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Climate Activists Fight Highway Projects

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

Outside the Chinese capital of Beijing in August 2010, this 100-kilometer-long epic traffic jam (seen in part in this photo) lasted for 12 days.

Photo courtesy urban planner Gil Meslin via Twitter

The 14 lanes of Toronto’s Highway 401 in Canada’s largest city fill up in rush hour circa 2018.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

In the 1989 classic film “Field of Dreams,” a mystical dream voice repeatedly tells an Iowa farmer, “If you build it, they will come.” The farmer indeed does build the baseball diamond, and long-dead 1919 players do somehow emerge from the adjacent cornfield, to play the game once more. But the words of that mantra, applied to expanding highways choked almost bumper-to-bumper with fossil fuel-driven cars and trucks, only work to bring about yet more pollution, emissions, noise, congestion, and deforestation.

Back in 1962, a counter-intuitive concept was initially advanced by US public policy economist Andrew Downs, who later wrote the 2004 book, Still Stuck in Traffic. He called it the “fundamental law of highway congestion”: as lane capacity is added, traffic will increase, achieving no reduction in congestion

So, environmentalists are trying to organize to block climate-damaging highway projects, and to change the public transportation agenda toward being much more planet-friendly. Here are some specific examples of how Fridays For Future activists and their local allies are trying to stop yet more highways in places such as Sweden, Wales, and the USA and to institute more pro-climate transportation priorities.

In southern Sweden, the proposed expansion of the European “E-22” highway, which runs 560 km from Trelleborg east to Norrköping, has drawn determined and organized grassroots opposition from Fridays For Future and others. Yet, much of the local, regional, and national Swedish political leadership has avidly backed the project. Environmental activist Rolf Vom Dorp of FFF Sweden in Lund said, “We want an environmentally friendly system of mass transportation and safe bicycling and walking options. We need an energy and transportation revolution to get off fossil fuels. The more they build and widen freeways, the more the emissions will continue.” He has also been active with Extinction Rebellion Sverige (XR), as well as with local Swedish eco grassroots groups that translate into English as “Don’t Widen the E-22” and “Investigate More the E-22 Widening,” which have organized protest petitions and pandemic-compliant group bike rides. He noted the recent increased teleworking trend, saying “different work habits encouraged by the pandemic have had a huge impact on traffic.” XR may undertake civil disobedience acts, if the approved project proceeds, including by XR posting lower speed limit signs. And expansion opponents may take a legal challenge to the European Union high court as a last resort, he said.

In Wales, the government implemented a temporary moratorium on new road projects not already under construction in June 2021. That government sought to shift money from building new roads to instead maintaining existing routes and expanding public transit—aiming to attain net-zero CO2 emissions by far-off 2050. Currently, Wales would not achieve its net-zero goal till even further-off 2090. Currently, one-third of all Wales journeys are made by public transport, walking, or bicycling—and the government wants that share to be 45 percent by 2040. However, the COVID-19 pandemic cut bus travel in Wales by 73 percent from March 2020 to March 2021, compared with the previous year, and rail passenger travel dropped by 84 percent in a comparable period. In a December 2020 report, the independent Climate Change Committee said overall emission levels in Wales "have remained virtually flat since 1990." And even new cars and vans running on petrol or diesel will still be sold in Wales and the rest of the UK till 2030.

In the car-centric-obsessed USA, the national “bipartisan infrastructure bill” at one point in summer 2021 contained only US $39 billion for public transit contrasted with a whopping $110 billion for new and upgraded highways, bridges, and roads. More than 100 years ago, US President and former US World War II Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower had been impressed by participating in the US Army’s 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy from Pennsylvania to California. He also observed, just after World War II, the German autobahn highway system, instituted during the Nazi era. So, in June 1956, he enthusiastically signed the Interstate Highway Act. Officially declared completed in 1992, it provides some 78,000 kilometers of limited-access high-speed highways across the country, accounting for some one-quarter of US vehicle distance travel, with outsized impact.

In Wisconsin USA, a US $1 billion plan to add lanes to 5.6 kilometers of six-lane Interstate 94 (I-94), west of Milwaukee, faltered in October 2017 under ultra-conservative Republican Gov. Scott Walker, mostly on cost grounds. However, new centrist Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the much-disliked and much-distrusted Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) revived the idea in July 2020, despite its major environmental racism overtones, impacting mostly black, mostly low-income neighborhoods. From the 1950s till the 1990s, half of the 14,000 homes demolished to make way for Milwaukee-area freeways had been occupied by African Americans.

As Gregg May, transportation policy director for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, told The Recombobulation Area, “If [Evers] is saying things about climate change, saying things about the importance of racial equity…he should walk the walk, not just talk the talk…Maybe he was just paying lip service to those ideas.” Community organizer Gretchen Schuldt, who has been part of highway opposition for years, told The Recombobulation Area, “WisDOT is not getting us straight answers, which, anyone who has dealt with WisDOT wouldn’t be surprised.” And state and local government priorities do not align justly.

In Oregon, middle-school climate activists were among the leaders of the opposition to an expanded I-5. Corant High School 10th grader Ms. Adah Crandall, 15, explained to KGW-TV 8 in Portland, “In 7th and 8th grade, I attended Harriet Tubman Middle School, right next to I-5. My classmates and I were constantly breathing pollution from I-5, and it was a really scary situation to be in. So we got involved in [opposing] the Oregon Department of Transportation [ODOT]’s proposed expansion of that freeway.” An estimated 40 percent of GHG emissions in Portland originate from transportation.

The US $750 million Portland highway expansion would add auxiliary lanes between the I-405 and I-84, supposedly to alleviate “bottlenecks.” Centrist Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown had backed the project, which paused partly because of steel shortages, economic disruptions, climate and environmental activism, and anti-systemic racism protests. The predominantly black Rose Quarter area would be especially hard-hit. But the project could still go ahead.

Various approaches have been taken to lessen the clamor for more highways. Oslo, Norway, for instance, expanded its bike lanes—albeit less robustly and more slowly than proposed—so that bicycling traffic increased 77 percent between 2014 and 2020. Philadelphia USA added kilometers of physically protected bike lanes, increasing by almost 70 percent how many people biked to work from 2010 to 2017. Other ideas include:

  • Adding wide sidewalks for pedestrians,

  • Adding physical barriers to safely separate bike lanes from car lanes,

  • Raising substantially the gas tax (for example, the US federal gas tax of just 6.6 cents per liter has not been raised since October 1993, despite 77 percent inflation from then till 2020),

  • Encouraging more days of teleworking whenever feasible,

  • Encouraging more carpooling,

  • Providing financial incentives for bicyclists (as in France),

  • Instituting speed lower speed limits on cars in high-pedestrian areas,

  • Reducing the number of parking spaces and raise the parking meter charges,

  • Making central city core areas free of vehicular traffic either part-time (as done in part of NYC on Earth Day 1970 and more recently in part of Oslo, Norway) or preferably full-time, or impose a stiff rush-hour “congestion pricing” surtax on driving (as done in part of Central London, UK) or on any roadway use, and

  • Increasing electric buses and subways (ideally for either low or no fares to incentivize riders) and electric cars and trucks.


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Green TV (US) writer and contributor Alfred Robert Hogan, a longtime science journalist and media historian, is researching and writing an in-depth biography of Swedish teen environmental activist and FFF founder Greta Thunberg and about the No. 1 climate crisis/6th mass extinction.

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