The First International Conference for Auto-Free Cities

May 3, 1991

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

The Age of the Automobile is over. The atomic bomb became obsolete the day it was dropped on Japan. The automobile (and its accoutrements, the highway and the parking lot) has just taken a bit longer to become obsolete.

The stratospheric ozone that allows life to exist on the earth (by protecting it from ultraviolet radiation) has already been reduced 4-5% over North America, causing an epidemic of skin cancer in California. About 75% of the oxygen we breathe comes from marine algae which can be killed by ultraviolet radiation. In the U.S., the biggest threat to the ozone layer is automobile air conditioners.

The automobile, in the U.S., is also the biggest contributor to global warming (or as some prefer to say, the coming ice age!). According to the U.N., we need to reduce fossil fuel consumption 50% in order to avoid the effects of global warming. Clearly, we won't need any more road space, and most likely can do with a lot less than we have. Global warming threatens thousands of species that cannot adapt or migrate fast enough.

Roads are a major factor in the destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Not only are thousands of animals killed on our roads, but many will not cross a road even if they are physically capable of doing so. The result is a loss of biodiversity and, quite often, extinction. Just as we need to travel, wildlife need migration corridors. Instead of a new round of superhighway construction, we should use gas tax funds to restore continuous wildlife corridors from border to border. Rather than bisecting essential wildlife habitats, roads should tunnel under them. (I don't think this conference is about auto-free cities; I think it is about the survival of life on the earth!)

Do you remember what fresh foods taste like? We are paving

over and degrading our farmland, so that we have to bring food in from far away, even from foreign countries. Even if we can get it, it may be contaminated due to the proximity to highways. We need to eat low on the food chain, but we also need to eat low on the transportation chain!

According to the EPA, 75% of water pollution is due to runoff. A great deal of that is from roads.

Oil is due to run out in the U.S. in 30 years, and in 40-50 years worldwide. I would rather save it for making toothbrushes.

As our motor vehicle-dependent economy falls farther and farther behind, nations (like Japan, France, and Germany) that have invested in energy-efficient rail transportation have leaped ahead.

And, of course, there is air pollution. Although all scientific research on the subject shows that expanding highways increases air pollution and fuel consumption, the highway lobby continues to propagate their old myth that the way to clean up the air and save fuel is to speed up traffic by expanding highways. In the San Francisco Bay Area, federal judge Thelton Henderson recently gave our transportation planning agency the green light to continue expanding all of our highways. All they have to do is run the projects through a phony computer model that "proves" the projects will improve air quality.

What Can We Do About It?

Most people's approach is to (a) blame someone else, and then (b) try to get that other person to change. This ignores a basic fact of life: the only behavior you can control is your own. However, this is quite sufficient. If everyone decided to stop buying cars and gasoline, there would have been no war in the Middle East. Our air pollution problems would be minor. Nobody could seriously suggest that we need more freeways. The oil and automobile companies could ensure their future by converting to businesses compatible with an environmentally sustainable society.

There are a few who are profiting from the status quo, whom no amount of information will penetrate. But from what I have seen, most people, given the right information, will do the right thing. We need to make sure that information about the environmental effects of the automobile and of highway construction is spread worldwide, as rapidly as possible. The "media" are mostly owned or controlled by those who want to preserve the status quo, so we are left with personal communication, the mail, the xerox machine, and computer networks. Everywhere I go, I look up the local environmentalists and exchange names, addresses (computer and otherwise), phone numbers, and information about the effects of highway expansion. If people don't listen well enough at home, go abroad!

We have been gloating over the fact that eastern Europe has been moving toward democracy, but we don't have democracy! We can vote for someone, but once they are in office, we lose control over them, and they are "bought" by big business. Unlike some countries, we have the ability to say how we feel about a project, and then get ignored. The highway department has to describe all the negative environmental effects of its projects, but then it can go ahead and build them anyway. However, nobody can force us to buy something we don't want! We need to boycott the oil and automobile companies.

The environmental problems we face cannot be solved by one person, one organization, one government agency, one company, or one country. They are so huge that they can only be solved by everybody doing their part. My part is to not own a car, to invest in and purchase from companies that protect the environment, to learn everything I can about the environmental effects of highway construction, and to spread this information all over the world. What is your part?