Pedalling Upwind --

Why Halting Highway Construction

Belongs on the Bicyclist's Agenda

Conference Velo Mondiale, Montreal, September, 1992

Mike Vandeman

Bicycling has been around for about a hundred years, as has the automobile. In that time, bicycling has steadily lost ground, while the automobile has steadily expanded its power and sphere of influence. Let's be honest. In over a hundred years, in spite of the efforts of millions of enthusiastic activists, bicycling has made no meaningful progress, relative to the automobile, whatsoever!

Why? Obviously, because we have allowed the automobile and its proponents to take over our lives, our natural resources, our land, our time, our government, and our wealth. We ourselves have fallen for the same myths that have imprisoned the whole world in a race to see who can squander the world's natural legacy the fastest. We own cars. We fill them with oil and gasoline. We drive them to our backpacking trips and to our Sierra Club meetings. We support our government in its rush to kowtow to the every whim of the auto users. We allow our tax dollars to be spent paving over our most valuable farm land, putting out car fires, dealing with traffic accidents, signalizing streets, and providing everyone with free parking. We are our own worst enemies!

As the highway lobby bulldozes aside the needs of the local community in order to rape West Oakland (California) once again with a 20-lane freeway (no, that is not a misprint; the right-of-way is 262 feet!), mild-mannered bicycling spokesman Alex Zuckermann merely asks "that bicycle access be incorporated into the design of the proposed Cypress [freeway]". There seems to be a bit of a reality gap here. Who with any sense would want to bicycle near a freeway?! Bicyclists, because they exercise (even near cars!), incur a much greater risk from air pollution than drivers and even walkers. They, of all people, would seem to have an interest in clean air, and hence in stopping the progress of the freeway juggernaut.

It is high time that bicyclists, transit advocates, and other pedestrians stop begging for the crumbs dropped from the table of the auto users. We have all stolen the homes and habitats of our wildlife. Wildlife have no way to defend themselves. But bicyclists don't have that excuse. We vote. We spend money on the products of the auto and oil industries. We pay the taxes that subsidize the automobile-dependent government, the auto-dependent industry, the auto-dependent landscape.

No significant progress will ever be made until bicyclists stand up on their hind legs and demand an end to their imprisonment. We can't do this while surviving on hand-me-down crumbs from those with the real power. We have to break the back of the automobile/highway system: stop voting for pro-highway politicians; stop spending our hard-earned money (what's left after the auto/highway lobby takes its cut) on auto company and oil company products; start demanding an end to the welfare system for the (rich) auto users. And in general make sure that our every movement tends in that direction, and not in the direction of more accommodating of the automobile (and the truck and other relatives of the auto). Nobody is forcing us to buy the products that finance the auto/highway lobby.

Are we slow learners? Isn't 100 years of enslavement enough? Lincoln freed the involuntary slaves in 1861. We need another Lincoln to free the voluntary slaves.

How does highway construction harm bicycling? The construction of highways, parking lots, and other automobile facilities promotes auto dependence: it makes it easier (initially) to drive farther and faster, and hence causes people to drive farther and more often. (This has been demonstrated by the research of Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.) At first, having quick access to a wider range of jobs, homes, shopping, and other opportunities seems like a benefit. However, congestion puts a quick end to the convenience, leaving us with nothing but an expensive addiction.

Expansion of the highway system causes urban sprawl, a form of land use optimized for the automobile user, where bicycling is extremely inconvenient and unpleasant. Bicycling is incompatible with urban sprawl, just as it is incompatible with the other effects of the automobile -- air pollution, noise pollution, and collision danger. Hence, bicyclists have a large stake in halting urban sprawl and its instigators, highway construction and highway expansion.

How can the movement toward increasing auto dependence be halted? Through information: we must publicize the obvious fact that there is no other solution to the global environmental problems that we face. Walking, bicycling, public transit, rail freight, and travel avoidance are the only way out of our dilemma. However, most adults apparently cannot learn this rapidly enough to avert disaster! Only our children have the ability to absorb information fast enough. Most adults in the world have heard of global warming, and yet continue to contribute to it every day. Young children, on the other hand, aren't yet "sophisticated" enough to question what they learn, particularly if they learn it through nonverbal means.

In other words, it is extremely important that children see demonstrated around them the behaviour that we want them to learn. Psychologists tell us that most of what we learn in life, we learn by the age of 6. From birth, children should be surrounded by people who walk, bicycle, use public transit, and do not own a car! They should grow up in a neighborhood where all essential shopping, schools, parks, libraries, and other necessities are within easy walking distance.

At the earliest possible age, they should experience the wilderness, where they will learn the purpose of life and "how things are supposed to be". Creeks in urban areas can be opened up and used as wildlife corridors and as proper introductions to life on the Earth for our children. Wilderness should be one of the first visions that children see, after they enter this world, since everything they see teaches them "how things are supposed to be". No wonder so many adults act without regard for nature and other cultures! Their first view of the world is a sterile manmade environment! They grow up "knowing" through nonverbal learning (the most powerful kind) that "travel = the automobile".

For our children, for native peoples, and for native animals and plants, we must designate outside the human-dominated areas of the world wildlife corridors and preserves off-limits to humans, wilderness parks for training our children (infants, especially) and ourselves in the true ways of the world, and aboriginal reserves that the aborigines control. After these inviolate areas have been designated, then we can talk about converting existing cities to ecocities.

Roads, highways, and freeways present insuperable barriers and environmental insults to everyone, but especially to wildlife, native peoples, children, and the poor, none of whom can protect themselves. If we protect them, I believe, we will automatically protect ourselves as well. Everyone is aware of the environmental costs of oil drilling, rainforest burning, and the automobile, but few people, even among environmentalists, have given much thought to the destructive power of road, highway, and freeway construction. Roads are taken for granted. Most people have allowed themselves to become so dependent on the automobile that the destruction caused by cars and roads has become invisible to them.

Roads are at the crux of almost every current environmental problem, and hence, halting the expansion of the highway system (and other parts of our auto-dependent culture) is one of the most effective spigots by which we can choke off environmental destruction. It is impossible to drill for oil, log, or even deluge the wilderness with tourists without roads. Roads are key. And, of course, while diverting funds away from road construction, we can make them available to promote (in order of priority) walking, bicycling, rail, and buses (or even to pay off the national debt or house the homeless -- equally worthy causes).

Roadbuilding is usually rationalized by saying that pollution is caused by traffic congestion, and that therefore what we need to do is widen roads so that traffic can flow smoothly. This is the

Old (linear) model:

Free--higher-->Average--lower-->Fuel Consumption--Lower->Overall

Flowing Speeds & Emissions in Fuel Con-

Traffic Individual Vehicle sumption &


in City

Recent research by Newman and Kenworthy demonstrated that what actually happens is better described by the

New (feedback) model (free-flowing traffic):

----------------------------------->Increased Use----------

| of Cars |

| | |

| higher |

| | |

| v v

Free---lower-->Fuel Consumpt.--lower->Overall<--higher--Decr. Use

Flowing & Emissions in Fuel Con- of Public

Traffic Individual Vehicle sumption & Transit,

| Emissions Biking, &

| in City Walking

| ^ ^

| | |

| higher |

| | |

---------------------------->Longer Distance of Travel-----


New (feedback) model (congested traffic):

--------------------------------->Decreased Use------------

| of Cars |

| | |

| lower |

| | |

| v v

Con---higher-->Fuel Consumpt.-higher->Overall<---lower--Incr. Use

gested & Emissions in Fuel Con- of Public

Traffic Individual Vehicle sumption & Transit,

| Emissions Biking, &

| in City Walking

| ^ ^

| | |

| lower |

| | |

-------------------------->Shorter Distance Travelled------

(From Newman, P. W. G. and J. R. Kenworthy, "The Transport Energy Trade-Off: Fuel-Efficient Traffic Versus Fuel-Efficient Cities". Transportation Research-A, Vol.22A, No.3, pp.163-174, 1988.)

Since the road lobby likes to use the medical model, let's continue the analogy. You go to your doctor complaining of nasal congestion. Your doctor responds "Nasal congestion! We'll have to widen your nose!" Clearly, the response to traffic congestion, as to nasal congestion, should be to attack the cause, not the symptom! Let's stamp out auto dependence where it arises, and stop expanding the road system! Join the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium!

I would like to close with one new argument for bicycling instead of driving. Psychological research has shown that rats raised in a stimulating environment actually increase in intelligence over their cousins raised in a stimulus-barren environment. Riding in a car insulates you from 99% of the sensations -- sights, smells, sounds, etc. -- that you would normally experience when walking or bicycling. In other words, riding in a car decreases your intelligence, and bicycling raises your intelligence! (But didn't we already somehow know this?)


Barry Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet

Dave Foreman, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, New York: Harmony Books, c. 1991

Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

Norman Myers, ed., Gaia: An Atlas of Planet Management, Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, c. 1984

Richard Register, Ecocity Berkeley, Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, c.1987

Cities and Automobile Dependence. An International Sourcebook, Peter W. Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, Gower Publishing Co.,Old Post Road, Brookfield, VT 05036, c.1989 ($79.95)

Transport Energy Conservation Policies for Australian Cities. Strategies for Reducing Automobile Dependence. Peter Newman, Jeff Kenworthy, and Tom Lyons, Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Murdoch University, Western Australia 6150 (1990)

"The Solution to Route 20 and a New Vision for Brisbane", Citizens Against Route Twenty, 50 Exeter St., Ashgrove Qld 4060, Australia ($19)

"Getting the Most out of California's Transportation Dollar", Senate Advisory Commission on Cost Control in [CA] State Government, Milton G. Gordon, Chair, 1990 [available from Joint Publications, State Capitol, Box 942849, Sacramento, CA 94249-0001 for $4.60 + sales tax)]

Stanley Hart, "Huge City Subsidies for Autos, Trucks", California Transit, July-Sept., 1986.

Jill Jaeger, "Developing Policies for Responding to Climatic Change", World Meteorological Organization, April, 1988.

P.W.G. Newman and J.R. Kenworthy, "The use and abuse of driving cycle research: clarifying the relationship between traffic congestion, energy and emissions", Transportation Quarterly, Vol.

38, 1984, 615-635.

P.W.G Newman, J.R. Kenworthy, and T.J. Lyons, "Does Free-Flowing Traffic Save Energy and Lower Emissions in Cities?", Search, Vol. 19, No.5/6, September/November, 1988.

P.W.G Newman, J.R. Kenworthy, and T.J. Lyons, "Transport Energy Conservation Policies for Australian Cities", End of Grant Report, Project No. 836, August, 1987.

J.R. Kenworthy, H. Rainford, P.W.G. Newman, and T.J. Lyons, "Fuel Consumption, Time Saving and Freeway Speed Limits", Traffic Engineering and Control, September, 1986.

Paper Summary:

The bicycle and the autombile have both been around the same length of time -- about 100 years. However, in that time, automobile use, auto facilities, and auto dependence have increased enormously, while bicycling has remained a tiny blip on the horizon. Why has this happened, and what can we do to change it? Road construction and road expansion are the key! Only via road construction can the destruction of the natural and human environment proceed, and only by putting an end to road construction can we save the environment and make bicycling possible, popular, and enjoyable. Walking, bicycling, rail, and other clean forms of transit are the only form of transportation that are compatible with the continuence of life on the Earth!

The Author:

I have an M.A. in Mathematics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of California. Five years ago I began campaigning to stop highway expansion throughout the world. I do this by gathering research on the negative effects of road construction and giving this information to all who listen.