Episode 116: Road Ecology with Ben Goldfarb
Aaron Naparstek: So I’ve had a couple of Cleverhood moments lately. You guys having any Cleverhood moments?
Doug Gordon: I’ve got one, but you should go first.
Aaron: So what I’m finding is that pretty much any time I wear the Cleverhood, people want to talk about the Cleverhood. So my mom was in town, we had family over. I had my Cleverhood cape on. It was one of the older models—it’s kind of green herringbone. Everybody wanted to talk about what I was wearing. You put on the Cleverhood, you’re gonna have a conversation about the Cleverhood.
Doug: And I love you, Aaron, but that probably doesn’t happen to you with other things that you’re wearing.
Aaron: Never happens. Doesn’t ever happen with anything else that I wear.
Sarah Goodyear: It’s true that the Cleverhood gives anybody a fashion upgrade. And that’s how I feel when I put on the Urbanaut trench in particular, because not only is it very dashing, but it’s also reflective, so that you feel safe. And it has these great pockets that you can put your hands in, and they kind of rest at just this perfect place. And it’s not a moment, but I guess it’s sort of the moment of, like, seeing myself as one does when one’s walking down the street in New York City reflected in a shop window and thinking, “I look pretty sharp!”
Doug: [laughs] I love it! This is not a me moment, but it is my son. He’s got the Cleverhood rain cape in Hello Yellow—I love the names that they give these things. And we’ve had a bunch of rain lately, and he is the only kid who shows up at school with a dry backpack because the backpack fits under the cape.
Aaron: Oh yeah, that’s huge.
Doug: And it’s brilliant for kids and the stuff that they often have to carry to school. So big shout out to the Cleverhood Cleverkid Rain Cape.
Aaron: If you want to have your own Cleverhood moment, go to Cleverhood.con/waroncars, enter coupon code CLEVERGIFT when you checkout. That’s coupon code CLEVERGIFT.
Doug: You will save 15 percent on your purchase, and you’ll look really good!
Ben Goldfarb: We have this mentality that we’re basically allowed to go anywhere, right? That we are humans with dominion over the land and, you know, roads and vehicles are how we express and assert our dominion.
Sarah: This is The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. Before we get to our guest, I’d like to give a big shout out to our Patreon supporters, because you are the ones who make this podcast possible. If you’d like to become a Patreon supporter, you can go to TheWaronCars.org and click on “Support Us.” For as little as $3 a month, we’ll send you stickers, a handwritten thank-you note, and you’ll have access to bonus content.
Sarah: I’d also like to remind you we’re gonna be doing a live show at Caveat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, January 31. Tickets are selling fast, and we do expect to sell out. So if you want to be there, go to Caveat’s website and you will find a link to buy tickets. We’ll also put one in the show notes.
Sarah: Okay. Let’s get to our guest. Ben Goldfarb is an independent conservation journalist, and the author of Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. His writing has appeared in zillions of outlets, including The Atlantic, The New York Times, National Geographic, High Country News, and many, many others. His new book, which brings him here today, is called Crossings: How Road Ecology is Shaping the Future of Our Planet, out now from W.W. Norton. Ben Goldfarb, welcome to The War on Cars.
Ben Goldfarb: Thanks, Sarah. First time caller, long-time listener and ready for battle.
Sarah: I’d like to start out talking about the term that you use in your subtitle and also in the rest of the book, “road ecology.” Maybe you could define what that term means, and why it’s an important term to use.
Ben Goldfarb: So road ecology is the field of science that basically studies all of the different ways that roads—and really, all of our transportation infrastructure—screw up nature, essentially. And, you know, road ecology is sort of, at least originally, largely concerned with roadkill, right? That’s the most obvious manifestation of how roads and animals and wildlife and nature intersect. You know, the dead deer or raccoon by the side of the highway.
Ben Goldfarb: But that’s just, you know, the tip of the iceberg, as you might imagine. There’s—you know, there’s road salt that’s running off our highways and turning rivers and lakes brackish. There’s the road noise pollution problem which, you know, is a huge issue for wild animals as well as humans. There’s the genetic fragmentation that highways cause, you know, all of these walls of traffic, basically preventing wild animals from finding each other and mating and, you know, screwing up their lives that way. So road ecology, again, is sort of this big field of science that looks at all of those different interactions and relationships between roads and nature. And, you know, I think importantly starts to think about how we can deal with some of those problems and mitigate them.
Sarah: Is this a growing way of looking at roads? Each of these discrete things that you’re talking about: the noise, the pollution, the runoff, people talk about those things individually. Thinking of them as a whole, is that a newer viewpoint that scientists are using?
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah, I do think that road ecology has become more holistic and sophisticated over time. You know, the term was really invented in the mid-1990s by Richard Forman, who’s an ecologist at Harvard. The story that he told me was being in his office with a bunch of students, and they’re looking at this big picture, this kind of satellite image of a forest. And he’s kind of expounding on, you know, where the animals live and why humans put their houses where they did, and what trees are growing where and how the water runs off the landscape. And—you know, and then suddenly he stops and notices this big asphalt slash that’s running through the middle of the forest on this image and says, “You know, wait a second. We know a lot about everything else in this picture, but we don’t know much about that.” You know, I think that roads are so ubiquitous in some ways. You know, there are four million miles of them in this country, and 40 million miles of them worldwide. They’re such a staple of so many of our daily lives that we have tended to ignore them. And I think that, you know, wildlife biologists and ecologists have also tended to ignore them—or at least did until, you know, the 1990 and early 2000s when, galvanized by Richard Forman coining this phrase “road ecology,” people started to take a new look at these asphalt structures that we all take for granted.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, we talk on the show a lot about the idea of car blindness, and the fact that cars are so ubiquitous that you just don’t even see them. And roads, it’s even more so. It’s literally the ground that we walk on all the time, so it’s easy not to see it. How did you start to think about road ecology and why?
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah. You know, it really goes back basically a decade to the fall of 2013. You know, I’m an environmental journalist, I write about wildlife and conservation and ecology and all of that fun stuff. And I was in Montana writing about, you know, habitat fragmentation and connectivity. You know, basically this idea that large animals like grizzly bears and wolves and elk, you know, they need big intact landscapes to wander through and find food and mates and all of the things that all organisms need.
Ben Goldfarb: And, you know, our human society has fatally fragmented a lot of those habitats, often with roads, which again, not only kill these animals, but also that stream of cars just prevents them from crossing highways at all. You know, I mean, for a grizzly bear, even ten cars an hour, you know, one car every six minutes is enough to prevent these kind of large, road shy, wary animals from crossing a highway and finding all the habitat they need. So I was in Montana, and I had the opportunity to take a tour of these wildlife crossings, which are basically these underpasses and overpasses. You know, I mean, anybody’s used a pedestrian bridge, right? That’s basically the idea is, you know, can we build structures that allow animals to cross these highways safely?
Ben Goldfarb: And in Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenay tribes, you know, these native tribes had basically insisted that the Montana Department of Transportation include a bunch of these wildlife crossings on Highway 93, north of Missoula, where the highway ran through their reservation. So I had a chance to get up on one of these wildlife overpasses, you know, this big, beautiful bridge that had been built to allow animals like grizzly bears to safely cross this highway. And it was just really beautiful and inspiring in a lot of ways to, you know, see us modify our infrastructure for the sake of these other beings.
Ben Goldfarb: And it also, I think, kind of dispelled my road blindness or car blindness a little bit, that, you know, wait a second. I mean, if we have to go to these enormous lengths to accommodate wild animals, what are roads doing to wildlife around the world, right? I mean, yes, these wildlife crossings are fantastic and helpful but, you know, there are only a few of them out there compared to the vastness of our country’s four-million-mile road network. And what about all of the segments of highway that remain unaddressed? What are those doing to nature? So it was really that moment of standing atop this wildlife overpass as the sun set in the Montana sky that really got me excited about this topic.
Sarah: Yeah, and I mean, one of the really cool things about the book is that we get to travel with you to all these different places where you’re seeing the impact of roads on wildlife populations in suburban areas and in rural areas. And you talk about urban areas as well, but I think some of the most surprising stuff in the book is about wilderness areas, places that we think of as being kind of, “Oh, that’s nature. That’s nature out there.”
Ben Goldfarb: Right.
Sarah: Maybe you could talk a little bit about the way that roads intrude onto these lands that we might think of as being wilderness, but actually they’re really pervaded by roads.
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah. So here’s a quick pop quiz for listeners: who is the single largest road manager on the planet? It’s not the Federal Highway Administration. It’s the US Forest Service, which manages 190 million acres of American public land and close to 400,000 miles of road, right? There are, you know, corners of our national forest that have higher road densities than Brooklyn, which is just sort of unfathomable to think of that. And it’s the legacy of all of these old logging roads and mining roads and firefighting roads that were built, you know, in the middle of the 20th century, and are just still kind of hanging out on the landscape.
Ben Goldfarb: And some don’t get used. Some have been kind of repurposed as ATV trails. And those roads, even though they’re rarely trafficked, you know, they’re out in the middle of nowhere, as you say, and yet they have enormous impacts on nature. You know, they’re constantly eroding, kind of bleeding sediment into streams and really impacting water quality and, you know, smothering fish and triggering landslides and all the rest of it. And they’re allowing humans to access these otherwise wild places, you know? And there is just so much research showing that we are this incredibly disruptive species, right? And that where we go, you know, all of these charismatic, wild animals that live in the northern Rockies, you know, grizzly bears and wolves and wolverines and elk and lynx and bull trout, all of these, you know, wonderful, endangered creatures, we’re just incredibly disruptive to them, right?
Ben Goldfarb: Human usage of habitat is really a form of habitat loss. And it’s those roads that allow us to use that habitat. And again, there are, you know, a million studies showing that the most important metric when it comes to whether, you know, grizzly bears or wolves or what have you can survive in a given area is road density, because road density is basically a function of how humans get back there and mess with these animals’ lives. And so, you know, these giant areas, you know, if you look at these big national forests on kind of a zoomed-out map of the US, they look like these giant green blocks of, you know, undisturbed habitat, right? They don’t have giant interstate highways running through them, or at least most of them don’t. But, you know, when you get on the ground in these places, I mean, you just see that, you know, the hillsides are just stair stepped with old logging roads that are just profoundly transforming the landscape.
Sarah: Okay. So I thought it would be fun for us to look together at a couple of ads that show cars out in nature. Let’s start with this spot that promotes the Land Rover Defender. So it’s these big SUVs rolling—rolling off of this cargo ship and into this little town. Then there’s a sign saying “Welcome to above and beyond.” And they’re driving through the desert, horses are driving ahead of them. And there’s a traffic light in the middle of the desert. Then they’re driving down a river, through a waterfall that says “CAR WASH,” there’s a big car wash sign next to the waterfall.
Ben Goldfarb: [laughs]
Sarah: And then, you know, “Oh, watch out, there’s hills ahead!” But you’ve got it in your Defender, which is now going down these pristine dunes. There’s a guy directing traffic in the middle of what looks like the Sahara. And then, “Oh, look, there’s a parking space right here on the edge of this cliff with some other Defenders. “Defender: capable of great things wherever you find yourself. Land Rover.” So I would love to hear your impressions of that ad.
Ben Goldfarb: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, I definitely saw a lot of stuff I wouldn’t recommend. I don’t know, a lot of, you know, splashing through sensitive riparian habitats and pursuing wildlife with your car. I definitely would advise against that. But, you know, I mean—but I do think that look, kind of the paradox of roads that a lot of these ridiculous SUV commercials get at, right, is that they are, in a way, how we access the outdoors. You know, that’s—that’s kind of the great irony or tension of them.
Ben Goldfarb: You know, I live in rural Colorado and, you know, a big part of the reason that my wife and I moved out here is so that we could go hiking and skiing and fishing and all of the things that we love to do, right? And the way that we access those things is by getting in a car and driving up one of the, you know, obscure dirt Forest Service roads that I was railing about, you know, three minutes ago, right? So, you know, I definitely feel very conflicted about that. But, you know, look, cars are sort of fundamental to the history of American conservation in a lot of ways, right? That, you know, when the national parks were created in the early 20th century, they were kind of conceived as these fundamentally automotive landscapes that you were meant to visit in a car. And there’s a big road running through basically every single one of our iconic national parks.
Ben Goldfarb: And, you know, the ability to visit those places in the car also yes, it damaged and even destroyed those places in a lot of ways, but it also increased the constituency for protecting those places. So roads have always kind of been the source of this tension between us loving the outdoors and also loving it to death in a lot of ways. And I think that’s, that’s reflected in, you know, so many of those bombastic SUV commercials.
Sarah: Yeah. And I mean, that’s a lot of what they are selling is access to the outdoors. I mean, I could have picked any of a dozen other commercials. This is a constant theme, and it seems to me to be a growing theme because they don’t want to show cars in the environments where we know they’re really unpleasant to drive, like highways and cities.
Ben Goldfarb: [laughs]
Sarah: I mean, they do show sometimes the empty city thing, but a lot of the time this is the fantasy. It’s like, oh, yes, your car is going to get you away from other people, away from the modern world, and then you’re gonna be able to be the one parking your Defender on the edge of a cliff. It drives me nuts, but I get it. And my question for you is: when you went out there and you talked to people who are trying to repair and mitigate some of the damage that roads do, how do they talk about dealing with this kind of problem? I mean, specifically Forest Service people, you know, what are they doing to repair some of this, and how is that balanced with people’s desire for recreation and exploring the wilderness?
Ben Goldfarb: Look, I think that a lot of what those car commercials bespeak or testify to is that we have this mentality that we’re basically allowed to go anywhere, right? That we are humans with dominion over the land. And, you know, roads and vehicles are how we express and assert our dominion, right? That if you’re a driver of a—you know, what was it? It was a Defender that we just watched, you know, that those cliffs and dunes and streams and waterfalls, those are our birthright as Americans, you know? And we’re allowed to go anywhere we want.
Ben Goldfarb: And I remember being in a county commission meeting in rural Idaho a few years ago, you know, reporting on this—sort of this road debate. And in the commission room, you know, they had three framed pictures on the wall. On the left was Abraham Lincoln. On the right was George Washington. And between the two of them was a framed map of the county’s roads. You know, because roads are the ultimate source of liberty and freedom, right? They’re how we get everywhere. And so, you know, when the Forest Service or any public agency tries to close one of those roads, it’s often perceived as tyranny. You know, it’s a violation of our birthright and heritage as Americans to go wherever the hell we want, you know?
Ben Goldfarb: And I mean, there are all kinds of stories of just these incredibly contentious road closure debates and arguments, you know? I mean, stories of unlit bombs showing up on Forest Service rangers’ doorsteps because they had the audacity to close a forest road somewhere that people like to use for ATVing or hunting. So there is this conflation of roads and access with liberty and, you know, I think fundamentally what it means to be an American, at least in some, you know, rural parts of the West. And the idea of closing roads is just anathema to so many people.
Sarah: What happens when you do close roads? I mean, that’s some of the greatest stuff in the book is talking about the positive things that can happen when people do close roads that are no longer needed for logging or mining.
Ben Goldfarb: Right. So a chunk of the book is about this idea of road decommissioning or road removal. You know, the idea that, look, I mean, if you just close a road, if you just put a gate up at the front of it, you know, people are going to get around that gate. And also, the road just remains on the landscape, right? Roads are such transformative forces that, you know, once you build one, they don’t really go anywhere. You know, the soil is so compacted that nothing can really grow on them, right? So if you want to remove the footprint of that road, you know, you have to get back there with an excavator or other heavy machinery, the same big yellow Tonka toys that you built the road with in the first place in a lot of cases, and just mechanically obliterate that road. You know, chew it up, decompact the soil so that plants can take root, you know, do some replanting.
Ben Goldfarb: And, you know, that work is time consuming, it’s expensive. So, you know, we don’t do nearly as much of it as we should. But, you know, where we do do it, it’s incredibly effective. You know, in working on this book, I went to all of these places in Idaho and Montana where various restoration firms had kind of gone in there and obliterated these old forest roads. And, you know, in some cases 20 years on, you would have no idea that there had ever been a road there. The ground is just spongy, and there are wildflowers growing everywhere. And it just looks like this beautiful slice of pristine forest. And, you know, obviously that’s the goal is to take some of these infrastructural mistakes that we made in the 20th century and try to reverse them.
Sarah: At the same time as we’re trying to do that, we, of course, are in the 21st century and making the choices that we’re making now. And that includes building a lot of new roads, right? Especially in the less-wealthy parts of the world that didn’t get the benefit of roads the first time around. And you do talk about roads in places like Africa, South America. You talk about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. Maybe you could just talk a little bit about where roads are happening now and what is at risk. And I’m specifically thinking about the stuff you wrote about the Amazon.
Ben Goldfarb: We are in the middle of what an ecologist named Bill Lawrence has called “the infrastructure tsunami,” right? This huge wave of new construction that’s sweeping all over the world. And, you know, according to Bill’s calculations, you know, there are gonna be something like 15 million new paved road miles built on this planet by the middle of this century, to say nothing of the probably tens if not hundreds of millions of unpaved ones, right? Because much of the developing world, you know, 90 percent of the roads are unpaved. Those unpaved roads have enormous impacts as well. And, you know, the Amazon is sort of testament to that, right? That what we’ve seen in the Amazon, you know, since the middle of the 20th century is basically the big highways go in, and then this just explosion of little feeder roads radiating off of the highway sort of follow.
Ben Goldfarb: And, you know, roads are “spatially contagious,” is the phrase that Bill Lawrence has used. You know, this idea that once you build one, many more inevitably follow. And roads are really—you know, as I put it in the book, they’re sort of the routes of all evil, right? R-O-U-T-E-S. You know, in that every industrial activity you can imagine from oil and gas drilling to mining to the illegal deforestation of the Amazon necessarily follows the construction of the road. That before you can illegally log the Amazon, you need the roads to, you know, get the machinery in and get the product out. So, you know, where roads occur, deforestation and other undesirable land use changes inevitably follow.
Ben Goldfarb: And that’s kind of what makes it difficult to even talk about this idea of road ecology, because in some ways road ecology is everything. The road goes in, and all of these ecological transformations follow. Another great challenge of talking about it, I think is, you know, the issue that you alluded to, which is that look, we benefit immensely from our road network in the United States, right? I mean, yes, obviously, our car dependency has all of these enormous social problems that you guys discuss every week on the show but, you know, it also has value, right? I mean, roads are how in much of the country we get to hospitals and schools, and how we get goods to market and how our Amazon packages arrive on our doorstep, right? We benefit from that kind of social connectivity in a lot of ways.
Ben Goldfarb: And this infrastructure tsunami that’s happening in Nepal and Myanmar and Kenya and Brazil and—I mean, name a country, you know, in Asia, Africa or South America, and, you know, it’s building new highways. I mean, those developments do stand to benefit a lot of people in a lot of ways. The problem is that, you know, those countries also have some of the last intact swaths of habitat on this planet. I mean, name a species of charismatic megafauna, you know, from gorillas to elephants to tigers and, you know, new infrastructure is probably the force that most jeopardizes its survival in the long term. So we’re building all of these new highways around the developing world. The problem is that they stand to have enormous impacts on biodiversity and nature, you know? And is there some way of building the roads that are desirable for human flourishing while avoiding the ones that are most catastrophic for biodiversity, and mitigating the inevitable roads where we can? And I think that’s kind of the great challenge of road ecology right now is, you know, if some of this new construction is truly inevitable and unavoidable, how can we make it as least bad as possible?
Sarah: In Brazil, you went out with people who are trying to sort of face down this tsunami, and as you said, throw up some wave breaks for it. And in the book, you say that things like wildlife crossings here in the United States are relatively rare, and it’s this huge planning process to do every one, that there may be more solutions like that in some of these places emerging. Is that right that Brazil is actually doing some really interesting work when it comes to wildlife crossings?
Ben Goldfarb: I think that that one of our problems—well, one of our many problems when it comes to transportation here in the US is that, you know, we built our infrastructure decades ago before we fully understood its social and ecological cost, right? And so, you know, we’re sort of stuck retrofitting our interstate highway system, right? You know, yeah, we build these wildlife crossings where we can, but ultimately we have this ecologically catastrophic highway system that is not going anywhere anytime soon, unfortunately. Whereas, you know, these countries that are building out now for the first time, like Brazil and India and Kenya, they can—I don’t want to say do it right, exactly, because, you know, it’s really impossible to make a road ecologically benign. But, you know, again, they can do it less wrong than we did, or at least learn from some of our mistakes.
Ben Goldfarb: You know, one of the roads that I visited in Brazil that I just thought was really cool and inspiring was this road in a state park in São Paulo that goes through this park. So one of the great challenges of road ecology and, you know, sort of urban planning as well that you guys have talked about on *The War on Cars* is: how do you get drivers to go slower, right? People are sort of inclined to drive fast. And, you know, that’s a huge problem of course for pedestrians, and it’s also a big problem for wild animals, right? The faster you drive, the more likely you are to commit roadkill because, you know, you have less reaction time and the animal has less reaction time.
Ben Goldfarb: And of course, in the US, you know, we have this road system that’s basically meant to go fast on. You know, we have all of these big fast stroads through our cities and, you know, we also have these giant wide multi-lane interstate highways. So we have this infrastructure that’s really designed to make people go fast. And, you know, in Brazil one of the really cool roads that I saw was this road through this park where they had basically really dampened the design speed intentionally. You know, they had built this road that was sort of deliberately very curvaceous with lots of hairpin turns. And it also rose and fell on the Y axis like a roller coaster going up and down. So you literally could not drive faster than 25 miles an hour or so on this road. And that was not because of the topography. That was—the road was designed that way for the sake of wild animals. And I just thought that was such a cool example of innovative design, and really much more radical and progressive than anything we’ve done in the US, you know, and that’s the sort of thing you can do when you’re building your infrastructure out for the first time rather than just, you know, retrofitting I-90.
Sarah: I mean, although those things are probably few and far between, it does kind of give some hope, because I think one of the things that’s so disturbing about thinking about this is the sheer pervasiveness of it, and the way that every type of animal from insects to, as you say, the charismatic megafauna like grizzly bears is affected. And it can seem almost like there’s just no hope and there’s no point to make one wildlife crossing better. But you met a lot of people who are engaged in very concrete and site-specific actions—sometimes just one culvert where deer often go to drink, and then they try to cross the road and they get killed. Can you talk a little bit about some of the people you met, and how it is that they sort of maintain their motivation? I think it was in Tasmania you talked to some animal carers?
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah.
Sarah: And you talked about some of the psychological stuff that they’re going through. And I guess I’m interested to know what motivates them, what keeps them going and what some of the psychological toll that it takes on them as well.
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah. Look, like a lot of people who care about the planet probably, you know, I sort of like oscillate wildly between hope and despair. And it is—I mean, it is the individuals who I met in working on this book who do give me hope when I’m my hopeful phases. And Tasmania is a great example of that. So Tasmania has the highest roadkill rates on Earth. It’s the roadkill capital of the world is what, you know, journalists there have called it, just in part because it’s a very biodiverse place with a lot of animals, and it has all of these kind of winding shoulderless roads that go through the bush. You know, so it’s just kind of a—it’s a landscape, an ecosystem that’s conducive to roadkill. And, you know, when you drive around there, it’s really unmistakable. You know, you just see dead wombats and wallabies and pademelons and possums all over the place. It’s really quite heartbreaking.
Ben Goldfarb: And, you know, I think that in the US, we have this way of ignoring those animals, right? We were talking earlier about car blindness and road blindness, and I also think we have roadkill blindness, right? We don’t really notice all of these critters, you know, these deer and raccoons and squirrels and opossums. You know, we drive past them every single day, and I think that we, for various reasons, you know, part of it, I think, is that we just sort of habituate ourselves or desensitize ourselves, maybe because noticing all of that death constantly would just be so demoralizing and heartbreaking, we deliberately blind ourselves to it. And I think that part of it is speed as well. You know, when you’re sealed in your little bubble going 70 miles an hour, you just don’t notice stuff. And it’s not until you walk or bike along a highway that you actually recognize, you know, not just the large animals like the deer that are conspicuous, but all of the dead birds and frogs and rodents.
Ben Goldfarb: You know, there are more than a million animals killed by cars every day in the US. It’s just this enormous, like, biological catastrophe that we all kind of deal with and overlook every single day, just as we somehow habituate ourselves to the fact that 40,000 humans die in car-related incidents—you know, I wouldn’t call them accidents, obviously—every year. So we have this roadkill blindness. And, you know, I think the great thing about Tasmania is that that’s actually—it’s a place where people are not roadkill blind, you know? There are all of these people who drive around looking for roadkill. And the reason for that is that in Tasmania all of the animals are marsupials, which means that the females raise their babies in this little maternal pouch on their belly. And what frequently happens is that, you know, tragically the mother gets hit by the car and the baby survives in the pouch.
Ben Goldfarb: And so there are literally hundreds of carers—which is what they call themselves—on this tiny little island who drive around checking the pouches of dead female marsupials, extracting the babies, who are often these little pink, hairless blind things. They take them home, and then they hand-raise them, which, you know, in the case of some species like wombats, can take a couple of years of basically constant bottle feeding and butt wiping and medicine giving and so on. And so I just found these people incredibly sweet and tender and inspiring. You know, the fact that they’ve just sort of selflessly given themselves to these wild animals, and to seeking out roadkill, this phenomenon that we all kind of ignore here in the US. I just love that idea of a culture that’s not roadkill blind, but it’s very roadkill conscious. You know, the problem is that that hasn’t really done much to motivate the Tasmanian government, right? You know, the fact that all of these carers have to drive around picking up orphaned baby marsupials is kind of this enormous public policy failure. You know, you’d rather that the government deal with this problem through better infrastructure rather than sort of foisting it upon the volunteer citizenry.
Sarah: Speaking of roadkill, I’ve got another ad that I want you to look at.
Ben Goldfarb: I’m excited. Yeah.
Sarah: This one shows a human father-daughter pair driving down the road and encountering another non-human father-daughter pair.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, daughter: Deer?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, father: It’s okay. I’ve never seen a deer cross here.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, daughter: Are you sure?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, father: Super sure. Trust me.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, father deer: It’s okay. I’ve never seen a car cross here.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, daughter deer: Are you sure?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, father deer: Super sure. Trust me.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, voiceover: Don’t be sure. Be insured. Switch to Progressive, and discover why over 28 million drivers trust our reliable protection.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, daughter deer: Sure, huh?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, father deer: Please don’t tell Mom, okay?]
Ben Goldfarb: [laughs]
Sarah: Okay, so that ad, it shows this father and daughter, the daughter’s behind the wheel driving, and she’s nervous about seeing a deer crossing sign. And then there’s a father and daughter deer by the side of the road. That’s probably not actually the deer that would be by the side of the road together. But yeah, I just thought that was an interesting ad because it relies on humans identifying with the deer, and sort of the deer and the humans both being caught in this system.
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah, absolutely. You know, in a lot of ways, road ecology, this field of science, it’s such a parallel field with pedestrian science or urbanism, right? All of these different fields that look at how humans and roads interact. You know, obviously we become roadkill in a sense. We don’t call it that. But just as animals suffer direct mortality, we suffer direct mortality. Just as highways fragment wild nature and ecosystems, you know, they fragment human communities in cities around the world. Just as road noise is chasing all of these animals out of their habitats, road noise is raising our blood pressures and cortisol levels and literally taking years off of our lives, right?
Ben Goldfarb: And in the book, I try to make some of those parallels really explicit that, you know, we humans, we are organisms just like deer or bears or bobcats or butterflies, and we’re all kind of caught in this giant four-million-mile web of roadways together. And a lot of the solutions are the same as well. You know, just as we’re removing forest roads for the sake of animals, we’re trying to begin to obliterate some of our really racist, destructive urban freeways, as you’ve talked about on the show. So, you know, yeah, we’re all in it together, and “it” is basically the road network.
Sarah: I did want to ask you about that too, because you very much make that direct parallel between how roads affect animals and how roads affect the animals that are human beings. You write about this very racist highway in Syracuse, one of the sort of most classic examples of racist highway building.
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah.
Sarah: And you say, “In Syracuse, as in so many other cities, roads have made humans less free.” And I thought that was really powerful because, as you said earlier, in the United States in particular, that the idea of the open road and the freedom of the road is so powerful, and turning that around and saying roads make us less free is a very difficult thing to do, as we know from making this podcast. But in cities, you can see it in this different way because we understand cities as human habitats in a way. And so what did you see in Syracuse and did it give you hope?
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah. You know, look, the story in Syracuse is such a classic American story, right? I mean, here is this urban freeway that was very deliberately plowed through the 15th Ward, this historic Black community, and displaced thousands of people, and really permanently distorted the entire city, and led to this city that’s incredibly unequal and not well integrated, and has had enormous impacts on the lives of, you know, particularly Syracuse’s Black residents.
Ben Goldfarb: And that loss of freedom is profound. You know, here’s this giant, sun-blotting viaduct that just bisects the city and has kind of created this swath of dead space beneath it that’s, you know, really difficult and forbidding to cross on foot. You really understand, I think, the plight of a non-human organism when you stand beneath a structure like I-81 and sort of recognize roads as these incredibly eerie, surreal, unnatural features, right? I mean, I think so many cities like Syracuse were in some ways designed by these mid-century urban planners to be experienced from the car, right. That I-81, this giant viaduct, it’s this structure that you’re meant to use to fly over the city, and never actually experience the city from the ground. And you’re meant to be in your little capsule of the car as you head out to the suburbs where you actually live, you know, if you’re a white commuter, which of course, is the demographic that most of these mid-century planners were thinking about.
Ben Goldfarb: But if you’re a person who actually lives on Syracuse’s south side, you live in the shadow of this monstrosity that again, is just distorting every aspect of your life. I mean, I met all of these people suffering horrific asthma because they live beneath this structure that’s spewing air pollution constantly. You know, there are public schools basically under the freeway that have depressed test scores as a result. And so we just think about roads, I think, as these structures that were meant to travel along, not structures that were meant to live under and alongside. And yet, you know, for the people and the non-human beings who live alongside these structures, you know, they’re just horrifically catastrophic in so many ways.
Sarah: You talk about the idea—I believe it’s Thomas Berry’s phrase—”the great work of repair.”
Ben Goldfarb: Yeah.
Sarah: Is that something that has its own momentum as well? I mean, you know, we see the momentum of road building. We see the momentum of autonomous vehicles. Is there a parallel momentum of a human desire to repair the environment and indeed to—you know, you talk about reparations as well, which is a word that has a lot of implications, but, you know, reparations for human sufferers from road ecology and repair of the landscape. Does that have a chance?
Ben Goldfarb: Certainly there is a lot of momentum and effort toward restoration. You know, the problem is it’s just not keeping up with all of the other trends, right? The trends of road building and road widening, and all of the infrastructural expansion that we see on this planet. And look, I think that the great challenge of this work is that there’s no single solution to it, there’s obviously no panacea. And creating, you know, urban spaces especially that are liberated from cars is so crucial. But, you know, there’s really nothing that’s going to replace the car anytime soon, I don’t think, in America’s rural spaces. And of course, that’s where our big wildlife populations and intact ecosystems tend to be, right?
Ben Goldfarb: But, you know, we can still retrofit our highways to make them less catastrophic for nature through things like those wildlife crossings we’ve been talking about, you know, passages that allow animals to safely navigate these really destructive highways. And, you know, certainly we’re seeing more momentum towards those sorts of solutions. You know, just yesterday, USDOT allocated $110 million in funding for new wildlife crossings, which is great. That’s progress. You know, we probably need certainly billions of dollars if we’re going to retrofit all of the really catastrophic highways for nature out there. That’s what I think about a lot is creating urban spaces, denser, walkable, bikeable, transit-serviced urban spaces that don’t require driving, and then creating rural highways where some amount of driving is, I think, inevitable for the foreseeable future, that, you know, when you do drive in these rural places, it’s not a slaughterhouse, basically.
Sarah: Thank you, Ben. Thank you so much for coming on The War on Cars.
Ben Goldfarb: Thank you so much, Sarah, for having me. And thanks for all of the good work you guys do to create a better planet.
Sarah: You can buy Ben’s books, Crossings and Eager at your local independent bookstore or through our War on Cars page at Bookshop, where you will also find a slew of other titles by authors we love. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
Sarah: And another quick reminder. We’re doing a live show in New York at Caveat on the Lower East Side. Go to their website, get tickets if you want. And we’ll be at the Winter Cycling Congress in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, February 22 to 24. We’ll have a link in the show notes for that.
Sarah: Also, if you want to support us, go to TheWaronCars.org and click on “Support Us.” That’ll take you to our Patreon page, and you can find out all about that. Thank you to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.
Sarah: For 15 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and use code CLEVERGIFT.
Sarah: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon, I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars.