May 23, 1993

Chris Leman, Kristin Pauly, and Preston Schiller

Institute for Transportation and the Environment

85 East Roanoke Street

Seattle, Washington 98102

Re: "Rethinking H.O.V. -- High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes and the Public Interest", May, 1993


Thank you for sending me your excellent paper. It is indeed time to mention that the Emperor is buck naked; that the appellation "HOV" is merely the latest in a long, long series of excuses for paving over more of our most valuable land.

[Incidentally, we had better begin removing that pavement soon. Richard Register and I and a group of friends helped someone rip out an asphalt parking lot, in order to create a garden. It was dangerous, exhausing work. I ended up in the emergency room with an extremely painful foot (that luckily turned out to be only swollen, not broken). In other words, what was created with heavy machinery will also have to be removed by means of heavy machinery, and that will best be done before we run out of oil!]

Remember when we needed better highways for "national defense"? When we needed them so that we could see "scenery"? When we needed them because the old ones were "full"? I-80, which the California Department of Freeways (oops, Transportation) is desperate to widen, is only used to 66% of its vehicle capacity, as are all of the other freeways being widened (mostly by means of the incantation "HOV") in the Bay Area (they are empty at night). Now we apparently need them to create jobs. Before that, it was "access to jobs". Is there anything that a good highway widening won't cure?

Glad you asked. Yes, there are a number of minor inconveniences associated with roads, quite aside from the fact that they encourage the use of pollution-belching motor vehicles. I think that you should broaden your paper to include these issues, rather than just looking at HOV lanes from the "transportation and air quality" perspective. (The "Bulldozer People" are masters of the narrow viewpoint, for example presenting road construction as merely an engineering and economic issue.)

A great deal of air-, water-, and noise-pollution is created during road construction. A lot of energy and resources are wasted. (Most transportation is not an end in itself, but merely an attempt to compensate for people and goods not being in the right place. For example, I receive no value from the transportation of my food hundreds or even thousands of miles to my grocer. It is merely compensation for the sad fact that we have destroyed all of the good farmland nearby. I love the Berkeley Farmer's Market, but it depresses me that the farmers all have to drive at least 50 miles to get here.)

Road construction destroys farmland and scarce open space. It destroys, degrades, and fragments wildlife habitat, driving wildlife to extinction: many animals are afraid to cross a road, for fear they will be seen by predators; they are thus cut off from many potential mates and important food resources. Hence, genetic diversity is lessened. Human presence (facilitated by road building) drives them even further away from the resources that they need to survive. (Of course, wildlife don't seem to be a priority for most people these days; many people who grow up in cities -- probably the same ones who act as if milk comes from a carton -- rarely think about them or consider them in their planning. Signs announcing the entrance to a city tell you the population, but only the human population; the animals and plants who also call that place home are, at best, an afterthought. At transportation and even "Ecocity" conferences, humans get together to decide how they will divide up the world; wildlife are rarely mentioned. And yet, wildlife can be very helpful to our cause! The "Bulldozer People" can argue (and do) that highway expansion is good for air quality, but there is no way they can say that it is good for wildlife.) Restricting all roadbeds to a maximum of 2 lanes would help animals and pedestrians get across them. I truly believe that protecting wildlife (I include plants) would also have the effect of protecting ourselves.

Road construction wastes money, and thus hurts activities that are more valuable, such as education and research. In their personal lives, people attempt to conserve energy (for example, not making 10 separate shopping trips when a single trip will do), but suddenly ignore efficiency when it involves the whole community (e.g. opposing the construction of rail lines; by the way, you display some "Seattle bus bias" by giving little attention to the rail alternative; one might say that the very existence of a congested freeway demonstrates that there is a market for rail). This inefficiency puts the U.S. at a disadvantage in economic competition with countries like Japan, Germany, and France that make greater use of rail.

Roads, by destroying usable spaces, force people to travel farther. Thus, our food is less fresh, and is often contaminated by vehicle emissions. Asphalt absorbs sunlight, adding to global warming. Its creation uses petroleum that could be put to better use, and makes us even more vulnerable to control by oil-rich nations. Road construction creates jobs, but fewer jobs, more temporary jobs, and lower-skilled jobs than rail construction. Roads require more long-term maintenance and repair than rail lines. Roads take land that could be put to productive uses, and reduce the tax base for local governments. Rail lines take less land, and harm it less.

Pavement concentrates and increases water runoff, starving the water table. Roadway lights are one of the main reasons we cannot enjoy a view of the stars.

Freeway construction disproportionately harms minorities and the poor. Highway construction is rarely even suggested in wealthy, white neighborhoods. [By the way, one solution to this and many other problems caused by people is to require the perpetrators to live next to their creation! How many freeways would get built, if the heads of the transportation agencies had to live next to them, like other people do?] And roads allow logging, mining, oil drilling, "industrial grade tourism", and many other destructive activities. In fact, it is almost impossible to do great environmental harm without roads.

A few comments about the paper. Perhaps you could emphasize that, more important than their function for a few hours a day as HOV lanes is the fact that they are added pavement. And that their real goal is not to increase vehicle occupancy, but to act as a Trojan Horse for more pavement to increase all vehicle throughput. The designation "HOV" is simply the most politically acceptable way to do that. It is interesting that our Metropolitan Transportation Commission justifies HOV lane construction (new pavement) by saying that the travel time savings for HOV occupants is enough to cause a mode shift, but then says that the travel time savings for HOV and SOV occupants (due to the added lanes) isn't enough to generate new or longer trips (which would adversely affect air quality).

Perhaps you could also be a bit more forthright in asking for what you want (exactly what you want!). I don't think it adds to your credibility to be wishy-washy, as in (p.12) "FHWA ... should approve new lane construction in congested urban areas cautiously -- if at all." On the contrary, I think it detracts from credibility. Excess humility seems to be a characteristic of resignation to second-class citizenship.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.