Carfree Times

      Issue 20

1 July 2001     

Ice cream!
Venice, March 2001

News at

Carfree Redevelopment Conferences Cancelled

Due to insufficient interest and inadequate resources, the International Institute for Carfree Development has cancelled the two conferences that had been scheduled in Oakland and Ithaca during late September. Brownfields 2001, a major conference sponsored by the EPA, is being held 24-26 September. Either Douglas A. Salzmann or I may give a brief presentation at the Brownfields 2001 conference.

Those who have already signed up for either of the Institute conferences will received a full refund.

Doug Salzmann and I would especially like to thank the many volunteers who contributed so much time to helping with organizational tasks. The work was not in vain - we'll be back!

Carfree Cities Distribution

Wholesale stock of Carfree Cities is temporarily exhausted in the USA. Some retailers still have stock, and a new shipment should arrive soon from the Netherlands. Visit the Ordering Information page.

Interstate Rail Proposal

J.H. Crawford has proposed Interstate Rail, a way to partially convert the US Interstate Highway system to rail operation.


Events are now listed on their own page.


One learns also at Cambridge how architecture has declined geometrically in taste and excellence - by roughly half each century since the first Elizabeth. There much is good because so little is new.

John Kenneth Galbraith

Oil Slick Award

To Bush, again, for his contemptible take-no-prisoners, make-no-friends attitude towards energy conservation and global warming.

And a Greenie

To US Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont, former Republican, for having the courage to throw himself in the path of the Bush juggernaut.

World News Notes & Comment

Vive la France?

French President Jacques Chirac said that the government should promise its citizens a "protected and preserved" environment as a constitutional right. He believes that a green extension of human rights is warranted in the face of a growing "collective fear" about the consequences of environmental damage.

Chirac said that the time has come to enshrine five principles in law:

  • Environmental responsibility
  • Precautionary principle
  • Integration of environmental issues into all sectors
  • Damage prevention
  • Citizen participation.
Chirac believes that France must address energy policy issues in order to improve the quality of life, with four specific issues especially important:
  • Preservation and management of natural environments
  • Improvements in urban quality of life
  • Greener freight transport networks
  • Sustainable industrial development
Chirac has proposed a global environmental governance body modeled on the UN World Health Organization.
The French press has questioned just how much of this is pre-election posturing, but it all sounds pretty good.

Viva Cuba!

Prior to the breakup of the USSR, Cuba had attained a relatively high quality of life, as indicated by such statistics as literacy, infant mortality, and life expectancy, all among the best in the New World. With the collapse of the USSR, Cuba suddenly lost most of its foreign trade and hence foreign exchange. Oil imports had to be cut by more than half; other imports, including agricultural inputs, were also cut dramatically.

Yet Cuba continues to survive, perhaps even flourish. Some 100,000 local community gardens were established to reduce transport energy. Organic farming was adopted to reduce the demand for fertilizer. The country turned to bicycles for transport and freight delivery, marking a huge change in Cuban culture - bike use had been insignificant, but has now become the cornerstone of transport. Today there are a million bikes in Havana alone. The streets and roads are being reorganized to reflect the fall in car usage and the upsurge in bicycling.

The emission of air pollutants associated with cars, trucks, and buses has fallen by at least 30%. Health has improved at the same time. Cuba is now one of the pioneers in renewable energy research, development, and application.

Housing practices also changed. The Soviet-era concrete-bunker style of housing has been supplanted by low-rise designs that improve air flow and are built from local materials. Some food will be grown on the surrounding open space and sewage will be treated biologically, with the effluent used to irrigate the gardens. Automobiles are not allowed into these new complexes.

"Viva la Cultura Sostenible de Cuba"
Auto-Free Times
Spring 2001

While it must be admitted that not every Cuban is thrilled by the changes, Cuba is an example of how quality of life can be improved while dramatically reducing resource consumption.

China Undermines Bush's Stance on Kyoto

China's rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions have been used by Bush & Co. to justify US inaction on the Kyoto accords, on the grounds that developing nations were exempted from the provisions of the accords. It had been held that China (with quadruple the population of the USA) would overtake the USA as the world's largest source of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

China, however, has pulled the rug out from under Bush by dramatically slowing its emissions of CO2 during the last decade. Chinese officials say their country will do its part to in the battle against a global threat. "We already have one of the world's best records in improving energy efficiency," said Zhou Dadi, director of the Energy Research Institute of the State Development Planning Commission. "Our challenge is this: Can we give people an acceptable lifestyle and also address the problem of climate change?"

China's output of CO2 during the last four years, a period of rapid economic growth, has actually declined, and it appears that China has achieved a stunning reversal of the usual increases that accompany economic expansion. China's emissions of CO2 have declined by 17% since the mid-1990s, according to a recent report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Part of the reason: subsidies for coal production were ended as part of market reforms and efforts to control terrible air pollution in China's cities.

A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council states, "There is a good basis to argue that China has done more to combat climate change over the past decade than has the United States." Gao Feng of China's Foreign Ministry said, "We've done what we can to reduce emissions, and we'll continue to do so. But it's not fair to ask the developing countries to take the lead."

"China's Great Leap on Gases"
International Herald Tribune
16 June 2001

Wonder what Bush & Co. will try next. Faith-based global cooling?

Americans Understand: Energy Crunch is Real

As of early May, 58% of Americans believed that the energy crisis is "very serious." The previous high-water mark of concern was 47% way back in August 1979. Some 56% of Americans see the recent rise in gasoline prices as more than just a blip. Large majorities of Americans favor mandatory improvements in appliance efficiency and more energy-efficient buildings.

Some other highlights of the poll:

  • 91% favor investments in solar, wind, and fuel-cell power
  • 85% favor requiring more energy efficient cars
  • 64% favor more investment in natural gas pipelines
  • 48% favor more nuclear power plants
  • 38% support drilling in the ANWR
Bush & Co., of course, maintain that such measures somehow interfere with "freedom of choice." Are we allowed to choose to leave our children a world worth living in?

Riding Out in Front of the Politicians

A survey sponsored by Smart Growth America (a coalition of public-interest groups) asked a cross-section of Americans which of several proposals offered the best long-term solution to reducing traffic:
  • Build new roads
  • Improve public transportation, such as adding trains, buses, and light rail
  • Develop communities where people do not have to drive long distances to work or shop
Three-quarters of the respondents called for either improving mass transit or developing less auto-dependent communities; only 21% called for more roads.

"American Gridlock "
U.S. News & World Report
28 May 2001

In a working democracy, this clear public understanding would translate into political action. In the politics-of-wealth and election-by-fiat that now characterize the USA, we have... Bush & Co.

Green Stamps

Domingo Jimenez-Beltran, chief of the EU's Environment Agency, challenged the USA to publish environmental data so people can compare the green credentials of the world's two biggest trading blocs. He said that while the USA might lead the world in tackling air pollution, it lags on energy conservation and climate change measures. He believes that the public should be aware of these facts. "It's important to benchmark the EU against the USA," he said.

He had only scathing remarks for President Bush's plans to increase energy production and said that consumers should know of the poor US record on energy conservation. That gasoline costs half as much in the USA as in Europe could be seen as economic dumping, because low US taxes meant that US products cost less to make than those in the more highly taxed EU. He suggested that products be labeled with the country of origin so consumers would know could identify products made in countries where energy efficiency is taken seriously.

Some of you may recall that recently carried an editorial proposing economic boycotts of the USA, based on the same unfair competition issue cited by Jimenez-Beltran.

Gasoline From Across the Pond

Europeans have a somewhat different take on US energy "problems." The USA now consumes 40% of all gasoline worldwide. The tremendous surge in demand in the USA during the 1990s as a result of SUVs and just plain more driving have led to a shortage of US refinery capacity that has in turn caused the USA to buy gasoline from Europe, which is also tight on refinery capacity. The result is that gasoline prices are rising not just in the USA but also in Europe. In April alone, the import of European-produced gasoline by the USA rose 57%, according to an 11 May 2001 report from the International Energy Agency.

According to Business Week, not a single new refinery has been built since the mid-1970s.

"Benzine hamsteren voor de zomer"
NRC Handelsblad
11 May 2001

Now, you have to ask why Big Oil isn't building new refineries. The need for them should have become clear at least five years ago, as demand continued to spiral out of control in the USA. Part of the reason is that local opposition to new refineries is very strong, and for good reason - they are terrible polluters, which is the principal reason that air quality in Houston is so bad. But maybe the oil companies decided not to build new refineries because they know that it will be very hard to find crude oil to feed to new refineries. They ought to know better than anybody.

Oh, yeah. The Europeans are upset. They already pay more than twice as much for gas as Americans. To have their gas "stolen" by a USA that shows such indifference to the concerns of other nations just adds insult to injury. Bush makes a serious error of judgement when he assumes that this will have no consequences for the USA.

Buses in Boulder

Here we ask people - in their homes, schools, where they work, at the gym - what they want. We listen very carefully, then go out and try to get it for them.
Bob Whitson
Go Boulder

Whitson's strategy has succeeded well in Boulder, a city of 100,000 near Denver, where 60% of the citizens have city bus passes, a number perhaps not equaled anywhere. The reason is simple: "The riders chose their bus service. It was not chosen for them." This extends not only to routes and schedules but to the buses themselves. Service is fairly frequent, usually every 10 minutes or less.

At the university, the 26,000 students voted to add $15 to their semester fees for unlimited bus use. Student ID's double as bus passes. Likewise, 6000 city employees have bus passes, as do other groups buying in bulk for their entire membership. Even some residential neighborhoods have banded together to secure passes for their residents. The service is especially popular with kids, who now have good independent mobility. The system is so simple to use that even quite young kids manage on their own.

"We are outside the mainstream of public transit thinking," says Mr. Whitson with some pride. "No one here has ever studied transit. We've learned everything on our own. When I go to national public transit conferences, they all talk about bus maintenance, the latest in diesel fuels, how windshield wipers work, and counting every nickel that goes in the fare box."

What's wrong in other cities? According to Whitson, "The way transit agencies are set up, they are motivated to measure success by on-time arrivals.... They don't do what it takes to fill buses. They are perfectly happy for buses to arrive empty, as long as they arrive on time."

"How the continent's best transit works"
The Ottawa Citizen
31 May 2001

How surprising is it that customer-oriented thinking wins customers? Ease of use is really important, and there's nothing like having a pass in your pocket to achieve that.

Externalized Costs

The American Automobile Association estimated the total cost of owning, maintaining, and operating a vehicle at $0.53 per mile in 1997. Even without any increase in costs since then, cars now cost US drivers over $1.3 trillion a year.

The Federal Highway Administration says that to this cost must be added the externalized costs of driving (crashes, pollution, noise, congestion, etc., etc.), conservatively estimated at a further $446.3 billion a year. Some estimates put it at almost $1 trillion a year.

Drivers pay only $80.6 billion a year in fuel taxes, vehicle taxes, and tolls, and most of that is dedicated to highway expansion and maintenance.

We'll bet that none of the estimates of externalized costs include any amount for the ugliness that accompanies auto-centric development.

Breathing Easier

Impressive gains from catalytic converters on cars are being wiped out by a 250% increase in car use since they were introduced, according to lung specialist Dr. David Bates.

Bates says the impact of summer smog spikes can be readily seen in next-day hospital admissions - particularly for infants and elderly people with lung and heart problems. "Every study shows the same thing. In the summer, there is a strong association between ozone and sulphates together, and hospital admissions for asthma and other lung diseases."

A study of smog levels during the Atlanta Olympics confirms that equally dramatic benefits can occur when smog levels drop sharply. "The ozone peak fell because there was a 20% reduction in automobile use for 17 days, due to an appeal to the public. That produced a 40% reduction for emergency hospital admissions for asthma," says Bates. "Only a lunatic fringe, or those associated with the industries who are causing the problem, deny that. Every new report on this makes the case more persuasive."

"Why this B.C. doctor says cars are killers"
Vancouver Sun
19 May 2001

Shhhh!... Really

Researchers in the USA, Germany, and Austria have found that continuous, low-level traffic noise can cause health and motivational problems in children. Traffic noise appears to cause stress in children and raises blood pressure, heart rates, and production of stress hormones.

The study is the first to examine the health effects of typical ambient noise. Fourth-graders in Austria with similar family characteristics were studied. Half the children lived in quiet areas - below 50 decibels (dB). The other half lived in noisy areas - above 60 dB. (In a typical US urban residential neighborhood, noise levels range between 55 and 70 dB.)

"We also found that girls exposed to the traffic noise become less motivated, presumably from the sense of helplessness that can develop from noise they couldn't control," said Gary Evans, an expert on environmental stress. "We found that even low-level noise can be a stressor because it elevates psycho-physiological factors, triggers more symptoms of anxiety and nervousness when the children are stressed, and can diminish motivation."

"Noisy neighborhoods harmful to children's health"
24 May 2001

The original study was published in the
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

Carfree near DC?

Two "transit nodes," each 160 acres, have been proposed in the Loudoun County, Virginia, master plan. Residential densities in these areas might rise to 50 units per acre and could be based on carfree development. All houses would be within walking distance of a new DC Metro extension.

"Supervisors roll up sleeves, tackle plan"
Loudoun Times-Mirror
9 May 2001


Feature Article

Lessons from the Transcontinental Railroad

By J.H. Crawford

I have developed a near-obsession with the story of the first transcontinental railroad in the USA. At the time of its construction, it was the largest project undertaken since antiquity. The scope of the problems, the vision of those who set the project in motion, and the burning ambition of those who forced it through to completion make for a compelling story. There are also fascinating parallels with the contemporary US politics.

Succeeding with Monumental Undertakings

Two railroads actually built the Pacific Railroad (PRR). The Central Pacific (CP) was built by the Big Four (Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, Hopkins) from Sacramento to Promontory Point, Utah; the Union Pacific (UP) was built from Omaha, linking with the CP at Promontory Point. While the completion of the CP was never in really serious doubt, despite the exceedingly difficult crossing of the Sierra Nevada, the UP, working in much easier territory, was very nearly destroyed from within by infighting and mindless greed. The Big Four functioned as an exceptionally effective team, making very few costly mistakes (even if they did underestimate costs in general). Each member of the Big Four dedicated himself to the work he did best:

Stanford - California politics
Huntington - purchasing, finance, and Washington lobbying
Crocker - construction
Hopkins - accounting

They spun meager human and financial resources into a first-class railroad crossing the most difficult terrain that had ever been attempted. Had the CP been bedeviled by the kind of infighting that characterized the UP, the CP would almost certainly never have been finished.

Some Thoughts on Corruption

The transcontinental railroad project was initiated in 1862, but most of the action occurred during the post-civil-war period of 1865-1869. The parallels with our own times are striking: failed attempts to impeach a president; a recently-concluded, costly war (either hot or cold); and surging prosperity driven by new technology (railroad, Internet). Some of the advantages of the new technology turned out to cost more than expected and yielded less income, and many unanticipated problems arose. Still, both periods are marked by widespread optimism.

Also in both times, bribery had become the norm in politics. When the PRR was being built, one obtained favors in Washington by giving company stock or bonds to cabinet secretaries, congressmen, government inspectors, and just about anybody with enough nerve to ask. When proffered, these instruments were worth only a fraction of their face value, so bribes were generally not as large as it may appear. The recipients had every reason to further the interests of the corporations whose securities they held.

Today, one gives "campaign contributions" to presidents, congressmen, and anybody who might want to run for office. (It may be that the bribing of unelected officials is comparatively rare today, unlike in the 1860s.) Today, relatively small campaign contributions are as sure a path to obtaining favorable action as outright stock bribes were in 1865. Like the campaign contribution, the stock bribe was relatively economical for the giver, but often ruinously expensive for the nation as a whole.

The building of the PRR involved fraud of incredible proportions, more on the UP than on the CP. The method was ingenious: establish an unregulated construction corporation and award it the construction contracts. Stock in these corporations was held by substantially the same individuals as the railroad stock, but the activities of the construction company transpired almost entirely without public oversight. By this and other frauds, unbelievable amounts of money were siphoned into the hands of the principals.

Cleaning Up Politics

What followed the gluttonous period of 1865-70 was the era of muckraking journalism, widespread scandal, and eventually some cleaning up of corruption in big business and politics. It remains to be seen whether the USA will recover from the current rampant influence pedaling; certainly, it will take effective efforts by the media to reveal the level of corruption and to urge the public on to action. Unfortunately, most of the media are owned by large corporations whose interests might be damaged, were the system to be changed. One can only hope, now that the Internet has provided virtually everyone with a way to air controversial opinions, that individuals and organizations of small means will again be able to make their voices heard.

Corporations have changed in important respects since 1865. In those days, it was perfectly routine for a corporation's books to be doctored and even to be withheld from public scrutiny, as was the case with both the CP and the UP. This allowed incredible swindles to be perpetrated on the public and stockholders alike. The world today faces a different challenge - national governments have yet to find an effective way to regulate large corporations whose activities cross national boundaries. As then, hope for improvement rests on finding a way to bring corporations under public scrutiny and to bend them to the needs of the greater society.

Public Purpose and Private Interest

The question of high public purpose and government subsidy of private ventures is always a delicate one. In the 1860s, the USA badly wanted a transcontinental railroad, and to achieve this public purpose, the government lent huge sums to the railroads (there were also grants of cash and huge tracts of land, mostly of little value). However much corruption was involved, the larger strategy was achieved - the USA got its transcontinental railroad in an astonishingly short period of time, really only three years from the start of serious construction. The government realized huge savings on its own freight costs when freight rates fell by 75% upon completion of the railroad.

The question thus arises: will the federal government again be willing to come forward with subsidies of one kind or another, this time for the construction of carfree cities? Can this be accomplished without the robber-barons skimming the cream? Small land grants to individuals building houses in a new carfree city could help to achieve this, but it seems likely that other forms of subsidy will also be required. This will only occur if, as with the PRR, it is widely seen as in the national interest. Such a consensus seems almost unthinkable now, but so was the case when Asa Whitney first seriously proposed the transcontinental railroad in 1845. Less than 25 years later, his fanciful notion became a reality.

Books on the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

So far, I have read three books on the transcontinental railroad. They are briefly reviewed here, in the order in which I read them.

I find it fascinating how the different authors favor different characters; Williams has Huntington as more of a villain than does Ambrose, for instance. Everyone, however, seems to agree that the UP's "Doc" Durant was a detestable figure.

Alas, all of the books I have so far assembled lack really good maps of the path of the railroad, and it is sometimes infuriatingly difficult to figure out just where the action is taking place. Fortunately, the books have many excellent historical photographs, not always well reproduced.

Coming soon are reviews of:

High Road to Promontory, George Kraus
The First Transcontinental Railroad, John Debo Galloway
A Work of Giants, Wesley S. Griswold


Nothing Like It in the World:
The Men Who Built the
Transcontinental Railroad

Stephen E. Ambrose

Simon & Schuster, 2000

432 pages
32 pages of good plates
Hardcover (cheap glued binding)
US$28.00 (widely discounted)
ISBN 0684846098

Stephen E. Ambrose was one of my history professors at Johns Hopkins and a fine lecturer. He has gone on to become a highly popular author of serious history written for general audiences. This book is a bit out of his usual area, which has mainly been "war in the modern world" (the title of the course he taught at Hopkins) and biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon. He has done a thorough job with the research for this book and written it in his usual accessible style.

I take some issue with his position as a minor apologist for some of the excesses of the era, and the book has too many sloppy errors, but this notwithstanding, it is an excellent work of reasonable length. While no book can avoid a discussion of corruption in the construction of the PRR, the Bain book (below) gives far more insight into the corruption that overwhelmed the Union during the construction of the railroad, which reached so high and so wide as even to taint Lincoln.

The technical and financial challenges in building the railroad are treated in reasonable detail and give an understanding of the incredible magnitude of the project. The personalities of the major players is revealed in some depth. In an excellent Epilogue, Ambrose considers the significance of the project in American history.


Empire Express:
Building the First
Transcontinental Railroad

David Haward Bain

Viking, 1999
797 pages
32 pages of very good plates
Hardcover (cheap glued binding)
ISBN 067080889

This book is awfully long and reads rather slowly. While others have described the writing as "prismatic," I find it tedious and sometimes not even clear - the meaning of a few passages is simply not to be divined even after repeated readings. While the book is loaded with facts, the analysis of all this data is sometimes curiously lacking, and some things are never put into clear perspective, especially some of the financial wranglings. I felt somewhat as if I had wasted my time reading this book - it provided only moderate amounts of information beyond the Ambrose book, although I am clearly closer to Bain's philosophical position than to Ambrose's.

Bain is unremitting in his criticism of the genocide that nearly wiped out the Plains Indians, who were a nuisance to the construction of the railroad. (Some tribes collaborated early and were treated well; they were used in the relentless hunting of less docile tribes.)

Some of the voluminous detail really does help to make clear the magnitude of the challenge - the details of the snow falls, spring thaws, and efforts to clear the line of snow. The discussion of tunneling through the Sierra granite and the techniques applied (including some of the first use of nitroglycerine in the USA) gives a clear picture of how these difficulties were overcome.

Bain is unalloyed in his damnation of "Doc" Thomas Durant, possibly the greatest swindler of the 19th century and the man who came closest to collapsing the entire enterprise through his mindless greed. As Vice President of the Union Pacific, he missed not a single opportunity to milk money from the venture, leaving the railroad nearly bankrupt at the end of construction, having fattened his own purse immensely.

The crucial Epilogue, while present, fails to tie the work together and place it fully in its context in American history. Bain worked on this book for 14 years, twice the time it took to build the railroad, digging into vast piles of original documents and correcting a number of earlier, unfounded claims. One sometimes has the sense that, as with so many of those absorbed in the construction of the railroad, the work left him exhausted by the end and incapable of standing back from his work, in order to put it in context. This task is left mainly to the reader.


A Great and Shining Road:
The Epic Story of the
Transcontinental Railroad

John Hoyt Williams

University of Nebraska Press, 1988
341 pages
32 pages of poor-quality plates
(Possibly better in the first edition)
ISBN 0803297890

I wish, actually, that I had read this book first, for it is a neat synopsis of the project and reads fairly quickly. If the Bain book is taken as authoritative as far as details are concerned, then this book suffers from a number of errors, none of them serious. (For example, Bain has the 1869 Nevada epidemic as smallpox, Williams has it as cholera.)

The Williams book is very good at putting the project into the context of the times and omits no significant part of the story. (The Ambrose book is a little too tightly constrained to the CP/UP and omits some other parts of the story that really are germane.)

The relations of the CP with the Indians are thrown into sharp relief. The CP had very few problems with Indians, in contrast to terrible bloodshed on both sides of the conflict in UP territory. Some of this difference relates to the territory, of course, but the highly provocative tactics employed against the Plains Indians stand in sharp contrast to the relatively benign strategies employed farther west, where there was an almost total absence of bloodshed.

The plates in the softcover edition are legible but poor. If you value high-quality illustrations, you might try looking for a first-edition hardcover, in which the plates may have been printed on good paper; a used hardcover copy can be had for between $12 and $20.

Hot New Links

The links below will open in a new browser window:

Methane Madness: A Natural Gas Primer, a fairly short, really excellent explanation of the current US natural gas crisis. Essential reading.

And when cheap oil runs out... Enter the age of conservation
(San Francisco Chronicle, 6 May 2001)

Photos of Gulangya Island, Xiamen, China, a carfree island, by Menchetti

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