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).

Traffic Congestion"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 engineers 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 dreamers). 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 across 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. Andy Singer

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 Band-Aid, 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 closeknit 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.

L.A. traffic jam

Versions of this article were published in Sierra Magazine, Electrification Times and Conservation Matters in 1999.

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