The Hamilton Spectator for July 4, 2005 carried an editorial by Mark McNeil on the city's aerotropolis plan ("Planes, gains and automobiles", page A17). With all respect to Mr. McNeil, the editorial is an embarrassment of third-rate reasoning and downright sophistry. McNeil writes:
Toyota's decision to build a new $800-million assembly plant in Woodstock will have fabulous economic consequences for Hamilton and should be a major driving force behind the city's so-called aerotropolis plans.
As companies clamour to sell goods and services to the new giant facility many of them will see Hamilton's airport as a key part of their business strategy and will want to open up quarters close by.
That's precisely the goal behind the aerotropolis: Take advantage of the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport, with its new highway access, by developing the lands around it for commercial and light industrial businesses that need air transportation.
This is absurd. Does McNeil really think Toyota is going to start transporting cars and car parts by airplane? With fuel costs a hundred times higher than rail and shipping, Toyota would price its cars right out of the market.
McNeil is simply dragging the assembly plant into the equation as a red herring. Woodstock sits at the crossing of Hwy 401 and Hwy 403, halfway between Detroit and Toronto (and halfway between London and Hamilton, for that matter). Woodstock also sits on rail lines that connect to London, Windsor, and the Ohio Valley to the west, Port Stanley and Simcoe to the south, and Brantford, Hamilton, Fort Erie, and Toronto to the east. These rail lines also connect to shipping ports for transit through the Great Lakes system.
Toyota picked Woodstock because Canadian workers are well educated and protected by public health care, Woodstock is close to Toyota's existing Cambridge plant and associated parts suppliers, land in Woodstock is cheap, and it's well-placed on Ontario's surface transport network.
In the same way that commercial development around the harbour was built on marine transportation, the aerotropolis would be an economic cluster around air travel.
Air transport never accounted for more than two percent of total tonne-kilometres shipped, even during the cheap gas heyday of the mid-1990s. As fuel prices continue to climb, even this rate will shrink. Aerotropolis is not going to be able to exploit the Woodstock plant, because cars, like the vast majority of goods, are not made with parts carried by airplanes.
Therefore, the "economic cluster" will have to be around air passenger travel: motels, car rentals, airport limo services, park-and-fly lots, etc.
This is the engine that's going to drive Hamilton's future economy? Heaven help us.
McNeil dismisses the projections of "peak oil" theorists, who believe global oil production is peaking and entering an inevitable decline, by claiming the argument "ignores the inevitability of new fuels coming onto the market in coming decades." He then notes the increase in air travel over the last ten or twenty years as his proof that air travel will continue to increase. This ignores the fact that air travel increased during a period of cheap energy, and that air travel has stagnated as energy prices have gone up.
More generally, McNeil takes the position of the cornucopians - people who believe that science and technology, coupled with free enterprise, make limitless economic growth possible (or "inevitable," in McNeil's words). In their defence, cornucopians point to the track record of capitalism over the past two centuries. Perhaps a little history will put McNeil's unbounded faith in the marketplace into some badly needed context.
No civilization throughout recorded history has escaped the arithmetic of energy depletion. When a civilization tries to grow faster than its energy supply can meet its needs, the civilization goes into crisis. The warning signs of an energy depletion crisis - soil degradation, food stock depletion, climate change due to deforestation and mining, runoff and pollution of water systems, rising energy prices, political turmoil, an increasingly speculative economy - should be familiar to anyone with any awareness of current events.
McNeil write, "It's also reasonable to expect the automobile will continue to be a major part of our way of life for the foreseeable future. And Hamilton stands to gain, not only from Toyota's new automotive plant, but also through major investments from Ford and General Motors."
Well, yes. As long as we continue designing our built environment around car dependence, we all but guarantee the continued prominence of cars. However, as the cost of using those cars continues to rise, the money we spend navigating our car-based transportation system is excluded from other areas of the economy. This margin could be the difference between Hamilton surviving, or buckling under, the coming years of energy scarcity. 'There ain't no such thing as a free lunch', even for cornucopians.
On a final note, the new Toyota plant is expected to crank out 100,000 RAV4s a year. The RAV4, which is nominally an SUV but is small and fuel-efficient and handles like a car, has increased its share of auto sales significantly while larger, less fuel efficient SUVs have stagnated. Perhaps consumers know something the editorial team at the Spec don't know...
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