was much talk of a hydrogen-powered bus (which was on trial in Canada), yet here we are 10 years later and most cities still seem to use diesel buses which put out enough particulate matter, or soot, to increase cancer rates along their routes. Has anything happened (decreased cost of bus production/increased political will to use a "green"-powered bus) in the intervening period to bring cleaner buses/mass transit to actual use?

I do think more buses could be going into service, particularly electric battery buses and hybrid gas-electrics. Both are proven technologies, with private sector suppliers. Chattanooga, Tennessee, which offers a free all-electric shuttle around its downtown, offers a very useful model. Some natural gas buses are going into service, as at LAX. Fuel cell buses are still in the experimental stage, but offer much promise. I also think highly of dedicated bus corridors, which can operate like trains and deliver faster, more reliable service to commuters. And, of course, dedicated buses can also be alternative fuel.

I really like the idea of dedicated bus lanes. Are many cities doing this?

The best examples of dedicated bus lanes are in Curitiba, Brazil (where they constitute the major transportation system) and Ottawa, Canada. Systems are under consideration in many other cities, including Los Angeles (which already has "signal priority" systems to speed the bus along), Detroit and Las Vegas.

Have you seen any realization from the public that a hydrogen-powered vehicle is no more dangerous than a gasoline-powered one?

Forward DriveIt would be impossible to completely allay the public's fears on this question, because hydrogen-powered vehicles have not yet addressed all of the safety questions. Hydrogen is an odorless, colorless gas. It burns without a visible flame, and does not radiate heat, making it difficult to detect. It is tremendously flammable. I wouldn't minimize the safety problems (which can be addressed with reinforced tanks, and great efforts to control leaks), but I don't think they're inherently any worse than those posed by another very flammable substance, gasoline. We've gotten accustomed to seeing cars explode in fireballs on television, and I've yet to see Congress hold hearings on the dangers of gasoline!

When do you think fuel cells will reach the same over-the-counter price (i.e. ignoring all subsidies for the fuel cells and other energy sources) as other sources of power?

The fuel cell is technically viable -- and very reliable -- today, but I wouldn't expect prices to come down to consumer levels until 2010 at the earliest. Research is moving very fast, and costs are plummeting, but there's still a large gap to be closed.

Twenty years ago in the UK an individual electric car (the C-5) came and went without making impact on transportation. Now, we have the Segway scooter. Do you see any potential for individual transport vehicles like these golf carts in disguise?

No. The Segway seems gimmicky to me, and hardly justifies the hype. I also see tremendous liability problems. I see more of a future in alternative-powered motorcycles (battery versions are already being built) or one-passenger electric cars like the Corbin Sparrow. They've sold nearly 400 of them.

If people are going to buy a new car, which ones would you recommend?

I recommend the gas-electric Toyota Prius -- a huge hit with Hollywood celebrities -- or the new Honda Civic hybrid, which gets better than 50 miles per gallon without compromising in any way.

How about telecommuting? What's happening in the work-from-home field?

Managing TeleworkTelecommuting is one of the most promising ways to reduce gridlock, and it's expanding rapidly. In 2000, the "Telework America 2000" report said that telecommuting was growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year. Jack Nilles, the author of Managing Telework, says he expects to see 40 million people telecommuting by 2030. He projects that Southern California could reduce daily trip generation by five to 10 percent by 2020 if the region embarks on a massive campaign of commuter education and marketing. An Arthur D. Little study concluded that if only 12 percent of the U.S. workforce telecommuted a single day a week, it would result in 1.6 million fewer car accidents annually and 1,100 fewer traffic-related deaths.

What are you reading?

I just finished Shakey, Neil Young's biography. I consider it a tribute to author Jimmy McDonough that I made it through all 800 pages, even though I'm not a huge Neil Young fan. It's a book that criticizes and argues with its subject, and cares passionately. Too many biographies today are either unmitigated attacks or puff portraits.

I'm also reading books about shopping for a forthcoming book project.

If you worked in a bookshop, what books would be on your staff picks shelf?

A Walk With Love and Death by Hans Koning
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
Independence Day by Richard Ford
Continental Drift by Russell Banks
A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Collected Stories Independence DayContinental Drift
A Civil ActionFast Food Nation

Author photo by Neil Swanson.