- There is a dream, a universal dream, call it the Ur-dream
of travel. No sooner does some Shangri-la of the map enter my mind, than
I'm off on a seamless, earth-friendly ride. Forget traffic. Forget some
road-rager shooting nasty looks and tailpipe toxins at my windshield. And,
oh yes, best of all, "Forget guilt," as the Toyota billboard
- To be sure, savoring some myth of mobility without mess
is appealing. What alarms me, however, is that many folks are living this
dream of a free ride. They don't realize that the pollution-free vehicle
is a fantasy and that no way can we glide down an open road in a vehicle
that ruptures no habitat, puffs off no global-warming excrescence, dirties
no sullen skies, and depends on no tanking up, nor spilling of oil.
- Having traced the full arc of the automobile's swath
across the landscape for decades, I am convinced that a "clean car"
is an oxymoron. There is no free ride. No matter how efficient the engine,
the automobile remains an enemy of the environment and society. It disrupts
habitat and kills wildlife. It forces us to collectively spend 8 billion
hours a year stuck in traffic, burning more fuel. It menaces anyone on
bike or foot. It displaces mass transit, immobilizing the 9 percent of
households that can't afford a car while forcing millions of overworked
Americans to use a ton of steel and wheel to fetch a quart of milk.
- In short, no technology, no magical engine-fix, but a
massive political, economic, infrastructural, and cultural change is needed
to reject the automobile as the dominant mode of transportation.
- Today, emissions from U.S. cars are the largest single
contributor to global-warming greenhouse gases. The paving that has hardtopped
the nation covers one-third of our cities and encourages the sprawl that
increases these emissions and consumes even more energy-and makes it futile
for car-glutted America to lecture other nations on climate policies.
- True, a new generation of clean cars could cut down the
petroleum consumption that causes us to spend a quarter of our military
budget in the Middle East. But one-third of the energy a vehicle uses in
its life goes into manufacturing it in the first place, so it will be years
before the clean car can even begin to dampen disasters such as global
- Less globally, consider the domestic expense: our highways
cost millions a mile-$300,000 a mile simply to repave potholes-and, everywhere,
congestion grows even as new roads and widened roads are planned.
- No matter how efficient the new electric or hybrid vehicles
become, the car and its highways will remain the major agents of sprawl,
the primary species slayers and wetland eradicators. As we try to build
our way out of traffic jams with more roads, more lanes, and more interchanges,
our roads create the pincer movement toward all our environmental ills:
covering greenfields with subdivisions, chewing up 2 million acres of farmland
a year. How could a new engine alleviate such ills? Years ago, Lewis Mumford
offered an axiom. Building a highway to reduce congestion, he said, is
like letting out your belt to lose weight. Our beltways do just that.
- The American Association of State Highway and Transportation
Officials' handbook, the engineers' aged guidebook for "improvements"
in highway construction, has taught us how to straighten, widen, and expand
roads from sea to shining sea for a generation or more. Still, as roads
breed more roads, they cancel so-called improvements. Although safety devices
have reduced the chance of traffic fatalities, we still register 41,500
traffic deaths a year, nearly the same as a quarter century ago, because
our mileage has doubled.
- Thus the hills and valleys echo with the roar of backhoes
and bulldozers. The roadbuilders advance along I-73 to the south, Corridor
H in West Virginia, and State Highway 130 in Texas. Superhighways like
I-69 in the Midwest dribble toxic streams of asphalt north to south. To
be sure, the hype and hope of alternative vehicles have mutated, as crucial
questions arise: from where does the electric charge originate? From burning
coal, from nuclear plants, from oil. Electric cars are not "emission
free." They are "emissions elsewhere."
- Even if clean cars could pass every test, experience
suggests that change would still be far too glacial. Since 1991, the number
of America's alternative-fueled vehicles has grown from 151,000 to 402,790,
according to the Department of Energy, advancing at a rate of 25,000 a
year (including buses). Compare that number to the 15 million conventional
cars sold annually and you wonder: why revamp on such a costly and complicated
scale? Why not curb the car itself?
- The experience of the caretakers of our national parks
makes the point most vividly. A steward at Yellowstone underscores how
the dream of limitless mobility has produced an environmental nightmare.
Widening roads is "a big industry," Eleanor D. Williams, chief
landscape architect at Yellowstone, describes the thousand cuts made by
bulldozers at the park lately. The continuing excavations stem from the
need to serve the massive RVs causing traffic jams. "The RVs get bigger
every year and there are more of them," Williams says of the invasion.
"They are bus-size, pulling jeeps, pulling boats." In blasting
out the cliffs for roads to accommodate these cumbersome intruders, Yellowstone
consumes a fourth of its $12 million yearly road budget.
- As we chat in the rustic lodge on the fringes of the
park one August day, Williams seems more than appalled. With 29 miles of
roads under construction, Yellowstone's environment is forced to adapt
to vehicles. The delicate alpine landscape, its mushy soil saturated with
water, will not hold. The steep grades resist any easy fix-up for new roads.
Even as old roads studded with potholes get ignored, wider roads encourage
more traffic that adds to the congestion.
- Again the question arises: how could natural-gas-propelled
cars, hybrids, or any alternative concoction stop the gateway communities
that swell on the wildlands' perimeters? How could a clean car decrease
the flight from car-decimated cities and suburbs to the motels and strips
that fatten the vehicular free-for-all?
- "The Dark Side of the American Dream," the
most recent report from the Sierra Club's Challenge to Sprawl campaign,
cites the costs and consequences of car-bred sprawl. Among them are traffic
congestion, longer commutes, worsening air and water pollution, increased
flooding, and the loss of farmland, open fields, forests, and wetlands.
- How can we patch and de-pave these places? What we require
is "Communities Before Cars," as one Ottawa group calls itself.
We must create communities so close-knit, so accessible that two-thirds
of our vehicle miles no longer go to shopping and dropping; cities and
small towns so centered by remediating "brownfields" around abandoned
factories, so bolstered by enhancing their core as the walking hub that
the two- and three-car garage will vanish. There are some promising examples
that should be studied and emulated in every metropolitan area.
- Urban-growth boundaries in Portland, Oregon, and greenbelts
in San Francisco preserve the open space that binds us close to home. Inch
by inch, row by row, states are buying up green space, instituting growth-management
plans, and, in recent elections, voting for these measures in greater numbers
than ever. Communities are instigating and reordering planning and zoning
to revitalize Main Street with public transit, pedestrian mobility, and
bicycling. Ridership and new lines advance, and not just in the subway
kingdom of New York and older cities. In Dallas, an epicenter of automobility,
the new DART line has proved so successful that it's expanding. Despite
a federal transportation bill (TEA-21) that pads highway-building, and
policies that axe funds for trains, rail revenues and ridership are up,
as are rail-construction projects. The vital North-South Rail Link is attracting
support. A high-speed rail in Boston comes this year, and a Midwest Regional
Rail Initiative is moving forward. These are the true alternative vehicles
that will make our cities livable.
- We need more of such dreams come true. We need new transportation
and land-use techniques, not new automotive technology. We need environmental
awareness, not environmentalists pining to put the pedal to the metal guiltlessly.
We need to raise consciousness. "Here in Motor City," Vice President
Al Gore, today's self-proclaimed sprawl-buster, once declared, "cars
have done more than fuel our commerce. Cars have freed the American spirit
and given us the chance to chase our dreams."
- But must we chase this dream at 90 miles an hour sealed
in a private cocoon? Can't we find a walkable way to reach that shore whose
lights beckoned Jay Gatsby in his yellow Rolls Royce? Can't we, at last-at
long last-trade in the car muse for a new vision? "You are what you
drive," one advertisement said. But you are also the dreams you pursue.
- Jane Holtz Kay is an architecture and planning critic
for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over
America and How We Can Take It Back (University of California Press, 1998).