Colin Fiske, Executive Director
In the early twentieth century, a coalition of “automotive interests” consisting mainly of car manufacturers and driving clubs dramatically re-shaped American culture and geography. Through their legislative, economic and public relations efforts, they transformed American streets and roads from public spaces open to anyone into “motorways” that were meant only for cars. Pedestrians killed by speeding cars—including many children—were converted from innocent victims into ignorant rubes or “jaywalkers” who were to blame for their own demise. Streetcar systems (including one in Eureka) were undermined legally and financially, and were eventually scrapped. By the 1950s, federal and state governments were spending billions of dollars to build massive networks of auto-only highways which—among many other consequences—enabled the rise of the suburbs and destroyed thriving Black neighborhoods on their way through cities and towns. This story is told in fascinating and troubling detail in Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic and other historical accounts.
Today, our transportation system and our local communities are confronted with forces just as powerful as those which completely reshaped American society a century ago. In a new report called “Elephants in the Road,” the Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP) identifies three such phenomena and how they apply here in Humboldt County:
- Climate chaos. Not only does transportation contribute the majority of local climate-harming pollutants, but the transportation system will be heavily impacted by climatic changes. Coastal roads and trails will be inundated by sea level rise, while infrastructure in inland parts of the county will be dramatically affected by increases in the frequency and severity of wildfire.
- Traffic violence. As the history above shows, death and destruction have accompanied cars from the beginning. But over time, while cars have become (somewhat) safer for their occupants, they have only become more dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists. Today, pedestrian deaths are rising again, and the people most impacted are the elderly, people of color, and people in low-income communities. Humboldt County ranks among the most dangerous in California for people on foot and on bicycles.
- Increasing automation. Cars and trucks are increasingly equipped with features which take over tasks once left to human drivers, and “self-driving” vehicles of one kind or another will be widely deployed in the near future. The early twentieth century experience with cars shows that if we don’t make autonomous vehicles adapt to our communities, our communities will be forced to adapt to them—often in ways we won’t like.
CRTP’s new report documents these phenomena in much greater detail and provides a clear prescription for what exactly needs to be done to respond. The report is both a wake-up call and a call to action for local citizens, planners and officials. It clearly shows that climate chaos, traffic violence and automation need to be at the center of all transportation decision-making in Humboldt County.
The window is rapidly closing for Humboldt County and its local communities to shape the future of our local transportation system. If we don’t start taking these phenomena seriously now, we’ll be struggling to react to overwhelming challenges for decades to come.
Read the full report on CRTP’s website at transportationpriorities.org.