Car Sick
By Jane Holtz Kay

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 advises.
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 warming.
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).