Letter to the Editor

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Hotline, Winter 2004

Many thanks to Marilyn Skolnick for her excellent article on automobile pollution (“Why is the Automobile Like a Smokestack?” in the Fall 2003 Hotline). I, too, cannot look at cars as benign any longer, so about three years ago I ditched my car in favor of a bike whenever I can. Mostly this involves commuting to work, but I’ve also outfitted my bike to haul groceries or small store items. I still have a car, but I use it as little as possible. This year I will have put more miles on my bike than on my car.

But with so many cars out there, my little contribution seems meaningless. So thanks for having the courage to write an article pointing out the bad habits of our “beloved car.” I would also like to share with you my own thoughts on the car, in the below article.

Joe Walko, Plum

Mountaintop Removal

Every time I ride by the destruction, my first reaction is rage. The crews show up with all sorts of heavy equipment — backhoes and dozers, pile drives and rock crushers. Dynamite and blasting caps ensure the destruction of what the heavy equipment can’t take down. The trees are stripped, and the hilltops are bulldozed into the valleys. Where once stood a wooded hilltop there is now a gaping hole. The mountaintop has been decapitated.

I’m not talking about some mountaintop in West Virginia, stripped bare of its timber, its soil plowed into the surrounding valleys to get the coal buried beneath it. I’m sure seeing the destruction of that magnitude would elicit even more rage. No, the destruction I’m talking about probably wouldn’t even qualify as a mountain. Hilltop is probably more descriptive. They are the hilltops right here in Pittsburgh, the east suburbs to be exact. Specifically, the hilltops that line each side of the Rt. 22/286 corridor between Monroeville and Murrysville.

These are the same hilltops that give our region its distinct flavor. The hilltops that are ablaze with color each fall. Having grown up in the area (and still living there), I know also that they house a network of trails and are the last wooded areas in the region untouched by suburban sprawl. Deer, turkey, fox and coyote roam the steep hillsides. Hunters prowl in the fall, and mountain bikers race down the steep slopes. They offer a place for a suburban kid to experience outdoor adventure, even if you never quite escape the din of the traffic below. And as an adult, they offer me a mountain bike route to and from work.

As I have grown older and learned of the pressure put on our remaining natural areas by sprawl, I have always assumed the hillsides would survive, if only because of the steepness of the terrain. Now I watch as the hillsides are cut and blasted away. It started with small cuts along Rt. 22 to put in a few furniture stores. Then a bigger cut was made to install a car dealership along Rt. 286. The destruction continued and culminated in the leveling of two hills and the filling of a valley to house the biggest auto dealership in the eastern U.S. Now stands a flattened glass and steel monument to the god of sprawl, the automobile.

I find it too ironic that this temple to sprawl houses a car dealership. The car makes all sprawl possible. I know that I’m tethered to my automobile, but I’m also aware of the hidden destruction they cause, like the fumes that spew from tailpipes, now the single largest source of air pollution in this country. Like the lengths we will go to to ensure our cars are kept well fed with cheap fuel, even if it means killing and war. Like the psychological changes that 2 tons of steel and safety glass induce, turning normally placid people into road-raged maniacs. Like the resources we use to maintain and build bigger roads and infrastructure to get us to our destinations a few minutes earlier, unless of course you’re stuck in a sprawl-induced traffic jam, which induces more road rage.

Displayed at the most prominent point of the gigantic car dealership is the ultimate offering to the gods of excessive consumption — the Hummer. A tank on wheels, getting less than 10 miles to the gallon. What does it say about where we are headed, about what we have learned, about the way that we live, about our personal choices, that this vehicle is even available? What does it say that we choose to bulldoze hilltops, widen roads, wage wars, excessively pollute our air, and destroy the few remaining wild areas left so that we can strut around in Hummers?

Inevitably, the initial rage subsides. I pedal on past the construction site, trying not to get hit while traversing the construction-narrowed road. Winter is coming and there is a chill in the air. I remember last year a female kestrel hunted the open hilltop that is now being transformed into a car dealership. I doubt she’ll find the hunting satisfactory at the asphalt-covered lot. She’ll have to move on. Sadness replaces rage.

We continue to move on also. We consume more and more open space, woodlots and hillsides. Our bigger cars need more fuel, our bigger houses need more furniture, our egos need bigger status symbols. Along the path to Bigger and More, where is the room for kestrels, clean air and wooded hilltops?