“To build a road is so much simpler than to think of what the country really needs.”
– Aldo Leopold
Our yearning for ‘hitting the road’ and exploring new terrain is an American obsession that predates the invention of the automobile. Early settlers moving westward via animal power established trails and encampments that spawned our culture’s unending desire to experience new places, see new sights, exploit resources and impose changes in land use patterns.
The introduction of the automobile, the development of suburbia and a national highway system gives most of us freedom and mobility to move as we choose but at what cost? The typical car commuter spends upwards of 90 minutes per day getting to and from work. Big-box stores – and their massive parking lots — demark the ‘landscape’ everywhere, eschewing vernacular architecture and land patterns. The paved land in the United States totals an area greater than Georgia; nearly two-thirds of Los Angeles is said to be covered in asphalt; we lay enough new blacktop each year to cover all of the state of Delaware; so many logging roads dissect national forests that the U.S. Forest Service qualifies as one of the world’s largest road building agencies (see Landscape Architecture #85, 2003).
So many roads crisscross the United States that it might be time to consider something radical: road removal. Why? Roads introduce pollution to an area from the time construction begins. Creating a roadbed removes vegetation and increases erosion. Construction of a divided highway can produce as much as 3,000 tons of eroded sediment per mile. Vehicles traveling on roadways produce carcinogenic or toxic emissions: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, benzene, heavy metals, etc. Maintenance of roads brings more contamination. Oil products seep into water and poison aquatic life; herbicides inhibit biodiversity and remove desirable species along roadsides; de-icing saline-based products sicken animals and stimulate algae in drainage areas. Roads disturb hydrology: annual runoff from Washington, D.C. area roads carries more spilled oil than the Exxon Valdez.
Road-generated noise pollution proliferates into neighboring communities altering human and animal patterns. An estimated one million animals are ‘road-killed’ every day. US human fatalities average close to 40,000 annually. Taxpayers spend upwards of $200 million per day on roadways. The list goes on and on…
Is road removal worth considering? Organizations such as the Road Removal Implementation Project (ROAD-RIP) think yes. ROAD-RIP focuses its attention on the roads on public wildlands –areas overseen by the Bureau of Land Management – such as national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges. Working as a coalition of wilderness/preservation groups, ROAD-RIP works to identify roads deemed most damaging to wildlands and seeks to get them removed. Road removal means complete removal: removing all pavement and the compacted sub-base; restoring natural grade and replanting the entire area with native species. Successful projects to date include work in California’s Redwood National Park.
Are users of roadways in our Public domain ready for road removal? Judging by our television ads touting automobiles the answer seems a resounding no. But public sector roadways could benefit from redesign features: developing transit nodes – combining park and ride lots with bikeways and trains; retrofitting existing roadways with high-occupancy vehicle lanes; introducing alternative pavement materials – such as porous asphalt; eliminating at all costs the desire to build new super highways.
Our landscapes and our way of life are defined by pavement and our desire to drive in individual cars on it. Don’t think so? Try, for just one day, to eliminate using your personal automobile to go about doing the rituals of your daily routine. Maybe our best long term solution isn’t to rave against paving but to become more aware of the ramifications of paving. Insist that designers and government agencies redesign communities to maximize pedestrian, bicycle and transit access. Promote the viewpoint that open space remain open and encourage cluster development in new site design so that larger areas can be road-free. Use your home landscape as a perfect testing ground, a living laboratory, for attempting to make a new landscape order.