The Car-Free Lifestyle Loses A Warrior

Background Reading


Steve Schmitt, long-time executive director of the Coalition of Transportation, died Saturday. (Arturo Fernandez, The Morning Call)

Steve Schmitt, long-time executive director of the Coalition of Transportation, died Saturday. (Arturo Fernandez, The Morning Call)

The legacy of Steve Schmitt can be seen on Lehigh Valley roads.

An advocate for car-free living for two decades, Schmitt championed the shared-road markings painted on the streets. He pushed for bicycle racks strapped to public buses for workers who had no cars. And he brought bicycle racks outside public buildings and during Musikfest and cleared litter from bus stops.

Schmitt, director of the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation since 1994, died Saturday. He was 63.

“His legacy is in every city planner, in everybody who is doing any kind of development. He is the small voice inside saying that they should think about the people who live without cars — the people who ride to work, and to the store, people who take the bus,” said Scott Slingerland, bike director at the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation.

As news of Schmitt’s death spread through social media, friends and colleagues reflected on a man who dedicated his life to getting people out of their cars in a region where 91 percent of the population drives to work and Route 22 is a lifeline.

Sometimes ruffling feathers as he challenged the status quo, Schmitt, who lived in Bethlehem, organized programs to support bus transportation, pedestrian access, local trails, bicycle education and ride-sharing.

“Steve believed that class, social and natural divisions were exacerbated by inequitable transportation systems,” a post on the coalition’s Facebook page said. “Yes, Steve was a champion to the poor, but he made it known that the rich had as much to gain by leaving fossil fuels behind.”

Friends say they are unclear as to what motivated Schmitt’s advocacy other than to make the world a better place. He told The Morning Call in 1991 that he got rid of his last car in 1986. The Volvo station wagon belonged to a company he owned and when he sold the company, the car went with it.

He had figured those comfortable bucket seats weren’t worth the negative effects of a car ride: “dirty air, oil-covered birds, costly desert wars, nonexistent passenger trains, arrogant insurance companies, haughty Lee Iacocca, global warming, a landscape destroyed by highways, a landscape destroyed by shopping malls, a landscape destroyed by suburban housing developments, cities destroyed by suburbs,” according to the story.

He founded an organization called Free Yourself From Henry Ford, described in 1990 as an anti-car organization. He said he admired Ford’s spirit to put America on wheels and that same spirit could wean the public off its automobile dependency.

In 1994, he became the head of the Coalition for Alternative Transportation, and by 2002, the organization became such a voice in mainstream planning that Schmitt recast it as the Coalition for Appropriate Transportation.

In 2010, he received the 39th R. Emmet Doherty Clean Air Award, which is awarded to someone who is “instrumental in promoting widespread air quality education, activism, or real reductions in ground-level ozone” in the region.


What really is the alternative to ‘fossil fuels‘? Bicycles are good for what is commonly thought of as the ‘last mile‘ leg of a multi-modal trip. In fact the very notion of Divvy bikes makes the most sense when thought of in this manner.

You exit your bus or train and hop on a bike. It takes you as close to your office as possible where you park it in a station for someone else to use. But all of that activity is full of ‘fossil fuel reliance‘.

When you ride the bus for instance you are burning some sort of fuel. Diesel is the fuel preferred by bus companies. But hybrid buses are present on roads these days as well. But without some sort of fossil fuel nothing with a motor actually gets around.

That of course is also true of trains. Commuter trains are using diesel engines and even if they are elevated trains that use electricity, they use coal burning dynamos to generate the electricity.

Back in the early 1950s the ‘green approach‘ was though to be nuclear fuel. But that has its problems as well. Three Mile Island left an indelible mark on the public consciousness.

So its back to considering bicycles. Mine runs on pneumatic tires. Long ago most tires were made of real rubber. But today most of the tires I buy are made with synthetic fossil fuel components. In fact the ‘rubber‘ for my brake pads is also made of a similar compound.

But besides getting around on my own, everything that I either eat or wear or live in is shipped by some sort of vehicle using fossil fuels. Not even boats are ‘green‘. It seems that whether you talk bout trucks, boats or even airplanes were are dependent in some way or another on fossil fuels.

We love to poke fun at automobiles. But 150 years ago horses and donkeys were providing the power for our trips. Automobiles at the dawn of the mechanized age represented a respite in the long history of animal abuse. And now that we have cars and our roadways and towns are no longer full of horse poop and stables we are still unsatisfied.

The most appropriate transportation of all would be ‘shanks mare‘. But frankly the majority of the public would not willingly choose to walk many places beyond a distance of 3-5 miles. In fact if you listen to cyclists talk about their unwillingness to use the McDonalds Center to house their bikes after taking a shower, some freely admit that the walk back to their offices is a stumbling block.

It seems that unless we are using a machine to get us around we really cannot survive well. In fact if every single ounce of fossil fuel currently used were suddenly dropped as part of the modern world’s palette of tools for making life easier we would see society come to a grinding halt.

There would be no electricity flowing along a grid to home. There would be no delivery of goods, food and services either. Plastics would be eliminated from our lives. There would of course be no air conditioning and in many instances public sanitary systems would no longer be able to do their job.

In fact government itself would come to a grinding halt. No more helicopters, jet planes or tanks and troop carriers. War ships would also cease to exist as alternatives. Submarines are still running on nuclear fuel but the parts and construction of them would have to be done without benefit of trucks driven by engines using fossil fuels.

That helmet pictures atop the head of the Steve Schmitt would not have been created. Chances are most of the clothing you and I wear are made from some sort of synthetic fabric that too is a product of fossil fuel technology.

All of the roadways across the country are slathered with the heavier fractions of oil refining as a way to make good use of something that would otherwise be a waste product. All of the jungle gyms on playgrounds these days are using old synthetic rubber pieces to keep kids noggins from hitting hard pavement when they fall off these contraptions.

Fossil fuels are not the real problem. We simply do not have engines and refining processes that can burn them without residue. But if having waste is a real problem then humans are themselves one of the least ‘green things‘ around. We eat and then eliminate waste from the metabolization of our food. The same goes for every other animal on the planet.

We have been good at learning that waste materials (both solid and liquid) can be used to regrow plants. We have learned that we can use clean water to carry waste materials from our homes and offices to a plant where it is processed (using of course machines that use fossil fuels) and then returned to us as potable.

But virtually every community needs fossil fuels to survive. You cannot have fire trucks, police cars, municipal vehicles and such without fossil fuels. About the best we can do is learn to opt for walking whenever possible. Notice I did not include the bicycle in this conversation because it too has its less than green characteristics (when compared to walking).

Bicycles are what we now think of as ‘basic transportation‘. But in reality the only really basic transportation are your feet. Walking is about the most earth-friendly thing anyone could do, where it relates to transportation.

But today we no longer live the lives once considered normal. We no longer rely on beast of burden to carry us from home to work or to the business center nearest us. We no longer have animals pulling wagons to do our shopping and to carry our families into town.

What we have is a society for the most part (nearly worldwide) where machines are doing the bulk of the heavy lifting. Virtually all of these machines are fed some sort of petrochemical fraction to allow them to run. This is a good thing.

We just need to find a way to do it more efficiently. Buses should never be running from stop to stop with a handful of passengers. When a bus is in that mode it is probably no more economical to operate than a family car. The same could be said of trains. If they are not operating at full capacity they are being vastly underutilized.

If I were king for a day, the normal bicycle would be a tandem or triple or even a quad. Why have a bicycle ‘loafing‘ and using up precious synthetic rubber tires carrying only one person? Again, walking is probably the best idea to come along since the Garden of Eden in terms of being ‘earth friendly‘.

© acme08 / flickr

© acme08 / flickr

But between you and me, walking takes too long and limits the range of movement of people these days. That includes those who think bicycles are nifty. Walking is not their ‘cup of tea‘.

So even when we think we are being socially responsible we really are not quite as earth-friendly as we would like. Take for instance the young woman pedaling her bike along presumably coming from the grocery store? How is her load being carried? Why, in plastic bags of one sort or another!

See what I mean? Get rid of fossil fuels and most of us would simply no longer be able to function. Even her handlebar grips are probably plastic. Outside of leather saddles (which are made by slaughtering animals for their skins) most saddles are made from some sort of plastic. Even the pedals she is pushing are made from synthetic rubber.

My notion is that we learn to live with the inefficiencies that are inevitable. But that does not mean we forget to try and make the use of precious fuels more efficient. We should. Cars are far more fuel efficient today than they were just a scant quarter century ago! But we can make things better. We are dabbling with electric motors and are going to deal with the heavy metals that we currently use to power these batteries. And if electric motors become the norm we will have folks who are going to complain about those as well.

I wonder how many ‘greenies‘ are worried about the products that become discarded when we buy a new smartphone? There are many tons of plastic and heavy metals that go into landfills all over the planet. But like it or not these things are a product of normal human use. We just need to find a way to reuse them. And might I add a way to reuse them that is less toxic than their original service required.

I’ll know that ‘greenies‘ are truly ‘green‘ when they refuse to drink liquids that not only impair them, but require refrigeration, transport by trucks and packaging that creates waste.

Until then I will consider the ‘high horse‘ of ‘appropriate transportation‘ a good start, but nowhere close to a solution.