THE ASPHALT ATTACK

Articles by Jane Holtz Kay

 

Overheated Car Culture

By Jane Holtz Kay (author of Asphalt Nation)

 

Originally Published in In These Times, Summer 1999

 

You don't need a weatherman to tell you that the whole earth has become the scorched earth. And you don't need a climate course to tell you that the temperature has become hot news. In the hottest decade of the millennium, "severe weather alerts" have become as constant as the calendar.

It started at the first of the year with the headlines: "South Gets White Christmas and Loses Power"... "California Farmers Hope to Salvage Some Citrus..." continued with blizzards in the Midwest, tornadoes in Florida, and hot-to-warm climate quick steps in New England. By late spring, the Los Angeles cool and the East Coast steam had reversed the natural order of the continent and the summer made sizzle an understatement.

And that's just the U.S. corner of the planet.

But if weather scares have chilled us out and heated our consciousness, there is one thing that the fluctuating thermometer and rising tides don't record. And that's the complicity of the car. Whatever the assessment of the damage of the capricious climate, the political and financial barometers have yet to register this largest single contributor to global warming.

"Is your current car too closely related to the fossil fuel it burns?" asks an advertisement for a luxury automobile. You bet it is. By spewing as much as half the U.S. emissions that fuel climate disarray, our stock of motor vehicles is not only "related" to rising temperatures and erratic weather but a parent of the problem. In just one instance, the Atmosphere Alliance, has blamed a sharp jump of 3.4 percent in U.S. emissions--more than the total of most nations--on one automoted energy hog, the sports utility vehicle.

SUVs on steroids are just the newest phase of U.S. auto-dependency, however. Clock the minutes. Every second the nation's 200 million motor vehicles travel 60,000 miles, use 3,000 gallons of petroleum products and add 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That's two-thirds of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. Even less noticeable, however, is the damage beyond these tailpipe discharges recorded as their soul source.

The surprise is that despite the role of the motor vehicle in making the weather gyrate like a Dow Jones graph, the total contribution of America's auto-dependency remains a dirty but hidden secret. For even as the emissions as we drive to work or errands contribute five tons of carbon dioxide a year for every car, we ignore the better part of the exactions. The roads we build to serve the car, the fuel we extract, the industrial energy consumed in producing l5 million motor vehicles a year are enormous-and largely unrecorded.

Intangibles weigh us down as we pay the car's share of municipal and state taxes and traffic congestion. Often lacking a dollar sign, their tally ranges from parking facilities to police protection; from registry operations to uncompensated accidents. Exactions from U.S. cars and trucks carry three-quarters of a trillion dollars in hidden costs. Nationally, that's 35 cents a mile; in dense urban zones up to $l.50. Parking given to Downtown employees alone is an 11 cents a mile subsidy to the driver, l6 times more than the federal gasoline tax he or she pays for the commute. Cars bought on the installment plan drive debt up by 40 percent making the General Motors Acceptance Corporation the largest consumer finance institution in the world. And we haven't touched such pricey corollaries as cellular phones to save time.

Finally, there are the longtime unchartable environmental damages of dirty air and water or the human cost of 4l,500 lives lost a year, before we even come to the environmental cost of this global warming in, say, re-doing the New York subway or restoring the damage from floods and fires.

Part of the reason for the social innumeracy on the true cost of global warming is also bureaucratic. Instead of slotting the car's plural contributions of CO2 into the "transportation sector" of the EPA listings, their compendium ignores most of them. By thus tucking them into the "industrial" or "manufacturing" category in its formal notations, the agency inadvertently helps the motor vehicle's harm elude detection, according to Cindy Jacobs of the climate change program of the EPA's mobile sources.

Not only the motor vehicle and the highway's promethean influence avoid attention, however. Add production to this list. The car's production alone accounts for almost one-third of the its consumption of energy and resources, according to the Environment and Forecasting Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. Consider the parts of the motor vehicle-push buttons for its windows, air-conditioning units, computers to control the engines; the plastic, asphalt and aluminum industries-and you see burn, baby burn.

Since "the transportation sector" thus escapes virtually unscathed, its perpetrators, the auto manufacturers can afford to do little or nothing. Few brakes are put on the ever-growing Sports Utility Vehicles and light trucks which now account for half of new motor vehicles sales. And, as their number grows, along with conventional cars, "it's hard to see what's going to slow growth," says the EPA's Jacobs.

So it is that even as the Kyoto Accords encourage scientists to push for reducing the energy from carbon sources, even as the housing industry is coaxed to be energy efficient, even as other executives from utilities to manufacturing respond, if slowly, to the climate issue, the car and the pricey sprawl and energy consumption its roads augment also escape a reckoning.

The l2,000 miles per person a year, and growing in both trips and heft, are not only stoking the climate's troubles at home but abroad. America's King of the Road lifestyle encourages non-industrialized nations to follow the U.S. model at an alarming rate. Consider the consequences of a billion Chinese buying cars fueled by climate-heating coal. Combined with America's role as car exporter, the U.S. rage for the road makes our sermons on energy abstinence, not to mention environmental good citizenship, hypocritical. Preaching what we don't practice deep sixes leadership as we "play God with climate," in the Worldwatch Institute's phrase.

How do we right this equation, then? Since cost seems to be uppermost in reckoning how to avoid a climate apocalypse by curbing the car, we need to acknowledge the current exactions of our auto-based existence. The love affair with the motor vehicle that festoons our policy like a GM hood ornament comes at a steep price, personally (we pay $6,500 a year, and rising, to own and operate one) and socially or environmentally (it's $5,000...plus, by many accounts).

Beyond the 93 billion dollars a year that local, state and national governments spend on roads, we must tally other expenditures from 4l,500 lives lost annually in car accidents, and far more in injury, to the automobiles and auto parts that account for two-thirds of our trade deficit with Japan. From 8 billion hours a year stuck in traffic to the $l00 billion a year spent on the military budget defending our Middle East oil supply, the visible and invisible costs of the car mount. Count, too, the cost of that oil extraction which rises as we labor to clean or discover new reserves, reserves predicted to dwindle and become pricier on their way to exhaustion.

Beyond building and running our cars, there is the environmental and financial toll of car-bred sprawl. The land bulldozed into asphalt is a lost opportunity cost. The wetlands and farmland paved (two million arable acres a year), the open space or city split by an arterial highway or the hilltop sprouting the four-leaf clover interstate is, to say the least, a minus.

Then, there are the other untalleyed or hidden losses. The tragic loss of community and of future or present land use cannot be reckoned. The price of car-bred infrastructure subsidized to take us to the sprawling edges, in turn, demanding more pricey energy-squandering infrastructure of electricity, cable or sewage lines at the end of the road. Compute the price of 4000 "dead" malls and countless Main Streets, languishing in the wake of the highway-based exodus.

Finally, consider that by asphalting for the automobile, we give over more than half our cities to roads and parking lots. Record how we subsidize the highway's giant gulp of three million miles of road covering 60,000 square miles of the nation with new NAFTA-inspired roads conceived to cover the continent from Canada to Mexico. Note how each automobile demands seven spaces move and park (one at home, one at work, one at the mall, and four for the road network). Chart our subsidies for such incidentals as parking; for some 85 million employees given free spaces valued at $l,000 apiece, amounting to an $85 billion lure - and $85 billion denied non-drivers. No other country carries our loss in property taxes from such "investments."

What false economy allows us to dismiss these debts and simply credit highway-based transportation as l8 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, more than health and education combined? What perverse sense of the environmental balance sheet lets us tamper with the fate of the planet without noting these debts?

In the end, then, our pro-fossil fuel government and industry underwrite the car culture that undermines planet preservation. It favors the private car vs. public transportation at seven to one, offers single-family mortgages and policies that undercut core cities and suburbs and puts a petroleum-free lunch on a silver platter. All these policies take a toll, a toll whose bottomline loss only matches its erosion of social and environmental values.

Happily, the solutions make good economic as well as human sense. Curbing the car to protect the climate is good financial as well as environmental policy. Making the car pay its way by altering pricing policies to stop subsidizing the can reduce costs while cutting fossil fuel. Raising the tax on gas - or on carbon dioxide-spewing gas guzzlers or on number of miles driven - lessen auto use and impact. So do congestion pricing, toll and parking fees. It is time to follow the other industrialized nations of the world taxing gas to bring rates of $4 or 5-a-gallon gas and funneling these funds to good public transportation and lessening auto-dependency.

To hit up the car and the highway to pay their way and restrict greenhouse gas emissions is not the only way or an easy way to slip money in the planetary bank, to be sure. Changing sprawl-inducing land patterns that have made two or three cars a (perceived) prerequisite in half our households is essential. By reinvesting in public transportation, good planning, mixed-use zoning and other improved land use policies, we create dense neighborhoods and urban infill for the clustered physical environment that supports that mass transit, trains, paratransit, bicycling and walking to ease us out of the car trap.

None of these routes to reduce auto-dependency and halt global warming is built in a day, but they can begin instantly and on a personal and political level. They are not as high tech or "scientific" as the solutions mouthed by industry's do-it-ourselves approach to climate control or the build-more-if-"better" fakery of the auto industry's "clean car." But they are more economical and humane - and no slower.

As Washington and Wall Street slouch our way to climate protection, we need to do more--far more - than give lipservice to this mindset. "Cogito Ergo Zoom," Automobile magazine described America's attitude to the internal combustion machine. More cogitating and less zoom would be better. So would activism from the bottom and leadership from the top to replace a mentality as stuck in traffic as our way of life. The Atlantic would be rolling across the Adirondacks and the glaciers melting into Miami before the people who brought us Exxon Valdez and the Corvair flipped the switch on their course to stop climatic upheaval. It is time for the rest of us to brake the automoted gluttons that fuel global disarray.

Jane Holtz Kay is architecture/planning critic for the Nation and author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back from which portions of this discussion were drawn.

All Sprawl Down

By Jane Holtz Kay

Boston Globe, Fall l999 editorial

Look down the road and you see sprawl in the fast lane. Consult the signs and you see the results: "Teardowns for Sale," McMansion or Starter Castles consuming the landscape. Observe the driveways and you glimpse the SUVs-on-steroids lodged in three-car garages. Witness the outcome: congestion and more congestion.

Welcome to the new architecture of the exit ramp. This is the Great Diaspora to the fringes that has aroused Americans to a new political and environmental awareness. Politicians cluck. Environmentalists struggle to stem the menace.

And menace it is. Sprawl's spreading land patterns are altering every segment of life in the Bay State as in the nation. Sprawl is social. It is a shift in community structure as our old, walkable neighborhood interactions succumb to car-bound lifestyles. Sprawl is political. It is a shift in the national voting pattern as voters disperse from city to suburb.

Sprawl is environmental and planetary, rendering habitat into hardtop and landscape into hardscape across the state. The coyote who dropped in on South Enders not too long ago, like the white-tailed deer chomping on suburban rosebuds, bespeaks the uprooting. Beyond the winsome newspaper accounts of these four-footers, the shift indicates the deeper loss of habitat and species caused by sprawling developments, chewing up 44 acres here every day, Audubon reports.

To be sure, the 240 referendums on U.S. ballots for open space this spring (with 72 percent passing) reflect the concern with development lapping over farm and forest, wetland and aquifer out where the grass(roots) grow. So do the 50-plus organizations from Historic Massachusetts to the Environmental League fighting recalcitrant realtors to establish the Community Preservation Act to buy open space, preserve historic spaces and places and build affordable housing to prevent sprawl. Neighborhood partisans who deplore the particle board paradises and squalid malls creeping across the countryside are making common cause with urbanites to save what William Whyte called The Last Landscape.

And, yet, for all the forward motion, highway-first policies are stalling progress. For all the talk, the city is studded with billion-dollar Big Dig cranes to tunnel us out faster to the next "there" on the periphery. And, less visibly, state road hogs are stomping the state with Little Digs - dig after dig, after dig.

Misinvestment, disinvestment, wrong investment. The ongoing road building subsidizes urban flight and undermines the land banks and trusts. Locally, almost $200 million in road projects is underway in Boston, while the state allots 400 million a year beyond the Big Dig to roads and bridges with fresh-start rather than fixup high on the agenda.

The latest outrage came last week when Secretary of Environmental Affairs Robert Durand confirmed the MBTA's decision to deny Roxbury and the South End rail replacement for the Orange Line. In its stead, comes a lumbering, second-rate bus, the so-called Silver Line, a misnomer designed to associate silver with high tech slick. Given no guaranteed right-of-way to speed the trip, this is highway robbery and environmental injustice - a throwback to highway uber alles policies made visible in the intrusive '50s style bus stops designed to line its cumbersome route.

Such projects are symptomatic of a state in overdrive. Add-a-lane here. Widen an intersection there and there. Mislabel it "repair" or "safety," and asphalt spreads, and with it sprawl. The only thing green about the state's transportation policy is the money. The only thing certain is its destiny to promote the sprawl that eats the soil that Jack bought and strips the historic centers that time wrought.

Whether "privatized" for a whopping $250 million like the 2l miles of lanes on route 3 north to New Hampshire or public like the proposal for route 3 South, or ongoing for the endless route l28, roads bring more driving, less walking and undercut planning for livable communities. Roads are the subsidized engine of urban flight that feeds the lawnmowers of exurbia. Streetcars and trains are the core of compact communities that reverse that exodus.

Nonetheless, for all the success of commuter rail and Amtrak's new highspeed train to New York, streetcar and other rail improvements lag. Nationally, more roads are in the works from the $203 billion federally-funded highway program, upped last year by 40 percent; locally, road turf - widening expands.

To make the center hold, programs for good rail transit and transit-oriented rail development are essential to stop sprawl. Yet, our state transportation policy is neither comprehensive nor consistent in their behalf. Our failure to get back on track with the trains and trolleys that once pioneered Boston's streetcar city and suburbs is a dispiriting conclusion to the waning century. It is time to turn today's land-grabbing fast lane to sprawl into a fast track for rail.

 

Time to Depave the Landscape

By Jane Holtz Kay

Architecture column from the New York Times, July 25, 1999

Architect William Warner doesn't look like the Robert Moses of de-paving. With a wry wit, a down-to-earth manner, and a devotion to urban detail, the architect of Providence's Waterplace Park lacks the imperial stance of the powerbroking New York Moses who launched the auto age or the Biblical heft of a Moses who could part the asphalt.

Notwithstanding this altogether agreeable tendency to the understated versus the autocratic, Warner's transformation of a half-mile swath of hardtop into a canal and walkway has created what some call the "Venice of New England" in this small older city: not only a place of grace and energy but a model for asphalt removal and urban renewal in the nation.

Last summer, a generation after his plans to unearth two buried Providence rivers produced this canal, Waterplace Park's success in stitching together a city once severed by the highway prompted a final de-paving venture here. The launching of the Old Harbor Plan, Providence's $270-million, l0-year project, to complete the downtown's waterway's final push to the sea. By moving interstate-l95 and freeing some 45 acres of downtown area and shore land, the city will gain greater access, recreation and renewal...and less hardtop.

The change taking place in the suddenly trendy town fits into a national train. More than a triumph of architecture over asphalt in one New England city, Waterplace's string of lagoons reflects a national impulse to dig up the concrete flatlands left by half a century of hardtopping. American cities have begun to look at the waterfronts and other downtown neighborhoods flattened by highways in the fifties and 60s. Today, as many of these roads end their useful life, and funds for road work are in the offering, the chance to grace or calm these places, not just resurface or expand them, could stimulate a softer, greener landscape and cityscape. Rivers once seen as prime candidates for highways could become locales for downtowns seeking to restore rather than re-pave.

Though de-paving projects like Providence's are rare, erasing highways has an honorable history. Successes go back to the early seventies when Portland, Oregon, rejected a highway and built a riverbank park. At the same time, Boston defeated the infamous inner belt, originated the highway transfer fund, and took the money to build the spectacular Southwest Corridor. (Today, of course, the city's Big Dig paves-or excavates-the way to take down its Central Artery.)

As the century ends, San Francisco is re-designing land released by stopping the Embarcadero's elevated highway. In Louisville, Kentucky, the half-mile Ohio River waterfront makeover, opened last summer, boasted the dismantling of an exit ramp from Interstate 64 to make a walkable link to the city. Add to these, a Denver parks restoration that has pickaxed roads in three parks along the l0-mile South Platte River Project to preserve its corridor for open space and habitat. Consider the South Bronx where the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Nos Quedamos/We Stay Committee and neighborhood activists are looking to decommission the l.25 mile Sheridan Expressway and add its 28 acres to a restored Bronx River waterfront park. And the evidence of first steps to de-paving the planet seems promising.

For all these initiatives, Providence's before-and-after landscape can still claim the nation's most heroic makeover, the most "ambitious new architecture and engineering project in the nation," says Ann Breen, co-director of the Waterfront Center, an advocacy group in Washington. A "before" shot of the city would scan a brutish landscape split in two: at the crest of the city, would stand the palatial McKim, Mead and White marble state capitol; below, the historic brick downtown. In between, would spread an impassable wall of rail, road and parking deposited by l950's-style urban renewal that buried two rivers to hardtop the space with highways.

In the early l980s, the state proposed a plan that would have repaired the highways but left them in place to choke the city's core. Dismayed by that prospect, Mr. Warner proposed his own. His vision was to jackhammer the asphalt that split the city and restore the waterfront. To do so, he would re-rout the two rivers, the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck buried by the highways. The city signed on.

"Daylighting" is the phrase used by those who release creeks from culverts. But "city-making" would better describe the architect's labors. Using available transportation funds from the federal railway Northeast Corridor Project to improve the rails and &\federal highway (FHWA) moneys to re-connect the roads and unearth the river (strange grandparents!), the city metamorphosed.

Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci and two influential senators, Claiborne Pell and John Chafee, had their share of clout in the project. Earlier versions of his ideas had floated in the air, but "it was his vision," says Edward Sanderson, executive director of the State Preservation Commission: his energy to seam the city and create the brick and cobblestone promenade, the amphitheaters, the resting places along the canal; his selectivity, political adeptness and commitment to tend to his own garden.

Walking or boating in the newly created park along the canal's still waters or passing under a procession of l2 bridges one is hard put to imagine the former dreariness of this place before Warner peeled off "the world's largest bridge" in this once-forsaken downtown. And on a rainy Earth Day when the walkway's soggy pear trees looked down on an assembly of equally drenched waterfront advocates at the Waterfront Center Conference on "Parks, Pathways and Public Realm," these touring officials attested to both the new outlook and the draw of his results as they followed in Warner's wake.

More than a ribbon of water, Waterplace is a tour de force: a curving waterway of lagoons, street lights, steps, platforms for benches a restaurant and small rotundas. Jampacked with stone and brick walls, intercepted and organized with steps, the pedestrian passage is a rich one. The palette is large, the architect's way of design traditional, neither thinly de-constructed nor post-modern clunky. A potpourri of artifacts and street furniture curve along the river's path and connect to the urban streetscape at every link. Bridges and paths fan out into plazas before the Rhode Island School of Design or dissolve into the buildings of the city they straddle, connecting the esplanade to the town. "Porous," Warner calls the linkage, spilling into the city easily.

The longtime Providence architect handles the extremes of scale deftly, from the super-scale plan to the complex hand-sized details of bronze railing, a patterned brick bridge, ornate sewer covers or historic panels. With dry humor and attentiveness to details, he has deployed not only artistry but political adeptness in coaxing urban niceties from municipal and highway authorities not known for encouraging the fine points of design. It's "multi-modal," Warner uses the buzzword that secures funding from transportation officials. By touting multi-modal capabilities, i.e., places that allow many modes of movement means not just the road, the adroit architect could secure federal financing for the amenities of walkability not just the eternal driveability. "William the Conqueror" is a nickname acquired for these skills.

Warner describes his l2-person office not as an "A & E" firm, i.e. architecture and engineering - but as an "A & LA" one--architecture and landscape architecture. His attention to the waterfront grounds is obvious: Daffodils dappled the banks in between the river-grass plantings on my visit, weeping willows and oaks traced the banks, and the other natural local plants show a sensitivity to the region.

Beyond the finishes, Providence artists have made Waterplace park a gathering spot in summer months when "Water Fire," offers a show of cloaked gondoliers in black mufti gliding silently from fire to fire, illuminating brazier after brazier to light the evening's dark. This spectacle and civic happening draws Providence's academic and blue collar constituency to the waterfront.

The next phase of the project will enhance the edges of the harbor basin. This austere, industrial area with its oddlot buildings will have a more "earthy" look, says Warner. The rocks sustaining its banks ("riprap") will remain. A boardwalk will allow walkers to pass by and docks will encourage boats. A heritage museum is also in the works to accompany Warner's earlier addition to the power plant, a handsome structure with massive black ducts and well-composed glass windows emblazoned with red and green. Efforts to clean the polluted river and connect the city's poorer neighborhoods with a bike path will enable them to share the benefits and link to the larger region.

While Warner's Waterplace Parks seams together the Downtown and television's "Providence" gives the city cachet, the $435 million, l.3 million square foot Providence Place opened this summer between the canal and the capitol adds less to the city's urbanity. Spanning a long city block, bigger than the Brown campus, this aloof shopping and entertainment complex turns with a giant glass atrium "Wintergarden" is a mall-like intruder in the painfully-wrought cityscape.

Dominated by a massive 4,000-car garage, plus three new downtown hotels and a convention center could drain customers from a beautiful but less-than-bustling Downtown and threaten the encouraged elsewhere by plans for artist and residential housing Downtown. Indeed, this structure raises questions as to whether Providence can build on this walkable, public space as the city heats up and more conventional developers push for more enclosed, car-oriented modes.

It also invites the larger question: can urban America learn from Waterplace Park? Can use this opportunity for rolling back a hard-topped past judiciously? Even as Kansas City, Missouri, enhances its handsome system of historic greenways, it expands its interstate through the city. While Camden, New Jersey, enhances its waterfront, Trenton, succumbs to a retrograde road widening of route 29 by the Delaware River. De-pavers must run doubletime to outpace the road-motion machine.

Nor does simply lifting asphalt produce utopian architecture. The Louisville park by landscape superstar George Hargreave is sterile. His formalistic art-on-paper performance--here a triangular "Parisian" park, there a waterfall, nowhere (hardly) a waterside seat--is cold and arbitrary, a far remove from Louisville's richly-textured Olmsted parks that hew to river and land. Meanwhile, environmentally-attuned Bostonians await the release of the 27 acres above the Big Dig to the auspices of the Turnpike chief James Kerasiotes with apprehension.

Still, if results vary, the impetus grows. The urge for that green (or blue) relief made manifest in the last election when 240 communities placed open space issues on the ballot and more than two-thirds passed, reflects a new constituency for such initiatives. If sprawl to the fringes of the metropolis is the problem, reconstructing the urban core is the solution. Those struggling to save America's cities could learn from Providence's de-paving.

* * * *

Jane Holtz Kay, an architecture and planning critic, writes for the Boston Globe and The New York Times where a version of this article appeared. She is the author of Asphalt Nation and Lost Boston, published in a revised version this fall.

 

 

Dreaming of a Clean Car?

By Jane Holtz Kay

There is a dream, a universal dream. Call it the Ur-dream of travel. In my version of the dream, I own a muse machine. No sooner does some Shangri-La of the map enter my mind, then I am off on a seamless, earth-friendly ride. Forget traffic. Forget some road-rager shooting nasty looks and tailpipe toxins at my windshield. Forget fears of flying, too: not to worry about some hulk dribbling frittos on my Aldo Leopold paperback.

And, oh yes, best of all - "Forget guilt," as the Toyota billboard on my way to work advises. No enviro-angst for driving a 2,000-pound- plus vehicle so poisonous, so polluting that, to re-play the environmental slogan, "if I got caught driving it across a state line, I could go to jail for transporting toxic waste."

What surprises me, however, is that some folks really believe that dream. To them, it is not a dream but a reality--the "reality" of a free ride. In their words and in their writings, they describe a magical, pollution-free trip. They are gliding 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, or spilling, of oil.

Only, they don't call that ride a "mirage" or "dream." What they call it is "a clean car."

That the auto manufacturers would try to fabricate this dream machine is less surprising, of course. They paint a reverie of their own. Deer frolic in the picture of "General Motors' Family Tree of Next Generation Vehicles" describing the whole roster: "Advanced Battery Electric, Parallel Hybrid Electric, Series Hybrid Electric, Compressed Natural Gas, and Fuel Cell Electric"...you name it. Some of this Generation C (clean) display appeared in a Detroit alternate vehicle show bathed in the greenwash of "Family of Earth-Friendly Vehicles." (winter 98).

"People in Motion...Driving the Next Generation...Good, clean fun," as GM puts it in a press kit also offering a children's book, Daniel and His Electric Car. "Guess what, Daddy, this car is good for the environment too!" says Daniel in this next generation text, suggesting daddy makes the new car--their second car--electric.

The ballyhoo is not exclusively GM's. Mere months after Honda advertised its air-cleansing LEV Accord, with a "Mr. Clean" muscleman declaring "you are what you drive," the Justice Department and the EPA fined the company $l2.6 million for falsifying test results on said clean air. And, GM, too, has joined the auto-oil complex now busily coddling sports utility vehicles and contriving to install dirty diesel engines as a concession to Kyoto's climate control.

Elsewhere, the trendy, futurist Rocky Mountain Institute hypes its relatively benign "hypercar." Norm Clasen, director of marketing and public relations, touches on its flywheels and fuel cells, then alerts me to the new hypercar web site opening that afternoon. "It's a very big day around here," says Clasen, telling me to log onto a few l00 pages on line. "Think of a Hypercar as a computer with a car wrapped around it, rather than a car with a computer in it."

In fact, having traced the full arc of the automobile's swath across the landscape for a few decades, I am in no mood to concede that there is any such thing as a clean car. In fact, I can only answer their dreams of a clean car with a single question: "What for?" What could an alternative vehicle do for a planet under siege, I wonder? How could any miracle machine end its habitat disruption or its stop road kill? How could an alternate vehicle lessen the eight billion hours a year we spend stuck in traffic? or free the Americans now immobilized by America's auto-dependency: the 55 million school children on bike or foot threatened by racing roadsters, the dependent elderly unable to drive, the 9 percent of our households--the poor and minorities--who can't afford a car, and the overworked America needing a ton of steel and wheel to buy a quart of milk? And more.

What would a dream machine that achieves even 50 percent reductions (all the while consuming 30 percent of its natural resources in production) do for quality of life and congestion? For the highway as the major agent of sprawl, the species slayer, wetland eradicator and all the other road-related ills even as we try to build our way out of traffic jams?

Years ago, Lewis Mumford offered the axiom that building a highway to reduce congestion is like going on a diet by letting out your belt. Is the idea of trimming the engine - the belly of the beast - any less lunatic? The road that serves the automobile creates the pincer movement towards all our environment ills, the logging of first growth forests to the tune of $47.8 million federal dollars a year, the covering of greenfields with subdivisions, and the runoff of oil into streams and bays.

Cleaner engines and better mileage will accomplish little if we drive twice as much as we have in the last twenty years or continue to more than double our Sports Utility Vehicles as we have in the last five (not to mention upping the rollovers and threatening the "diminutive" conventional cousins to these dreamcars). The god-given right to go for a ride, anywhere, anytime' to trample the country with roads and sprawl has crippled every technological advance, has hardtopped the valleys and flattened the farmlands for Wal-Marts, axed forest and covered stream for Godzilla subdivision. How would refreshing the breath of the internal combustion engine help?

And from where does the electric charge originate? From burning coal that pollutes the northeast, from nuclear plants, from oil came the response. Even the most efficient cars are not "emission free." As the environmental slogan now has it, they are "emissions elsewhere."

For all my skepticism, Sheila Lynch of the Northeast Alternative Vehicle Consortium (NAVC) is persuasive in describing Toyota's hybrid Prius, recently on tour to display its potential to bolster fuel efficiency 50 percent and reduce greenhouse gases by the same. The hybrid, says Lynch, blends the electric vehicle with a more efficient (and, more marketable) internal combustion machine to cut down two ills: dirty air and the one-third of climate overheating caused by cars. "Lean, green, fighting machines," Secretary of Defense William Cohen was quoted at the Fourth National Clean Cities Conference last May (98).

A vision? A magic trip made real?

Not to everyone. "It is by no means a dream machine," says Jason Mark, senior transportation analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) in California. Certainly, an electric car lessens air pollution, could stop escalating asthma rates, raise consciousness and enhance commitment to curbing the car. And Mark praises Toyota's effort to capture the environmental mantle. "The question is what will they actually do," says Mark awaiting their commitment and performance.

And yet if performance passes every test, if one of these cars reaches the vaunted Utopia of a Scrubbed Vehicle could it make a dent even in its limited mission? Since l99l, America's alternative-fueled vehicles have grown from l5l,000 to 402,790, according to the Department of Energy. That's advancing at a rate of 25,000 vehicles a year including buses. Do the math. Compare that number to the l5,000,000 cars sold annually. The fleet may change every ten years but with only a handful of alternative vehicles ready to be sold, those enthusiasts may see El Nino flood their yards before their dream replacement team arrives.

Certainly, the try-tech types and the curb-the-car constituency ally in their wish to end auto-dependency and environmental degradation. But doesn't the bias towards the technical divert from the human, the global change both seek? Doesn't the vision of a cleaner car ignore the vast problems of a carbound culture? I ask them.

Michelle Robbins describes the UCS's two-pronged attack: "Reduce emissions and reduce reliance." She talks about the push for fuel emission and air pollution policy through tougher, tighter standards in the EPA's regulations for 2004. But when the second goal lies outside the their day-to-day mission, can this vehicular sanitary squad really help? Is "interim" enough, these oracles of alternative vehicles themselves wonder as "stopgap...Until we can..." issues from their lips. "There's a huge need, an unfulfilled need, to try to get people to change their values," Nancy Hazard of Northeast Sustainable Energy observes. "It doesn't solve congestion or quality of lifestyle issues, of course," she says and, for herself, kicked the car-fix by moving near her job. Sheila Lynch concurs, but she doesn't see the going away and does the best she can." The single occupancy vehicle is stupid," she says. Working on an alternative vehicle is "more attractive because it's about engineering and economics. It's not about change and living patterns," Mark note. "Is it just an excuse that attenuates the push or is it useful or realistic?" he asks.

And so must the rest of us. We must pause to consider other vaunted "improvements" in the history of the car. Recall the false prophecies and promises in an industry replete with them. The engineer's AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials) traditional guideline for "improvements" in highway construction has straightened, widened, and expanded roads from sea to shining sea. And, as roads bred more roads, "improvements" in mobility cause more mayhem. Today, we register the same 43,000 victims to the automobile as a quarter century ago. How would what we drove change these statistics.

The same failure if "improvements" applies to tailpipe gains. These withered as we doubled our mileage and, adding gluttony to overdrive, took to our SUVs. Perhaps it takes the caretakers of our national parks to perceive that this dream of limitless mobility is still an environmental nightmare. What good would fuel cells do for Yellowstone's $l2-million yearly budget to blast out the cliffs for road widening? "We are widening and that's a big industry," Eleanor D. Williams, chief landscape architect at Yellowstone National Park, describes the thousand cuts needed at Yellowstone Park to serve the Winnebagos causing traffic jams. "It will appall you to see the size of them. They are bus size," she says, "pulling jeeps, pulling boats." Appall it does.

With 29 miles of roads under construction, the thought and reality of adapting Yellowstone's fragile ecology to the automobile clearly dismays this l5-year veteran as we chat in the rusticated lodge on the fringes of the park one August day. The delicate alpine landscape, the mushy soil saturated with water, will not hold. The steep grades resist easy fixup for new roads. Even as old roads studded with potholes get too little attention, wider roads encourage the speeding that, yet again, kills more animals, destroys more habitat, brings more cars, and, with no attention to public transportation, adds to congestion along the park's looping 350 paved miles.

"Appall," of course, is everywhere: In Sedona where the stunning shear of the red rocks cannot resist a highway department intent on widening and a multi-lane service strip with twin McDonalds faces off across the arterial wasteland. Down in the valley bottoms, too, where the deer and the elk and the antelope play, cars graze. Above, where the Milky Way dazzles the visiting citydweller, the car and its highway bring the meanest face of "civilization."

All around where exotic species of and native flora fill the turf of Rocky Mountain Park, there is no surcease. And even the "wise use" property rights gun-toters are moving to protect their vistas these days, to stop the light pollution, the shiny roofs intruding on their wilderness views. Faster than a more enlightened Park Service can proceed, cars, the agent of invasion, accrue.

How would natural-gas propelled cars or a mix or any alternative concoction help the Gateway Communities swelling on the parks' perimeters from the driving and settling cross their view corridors? How would super-scrubbed vehicles control those who run from car-decimated cities and suburbs to Get Away from It All and find accommodation in the motels and strips that fatten the vehicular free-for-all?

Not just in the wilderness, either. Highways and road work are proliferating across the country. The one national forest that remains unpaved?, Mendocino National Forest, awaits Highway l62. The Petroglyph National Monument bides time until a road penetrates the sacred land--and not only a six-lane road but one that is a precedent-setting thrust across a national monument, eradicating the Pueblo Indian drawings and sacred space with an Albuquerque highway. Tell the Pueblo Indians that car "cleanliness" is next to godliness.

How would it stop the new highways in urban and suburban areas, where the hills are alive with the sound of backhoes and bulldozers. Could it prevent the work of upstate and downstate traffic engineers, lobbyists, roadbuilders from advancing along I-73 to the south, Corridor H in West Virginia, SH l30 in Texas, or dribbling NAFTA superhighways like I-69 from Flint, Michigan, in toxic streams of asphalt, north to south in the map of the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium. For all the efforts of local activists, if the road gang isn't supporting highways to nowhere then the locals are bringing a new wave of intersections to our door.

An alternative vehicle to the rescue?

"Good idea," Gloria Oland of the Surface Transportation Policy Project who once explored electric vehicles as a reporter, e-mails her findings, "but it will just be one more reason that we don't have to come to grips with the elephant in the bathtub - land use." Without the urgency of air resources, we'll go back to blithely building new roads for realtors, Oland feels.

Ask anti-sprawl advocates for an opinion as they busily issue their position papers "The Dark Side of the American Dream," the Sierra Club's most recent report called their Challenge to Sprawl campaign, citing the costs and consequences of car-bred sprawl, among them "traffic congestion, longer commutes, worsening air and water pollution, loss of farmland, open fields, forest and wetlands, increased flooding" not to mention, higher taxes for services to expand police, fire, and add the infrastructure of not only new roads but the new water and sewer lines and schools to the fringes they promote.

Bring on the bandaid, say the technologists of the clean car. But how can we patch these places? While we pine for an alternative automobile, we ignore the range of small-is-beautiful and big-is-broader solutions that could release us from the highways that pave the planet. Not clean cars, but "Communities before Cars," as one Ottawa group calls itself - communities so close-nit that two-thirds of our vehicle miles no longer go to shopping and dropping; cities so centered by remediating brownfields and bolstering downtowns to reinforce the walking core.

Urban growth boundaries in Portland, Oregon, and green space surroundings for San Francisco preserve the open space that binds us close to home and center us. Inch by inch, row by row, states are buying up open space, instituting growth management plans, shaping planning and zoning to revitalize Main Street with the public transportation, pedestrian mobility and bicycling that depend on density. In Utah, 23 miles of light rail will open by the 2002 Olympics; in Dallas, the epicenter of automobility, the new DART line proved so successful it is expanding. Despite a federal transportation bill (TEA-2l) that pads highway-building and hatchet acts to trains, rail revenues and ridership are up and rail projects--the North-South Rail Link connecting the Northeast Corridor; a Midwest Regional Rail Initiative; Florida's high speed train--could become a reality--the real alternative vehicles.

We need more of such dreams come true. We need transportation-land use techniques not technology. We need environmental awareness not environmentalists pining to put the pedal to the metal (guiltlessly). We need to raise consciousness cosmically and microcosmically. "Here in Motor city," vice president Albert Gore, the once-and-former environmentalist who held Earth in the Balance declared, "we recognize that cars have done more than fuel our commerce. Cars have freed the American spirit and given us the chance to chase our dreams."

"Chase" is indeed the word. But must we chase our vision for the American dream at 90 miles an hour? Can't we find a walkable way to reach that shore whose lights beckoned Jay Gatsby in his yellow Rolls Royce? We can kick the car muse for a new vision. "You are what you drive," as the advertisement said. But, you are also the dreams you chase.

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Jane Holtz Kay is architecture and planning critic of The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back. A shortened and altered version of the above appeared in Sierra Magazine.