Most of us measure air quality by: Can I see the mountains? Can I breathe the air without choking? Is the air so bad I can’t smell the roses? But there are a number of insidious pollutants affecting us that escape detection by the senses, and perhaps, our concern. Because the source, the automobile, is so imbedded in our culture, we tend to ignore the environmental and social damage it causes.

There are about 220 million cars and trucks registered in the U S – by far the largest per capita in the world. Environmental scientist David Burwell has calculated that in one second, all of these vehicles drive 60,000 miles, consume 3,000 gallons of petroleum products and add 60,000 pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere. (We must remember, although it is not regulated, taxed or penalized, the Environmental Protection Agency has identified CO2 as an air pollutant.) Union of Concerned Scientists, NRDC and Worldwatch Institute agree that the automobile is the worst environmental health threat in urban areas. Up to one half of all smog-forming VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and Nitrogen Oxide, and 90% of all urban Carbon Monoxide, causing respiratory illness, are caused by auto emissions. The American Lung Association concluded that health care costs related to auto emissions have reached $50 billion a year.  If we factored in all associated costs of owning and operating a car, maybe we’d be more inclined to favor significantly investing in a viable public transit system (such as those that exist in every other advanced nation). The average cost of owning and operating a vehicle in the U S is $7,000 a year (considering payments, insurance, fuel maintenance and repairs). Let’s ask ourselves how much of our daily income do we spend getting to and from work?

Cars became a major influence in our lives starting in the 1950s, with construction of the massive 42,000-mile Interstate Highway System, promoted by former General Motors CEO Charlie Wilson, as Secretary of Defense, under the pretext of expediting military mobility in the face of the Cold War with Russia. This costly expansion of “Freeways” led to the rush of land speculation, and suburban sprawl, gobbling up millions of acres of rich, productive farm soil.  For example, the Spokane Valley was once an important regional source of vegetables and fruit, where now thousands of houses have been planted. This haphazard “planned“ development led to suburban malls, big box stores and the “Walmarting“ of America.  Elmer Johnson, Retiring VP of GM pointed out one of the costs of sprawl: “The suburban commuter pays only 25% of the cost of traveling to the central district by car.”

Because motorists demand cheap gas, fuel taxes pay only approximately 60% of the cost of highway and street construction and maintenance. In her highly informative book “Asphalt Nation,” Jane Holtz refers to the 17 mile Century Highway in Los Angeles, that cost $2.2 billion, and displaced 25,000 people. Because of revenue shortfalls, highway and bridge repair in the U.S. falls behind $1.7 billion a year. There are costs to bringing gas to the pump that aren’t reflected in the price per gallon. The petroleum industry gets over $100 billion a year in subsidies and tax breaks, and the U.S. spends $50 billion a year keeping the U S Navy 5th fleet in the Persian Gulf, protecting our oil interests. So, if we factor in the health and economic costs of the internal combustion engine vehicle, an alternative transportation system is imperative.

With imagination, and determination, we could develop a transportation system, and communities like I experienced growing up in the 1940s and 50s in the Spokane Valley. If we wanted to travel the 14 miles to Spokane, we walked 1 and 1/2 miles (Yes, walking was a common way of getting around way back then.) to catch an Auto Interurban bus – privately owned, and profitably operated. The busses were generally full, often with a number of riders standing in the aisle. (Of course, Mom sternly instructed us boys to always stand to give the ladies our seat.) In Spokane, the Washington Water Power Co. operated an extensive and efficient electric trolley system. Spokane was a vibrant, lively city with a wider array of shopping options than it currently has. There were eight stand-alone theaters, several architectural marvels. There were four large food markets offering a wide variety of products – many fruits and vegetables locally produced. Auto related sprawl and malls have diminished the character of the city.

Maybe I’m being overly sentimental in my nostalgia, but those, in retrospect, were “the good old days.” We had more convivial and regular social interactions. There wasn’t a flourishing market for tranquilizers. And kids didn’t worry so much about not being above average.

There are a number of signs telling us we cannot continue living as we do. The brilliant Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson said it wisely in “Biodiversity, Prosperity and Values”: “The errant Old World primate species is now changing the global environment more than the environment has changed at any previous time since the end of the Mesozoic Era, sixty five million years ago.”

We can’t reclaim 65 million years, but we can change the way we live.

Article by Buell Hollister