Life without cars


photo of a man with eyeglasses and a moustacheEd Schilling

“American cars and pickup trucks are responsible for nearly half of the greenhouse gases emitted by automobiles globally, even though the nation’s vehicles make up just 30 percent of the nearly 700 million cars in use, according to a new report by Environmental Defense.” (LA Times, 6/28/06)

Is there any way to stop the 700 million vehicles in the world, the main contributors of carbon emissions, from spewing out greenhouse gases and changing the climate?

Well, I saw thousands of automobiles all sidelined once. Members of the taxi and bus cooperatives in Quito, Ecuador, successfully shut down all traffic for several days to and from Quito in the spring of 1999. “Las transportistas” put down car tires across the road, poured gasoline on the tires, lit some matches, and then watched as flames and billowing smoke brought all traffic to a screeching halt.

It’s true that these protests were about runaway inflation and not greenhouse gases or global warming. Still, it was sure great to see all those thousands of polluting cars suddenly swept off the roads in a city of over 1.5 million.

In my five years overseas I always just took the bus. Eighty percent of the people in Ecuador travel by bus or taxi, and maybe that’s why the transportistas have such clout. If Quito were a big city in the USA, you would have to applaud the bus and trolley system for literally keeping millions of private cars off the road. Now everything is changing – from Quito to China, everyone wants more cars. How to stop the overpopulation of cars?

It was a shock to move back to the US after five years and see that the California electric car movement had died out, and the laws calling for 10 percent of all cars in the State to be pollution-free by 2003 had been gutted by the auto industry. Before I expatriated, I had converted a ’79 Honda to electric. A meager attempt to stop the gas car juggernaut – sure wish I had it now!

The documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? gives one recent example of the long history of ideas that have been actively suppressed by industry. From 1996 to 2000, the GM EV1, was recalled and simply crushed. The people who had leased the cars were supposed not to care when GM recalled and crushed their $35,000 vehicles. GM even bought up the battery patents.

Almost 40 years ago, prior to 1972 that is, GM also made three promising electric vehicles. One of these, a 1968 GM “Stir-Lec,” was a converted 1968 Opel Kadett with a small eight-horsepower Sterling engine as its battery charging unit. Pollution was almost negligible, range 150 to 200 miles. Literally hundreds of other “prototypes” have been produced, showcased, and either abandoned or crushed by the Big 3 automakers over the years.

The simplicity of the electric car is clearly why it hasn’t been produced – they are a definite threat to the 100-year marriage of the oil and auto industries. But there were many “threats” – Bill Lear’s steam car, which improved internal combustion efficiency by 30 percent, or the Sterling engine, which according to Scientific American, contributed “little or nothing to air pollution.” Congress has heard testimony for over 40 years on alternatives, but can’t tell industry what to build. Even Henry Ford wanted to run his cars on corn alcohol fuel thereby helping American farmers, but lost his bid to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust.

I’ve had this dream that, like Quito’s in 1999, all the roads in the US were swept clean of cars for a week. But it always ends the same. Helpless people gaze out windows from air conditioned rooms passively watching heat waves, floods and hurricanes intensify, year by year.

In 1950 there were 50 million cars on the road, in 1990 there were 400 million, now there are 700 million. And if you don’t think that affects climate change, think again.

Ed Schilling teaches English at Butte College in California

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