Save81’s Environmental Nihilism

Of all the lies, half-truths, and obfuscations being peddled by the most recent iteration of the Save81 crowd, the biggest whopper might be their contention that I81 is good for the environment and that making it bigger will decrease greenhouse gas emissions. This is laughably wrong, but it’s helpful to have the opportunity to explain exactly how tearing down the viaduct and building the Community Grid will help in the fight against climate change, and to expose how bankrupt Save81’s version of “environmentalism” is.

Save81’s basic argument is this: the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars (America’s #1 source of climate pollution) is to let them drive as fast as possible while making sure they have to brake as little as possible because cars get better gas-mileage on uncongested freeways than they do on local streets. Therefore, they claim, building a newer bigger viaduct is the environmentally friendly option because it will let cars drive faster.

This is wrong-headed for so many reasons (induced demand congests highways after they’re widened, eliminating any emissions “savings” per trip, for instance), but the main issue is that Save81 fails to account for how tearing down the viaduct and building the Community Grid will give people more and better options when they choose where to live, and those choices will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by taking cars off the highway and eliminating many car trips entirely.

Highways cause more driving by destroying the centers of communities and spurring suburban sprawl. Transportation is America’s #1 source of climate pollution because our interstate highway system has demolished walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhoods and replaced them with car-dependent sprawl in metropolitan areas across the county.

A neighborhood paved over

Tear down I81, and Syracuse will become a more environmentally sustainable community by giving more people the option of living in neighborhoods with more sustainable—and more freeing—transportation options. The viaduct takes up so much space—and blights so much more—in the very center of town where thousands of people used to live, and where thousands more want to live now. This spot is smack dab in the middle of the region’s biggest, densest job center. It’s an area served by decent public transportation, an area where it is very possible to get around without firing up an internal combustion engine (and even if someone did drive from McBride Street to Harrison Street for work everyday, they’d still emit less carbon than if they started their trip in Manlius).

Tear down the highway, rebuild those thousands of homes, and a lot of people who might otherwise have had to find housing on the sprawling, car-dependent, farm-killing exurban fringe will instead be able to make a life in the walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented city center. That’s how the Community Grid will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

At root, Save81’s faux-environmentalist argument is built on the cynical belief that we can’t make things better. They say that a once-in-a-generation infrastructure project to shift the geography of transportation and housing in Onondaga County won’t really change anybody’s behavior. They reject the notion that our community has the power to remake itself into a better, more equitable, more sustainable place. Nobody who calls themselves an environmentalist—who’s really committed to combating climate change—should give this kind of environmental nihilism a minute’s thought.