Mobility Without Mess

July 23, 1999

By Michael Jessen

Beam me up, Paul – this traffic sucks! As traffic congestion reaches its summertime peak in Kootenay communities, this could be your plea to former Fruitvale resident Dr. Paul Moller.

Moller, who grew up on a chicken farm and went on to get his Ph.D. in aeronautics from McGill University, has spent more than $45 million and 700,000 man-hours of work to bring you the M400 Skycar. It’s a Batmobile-looking private jet you can drive on roadways and park in the garage.

Now president of Moller International, the former West Kootenay resident has spent the better part of his life designing the “volantor,” a craft capable of vertical take-off and landing, hovering, and cruising at 350 miles per hour, at altitudes up to 25,000 feet, with a 900-mile range.

Its “powered lift” technology is the same as that used by the military’s Harrier “Jump Jet.” Moller likens his magic carpet to a car that performs like a mechanical hummingbird.

His lifelong interest in flying started when he built a helicopter from scratch at age 14. (His father later used the tail rotor to help circulate the air in the family’s hatchery.)

“The world’s airspace is the greatest under-utilized natural resource at our disposal to address transportation needs,” says Moller. “Airways can be the highways of the future if we have viable air vehicles and a means to accurately integrate these vehicles into a controlled airspace.”

Whatever you think of Moller’s solution to the traffic problems on Earth, he is not alone in trying to devise ways to retain human mobility. It is becoming increasingly clear that the “mobile” is disappearing from our main transportation choice, the automobile.

Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation – How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, says Americans spend 8 billion hours a year stuck in traffic. Moller says the U.S. Transportation Department estimates this will rise to 12 billion hours by the year 2005.

Then there’s the environmental toll exacted by the car. The typical internal-combustion car produces nearly 11,000 pounds of pollutants each year, pollutants that dirty the air, put our health – and our children’s health – at risk, and trap heat in the atmosphere. Motor vehicles consume half the world’s oil and account for a quarter of its greenhouse-gas emissions. The biggest source of air pollution in a majority of the world’s cities is auto exhaust consisting of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and reactive organic gases that produce low-level smog. Motor vehicle generated ozone costs Americans an estimated $9 billion a year in health costs, lost labour hours, and reduced agricultural revenues through damage to crops.

Next there’s the space we have given over to the automobile and its infrastructure. Parking a car at home, the office, and the mall requires on average 4,000 square feet of asphalt. Over 60,000 square miles of land in the United States are paved over, about 2 percent of the total surface area and 10 percent of all arable land. Worldwide, at least a third of an average city’s land is devoted to roads, parking lots, and other elements of a car infrastructure. In American and Canadian cities, close to half of all the urban space goes to accommodate the car, while in Los Angeles, the figure reaches two-thirds.

And what about the death toll imposed by the automobile? Over 500,000 killed in traffic accidents annually worldwide, more than 3,000 of them in Canada. The annual slaughter on America’s highways, more than 40,000 people, is greater than the number killed in the Vietnam War. In addition, the Alliance for a Paving Moratorium says approximately one million animals are killed on U.S. roads daily!

With the auto culture so deeply ingrained in western society, alternatives to it seem virtually unthinkable. Since Americans consume 121 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the oil industry would stand to lose huge amounts of money if cars were made more efficient and less polluting.

Yet spurred by Japanese auto makers (remember gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon in Japan), Detroit’s big three car manufacturers can no longer ignore the efficiencies achieved by hybrid gas/electric vehicles like the Honda VV’s 70 miles per gallon or the Toyota Prius’s 66 miles per gallon. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates its Hypercar design will reduce the amount of power needed to make its car go, making 90 (and, in time, perhaps as much as 200) miles per gallon possible.

Hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles that promise to emit only water offer the best hope yet for curbing automobile pollution, but with gasoline in North America costing less than bottled water such vehicles may seem the answer to a question few drivers are asking.

Jane Holtz Kay says the myth of mobility without mess is appealing but unrealistic. She says traffic congestion will continue to exist with clean cars and the answer is for cities to tackle the costs and consequences of car-bred sprawl, putting our communities before cars.

That’s also the mantra espoused by Todd Litman, Director of the Victoria, BC-based Victoria Transport Policy Institute. Litman says society needs an accurate accounting of the full benefits and costs of alternatives when making transportation policy and investment choices. With estimates ranging between $25 billion and $300 billion annually in subsidies to the North American car infrastructure, Litman believes lifestyle changes such as increased urban density and more use of walking, bicycling, car pooling and public transit offer better solutions than investment in road capacity expansion.

A report issued recently by the Surface Transportation Policy Project indicates mothers could become Litman and Kay’s biggest allies. The study found that mothers spend over an hour a day driving as they make two-thirds of all trips chauffeuring others around or running errands. “Mothers have become the bus drivers of the 1990’s,” says STPP Executive Director Roy Kienitz. “Women –especially mothers – are literally getting the run-around.”

While the time has come for a new generation of cleaner, more efficient, smarter cars, about 50 million of the polluting variety continue to roll off the assembly line every year. After subtracting autos being retired, that’s an increase of 13 million cars on the road each year – more than 35,000 a day.

Gasoline and diesel powered vehicles are dirty by design. While Paul Moller is experimenting with alternative fuels, it is entirely possible his Skycar will simply transfer the automobile’s problems on the land into the air.

ONE SMALL STEP - Keep your car as green as possible. Choose long-life tires, batteries, and other parts. Buy from dealers who recycle tires, oil, etc. A well-tuned car uses less gas and produces fewer emissions. If you must buy a car, buy the highest fuel efficiency model. Consider sharing a car rather than owning one, or better yet rent one only when necessary. Support initiatives for carpooling, walking, bike lanes, and greater use of trains, buses, and other public transportation.

Jane Holtz Kay’s book published by University of California Press is now out in paperback. Paul Moller’s web site can be found at The report High Mileage Moms is available at Redefining Progress, a San Francisco-based organization, has produced The Roads Aren’t Free, dealing with subsidies to the car, available at The July/August issue of Sierra magazine has articles about clean cars. The greenest and worst vehicles for the environment are rated at The Victoria Transport Policy Institute can be reached at

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