Aimee Okotie-Oyekan is the Environmental and Climate Justice Coordinator for NAACP Eugene/Springfield and a graduate student studying planning at the University of Oregon. At home in Atlanta during the pandemic, she asked that the following statement be read during the Ride 4 Justice:
There are approximately 4 million miles of road in the United States. To put that in perspective, the distance from the Earth to the moon is only about 239,000 miles. So yeah, that’s a lot of road.
The interesting thing about roads is, as great as their expanse may be, at any given moment, as you are bustling along, you can only ever see the tiny fragment of road you happen to be traversing. Windows down, music up, peddle to the metal. The sheer distance is an afterthought. It’s just you, the compressed animal bones in the asphalt beneath you, and that obliging pull that draws you forward towards your unseen destination like a magnet to a pole.
But the road may mean something a bit different for some of us. It’s a little longer. A little more dangerous. I myself am very much aware of the road behind me because I am constantly checking it to make sure I am not being followed by a cop, or a man, or both.
For some, the road is a reminder of lack—in the 50s and 60s, it meant wealthy whites driving new cars that Black Americans didn’t have out on those roads to beautiful suburban white picket fence homes that Black Americans couldn’t afford. The road is a knife, severing and slicing up low income communities to make way for expansive highway projects in cities like Atlanta, Syracuse, and Detroit. It is a divider, segregating black communities and white areas. For some, the road and its unreliable public transit is the difference between barely making to work on time and filing for unemployment for the 2nd time this year, and for Oscar Grant a black man who at just 22 years old, was killed in Oakland California in 2009 by a BART station police officer, it was a death sentence. For those that are visitors in this country, the road is an agent of the state, and on an unlucky day, one failure to signal can mean the onset of your deportation process. For the invisible children in Brazil, Congo, Zambia, and Cambodia, that slave for next to nothing to extract the precious raw materials that are made into automobiles, I don’t think the road ever ends.
If we could see the full expanse of the roads on which we were traveling, we would know we were building roads to nowhere, building roads to end up exactly where we started. Then again, there are some that know this and choose to build anyway. Those people are the same ones calling the shots in most state departments of transportation, constantly prioritizing cars over people. This system of transportation needs to be reimagined in a way that is designed for the movement of people, not cars. I’m not saying eliminate highways. They are at times essential for our locomotion. But what I am saying is that using the most unsustainable means of transportation should not be our only option. Expand transportation to take into consideration the many ways people move about—assisted mobility devices, walking, bikes, scooters, and public transit, as well as the variety of places people need and want to go—to the park, to shops and stores, to work, to places of worship, to their homes. And you know what would make even more sense? Building all of these things closer together, so we need less roads and less cars to get around. The goal is a reduction in vehicle miles traveled and greenhouse gas emissions. A vision like this is possible if you make it known it is what you as residents of Eugene, of Lane County, of Oregon, want to see in your communities. Call upon Lane Transit District. Call upon Oregon Department of Transportation. Make them listen. It is their job. No more cars over people!