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Youth Opinion : 'A Ride Through Time' To See What the Auto Wrought

August 08, 1994|DEBORAH HENIGSON | Deborah Henigson, 17, of University High School in Los Angeles, won the national essay contest sponsored by the American Jewish Committee's Skirball Institute on American Values with her answer to "What can events, documents or personalities in U.S. history teach us about protecting our environment?" The contest challenges high-school students to tell how America's historic ideals play a role in their lives.

"In our automobile world, the noise and chatter of the streets will be reversed, a priceless boon to the tired nerves of this overwrought generation . . . . Streets will be cleaner, jams and blockades less likely to occur, and accidents less frequent."

I would love to take the author of that quote, an editor for "The Horseless Age, " a turn-of-the-century magazine, on a journey from his time to modern-day Los Angeles.

During his time, the auto was a marvelous invention. Later, its use was mismanaged, causing widespread ecological harm. When L.A.'s major mistake was made--the building of its first freeway, in 1940--the transportation emphasis switched from mass transit via rail to individual cars on freeways. The editor would see that had city planners thought about what cars would do to the environment, ecological damage would have been avoided.

I can imagine myself setting my Waybac time machine for 1900, heading for the editor. I discover him in his office. As he edits some copy, I decide this is my best chance and I pull "Ed" into the time machine. He is quite startled at first but soon accepts that I am taking him on a ride through time.

Our first stop is the Ford Motor Co. factory, on Oct. 1, 1908. Ed watches as the first Model T rolls off the assembly line.

"What a funny looking vehicle!" Ed says. "It'll never sell!"

"You don't know how wrong you are," I reply. "That is the four-cylinder Model T Ford.' It sells for only $600 at first and drops to $300 over the next 20 years."

"At that price, anyone with a job will be able to buy a car!" my guest exclaims, pleased with the prospect of mass car ownership.

"Ed, snap out of it. You're dreaming."

"But . . .."

"No buts, Ed. Can't you see the bad side of this invention? All these cars will use up our natural resources!"

Ed is about to comment, but I speak first.

"In my time, there are more than 400 million motor vehicles on the world's roads. The consequences are enormous. For example, over 26 million gallons of oil and 400 million gallons of antifreeze drain each year from American cars alone. They're especially detrimental to oceans and fresh water sources."

Ed looks sad. "Ransom Olds and the Studebaker brothers have experimented with electric and steam cars," Ed notes, "but they were unstable and delicate. Both manufacturers converted to petroleum. That stuff can't be good for the planet."

"How right you are," I reply. "The combustion of gasoline produces harmful fumes. Let me take you forward in time, to General Motors in 1922."

I manipulate the controls and we flash to Detroit.

"GM was formed in 1908 as the first large-scale merger of U.S. auto makers. At this time, GM is trying to fix the knocking of incomplete ignition caused by inefficient fuel burn. GM is making ethyl gasoline by taking petrol and adding octane and tetraethyl lead. The mixture ends the knocking but produces, as a byproduct, hydrocarbons that seep into the atmosphere and eat away the earth's shield against carcinogenic ultraviolet rays. Those emissions also make breathing more and more deadly."

By now Ed has taken to pacing back and forth in our time machine.

"Ed, now I'm going to take you to Los Angeles, in 1940.

Look out the window. It is December, 1940, and we are witnessing the dedication of L.A.'s' first freeway, a huge road without intersections. It's intended to make commuting through cities easier."

"Take me to sometime in the '50s; I want to see what happens," says Ed, intrigued.

"The '50s," I say, switching the Waybac controls, "are when many freeways are built and commuter rail lines start to disappear. Here we are at the Hollywood Freeway, leading to Downtown L.A."

"My goodness," says Ed, looking at all the cars. "They're just creeping along."

Ed pauses, then asks, "What is that layer of brown stuff over the city?" "It's 'smog,' " I reply, "Smoke and fog. Over the next 30 years, city planners will fill up 60% of Downtown L.A. with freeways. Public transportation will switch from commuter trains to hydrocarbon-belching buses. Cars will be touted as status symbols, and ownership will increase every year."

"As will the smog!" says Ed. "If we change our focus from cars to cleaner mass transit, this future disaster can be avoided! Take me back. I'll start arguing for clean transit, electric cars. I've got lots of work to do."

I steer the Waybac to his time.

"Good luck, Ed. It's an uphill battle, but a battle worth fighting."

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