Highway to Hell 

Road Rage

When it comes to America's love affair with the auto, breaking up is hard to do

It's 8:30 a.m. and despite falling snow and slick roads, the fuel-injected jockeying is in full swing.

A red Honda changes lanes, darting in between a maroon Subaru station wagon and a sport-utility vehicle as traffic slows for a red light. A beat up Blazer pulling out of Trempers Shopping Center drives around a minivan, climbs the curb with its two right tires and squeezes into the right-hand turning lane on Brooks Street.

Like Marines in boot camp mustering to reveille, commuters line up early for their daily wait at Malfunction Junction. It will take most drivers two light changes and close to five minutes to get through Missoula's infamous tangled intersection.

Urban transit problems are evident even in small towns under the Big Sky. According to state figures, the amount of traffic on Montana's roads in the last 20 years grew almost twice as fast the population and is expected to double again by the year 2015. Montanans own more vehicles per driver (1.72) than any other state in the nation. Missoula County alone has 10,000 more registered vehicles than people.

As the motto goes: "You buy 'em to drive 'em." And we do. Nationally, the amount of daily vehicle miles traveled has doubled since 1970. Here in the Garden City, Missoulians rack up just over a million miles every day.

In the 100 years since Henry Ford produced his first cars, they have brought us fast food and drive-in movies. The combustion engine inspired Jack Kerouac and Easy Rider to popularize the romantic road trip in search of self and sanctuary. Cruising may even affect our DNA. One national expert on automotive culture claims that because we can now court each other over hundreds of miles, instead of just within buggy-riding distance, our gene pool has changed.

But cars have gotten a bad rap as of late, and the charges aren't trivial. With our four-wheeled freedom, we pollute the air, suck up fossil fuels and drip toxins into our drinking water. It's presented a complicated puzzle for city planners nationwide: how to reconcile Americans' love of the automobile with its poisonous consequences.

On a table in Missoula County Commissioner Michael Kennedy's office sits a three foot stack of paper. "That's all of my transportation pile by the way," he says. "Actually, I shouldn't say that's all of it. It's some of it." Before getting elected to public office, Kennedy worked for 35 years as a consulting engineer and environmental scientist. "I've designed my fair share of highways," he says.

And from all that experience, Kennedy has drawn conclusions that place him squarely on one side of the traffic debate. Missoula, he says, had best start paying serious attention to alternative modes of transportation.

He qualifies his stance, though, by saying that he does support attempts to ease congestion -- things like synchronizing traffic signals are not bad in and of themselves. But he points out a down side. "Making traffic flow better by itself is like finding a cancer cure. You haven't found a way to avoid cancer, you've only found that after you've contracted it, you can go ahead and cure it."

Kennedy points to figures put out by the Alternative Energy Resources Organization that show the cost to operate a car is close to $13,000 annually, while the average driver only pays about $6,000. If drivers had to cough up the actual cost of owning a vehicle, Kennedy says, then there would a much stronger push to develop alternative modes of transportation.

If Kennedy epitomizes the cultural shift away from complete car-dependency, his co-commissioner Barbara Evans is one of the automobile's biggest advocates.

Evans, an organizer of the conservative political committee, Citizens for Common Sense Govern-ment, tends to get defensive when local policy makers discuss bike lanes and pedestrian bridges. She thinks there is too much money spent on such projects, benefiting too few users. She has been quite vocal over the years on behalf of drivers, going so far as likening driving to a divine right.

"I get distressed when people make you feel guilty for driving your car," she says. "It's none of my business how people get where they want to go."

Because Missoula's air has improved dramatically in the last 20 years, Evans tends to downplay the concern over air quality, and would like to see less attention -- and money -- paid to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians.

A 50-year resident of Missoula, Evans remembers a much dirtier era in the city's history. "I can remember using my hands to wipe the coal smoke off the windows. I can still conjure up in my mind the smell in the valley. You'd hang your laundry out to dry and it'd be dirtier than when you washed it."

Evans helped create the Missoula-Ravalli Transportation Management Association, which operates commuter shuttles between Hamilton and Missoula. She also favors some more traditional ways of controlling pollution; she's big on Park and Ride programs, as well as carpooling and emissions testing.

"I'm taking my life in my own hands here whenever I say this, but I would like to see [auto] emissions testing. There are ways of cleaning up the air without getting people out of the car."

Missoula's legendary status for having some of the worst air in the country has faded to myth over the last two decades, after a concerted effort to clean up the industrial sources and wood stoves that once chugged out the vast majority of the city's smog.

A report released at the end of last year revealed that Whitefish is the latest bad air title holder in the state, and according to Missoula City-County Health Department stats, the amount of carbon monoxide gas in the air around these parts has been on a steady decline since 1988.

But, cautions the department's environmental health director Jim Carlson, the decline in particulate matter -- microscopic pieces of solid material -- has leveled off since 1996 and is even beginning to rise again, with automobiles weighing in as the source of two-thirds of the unhealthy stuff.

At the same time, Missoula's deteriorating spring and summer air now measures more like its once notorious winters -- at least for some kinds of pollution. Carlson says no one is exactly sure what's causing the increase, but that officials suspect pollutants like road dust and diesel fuel, which are on the rise.

The issue has become even more complex since stricter federal regulations went into effect last summer, but it will be at least three years before it's known whether Missoula complies with the new regs.

Carlson says he believes that Missoula will be near or within the new federal standards. However, he says, meeting those standards could require regulating several different kinds of pollution -- like ammonium nitrate and diesel -- rather than the usual culprits.

With $111 million worth of local transportation projects on the drawing board for the next 20 years, Missoula officials know the stakes are high. By the year 2016, a combination of federal, state and local money will have paid for 73 miles of bike lanes, nearly 42 miles of sidewalks, and 27 miles of road building and improvements.

Under the auspices of the Missoula Urban Area Transportation Plan, just updated in 1996, officials are for the first time including alternative modes of travel in their transit planning.

The result, says city engineer Steve King, is that projects are more holistic. "In the past transportation plans were vehicular-centered. It's now more comprehensive. We've tried to take into account everyone who walks and rides a bike or takes the bus. The citizens of Missoula said we don't just want more asphalt," he says.

King is quick to point out that no one means to pry the car keys from anyone's hand.

"There is this misconception that local government is trying to force people out of their cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. But we do need to look at alternatives."

It's a philosophy that Mayor Mike Kadas agrees with as well. "We have to maintain our roads, patch the potholes, plow the snow. But we also have to make sure we don't preclude other modes of transportation."

Ask Missoula's bike/ped coordinator Phil Smith to wax a little philosophically about our car-happy culture, and you'll find a man unafraid to sit you down and tell you what he thinks.

"What is community? It's more than where goods and services are. It's a place where people feel linked to others. The automobile tends to work against that. The automobile tends to fracture communities," says Smith. He thinks too many people go from house to garage to car to work and back again without ever seeing a neighbor.

"That feeling of being linked gives us the ability to make good decisions about our community's future. How can we make good decisions without knowing our neighbors?"

After Smith gives you some philosophy to mull over, he'll hit you with some off-beat facts, like: Riding a bike consumes less energy than any other form of transportation. A 10-mile bike ride takes 350 calories, the amount found in one bowl of rice, but the same trip in a car will take the equivalent of over 18,000 calories.

During last fall's city election, Smith's office came under sharp criticism from Citizen's for Common Sense Government because of the number of bike racks he recommended for the proposed Eagle Hardware store on North Reserve Street. Close to the heart of the criticism was the belief that city tax money is wasted by promoting bicycle and pedestrian travel .

"I understand people feeling jeopardized because of the polarity that people infuse into the argument. Those people don't come talk to me. I wish they would. People who walk and ride their bikes are the same as all of us. They're not a different class of people."

Back at Malfunction Junction the lines of cars get longer as the snow piles up deeper and dirtier. Cars slip and slide to stops, spinning their tires to get moving again. Some drivers let others into line ahead of them, while others crowd their way through. There is a palpable sense of tension and anticipation at the red light: waiting for it to change green; wanting it to change now.

At places like North Reserve, along Brooks Street, or Malfunction Junction, the jammed traffic feels much like a love affair gone sour. The sweet air and wind-blown hair on a sunny drive through the country is far removed from Missoula's daily rush hour scene.

According to police Chief Pete Lawrenson, Missoula has seen only sporadic bursts of Seattle-like road rage reported recently. "We've seen lots of obscene hand gestures; lots of verbal exchanges," says Lawrenson. But no more than a handful of guns aimed at other drivers in the last two years, he says, and none have been discharged.

"It's not out of control yet."

Photos by Jeff Powers.


Car exaust is a growing part of Missoula's air pollution problem.


The south end of the Madison Street bridge is scheduled to get a face lift using $590,000 in federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality money.


Opponents of using public funds for bike lanes say that not enough people cycle their way around town to justify spending on such projects.


Missoula's earliest mass transit–seen here in the late 1920s–is echoed by Mountain Line's Emerald Line Trolley. Presumably, these trolleys didn't have pop radio piped in. Photo courtesy Pictorial Pictures Publishing.

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