The Road Less Traveled

Time for climate leadership on Oregon’s roads

By Aimee Okotie-Oyekan

There are approximately four million miles of road in the United States alone. To put that in perspective, that’s about 16.7 times the distance from the Earth to the moon. 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, pedal to the metal, the sheer distance is an afterthought. 

The road, however, 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 what they lack — in the ’50s and ’60s, it signified wealthy whites driving new cars on new roads out to new suburban white-picket-fence homes that Black Americans were denied loans to purchase. The road was a knife, severing and slicing up low-income communities to make way for highways in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore and Detroit. 

For some, the road, along with its unreliable public transportation, is the difference between barely making it to work on time and filing for unemployment for the second time this year. For Oscar Grant, a Black man who at just 22 years old, was killed in 2009 by a BART station police officer in Oakland, California, it was a death sentence. 

For unwelcomed 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 the Democratic Republic of Congo, who slave for next to nothing to extract the conflict materials 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. This status quo isn’t working. Our transportation system in Oregon produces nearly 40 percent of Oregon’s greenhouse gas pollution, kills nearly 500 people a year, chokes our communities with toxic air, and fails to serve people who don’t have reliable access to a vehicle. This unsustainable system of transportation needs to be reimagined for the movement of people and goods, not cars. 

Gov. Kate Brown’s Executive Order on Climate Action 20-04 requires agencies to prioritize reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The Statewide Transportation Improvement Program 2024-2027 package offers the Oregon Transportation Commission and Oregon Department of Transportation a chance to demonstrate that they are taking this direction seriously by allocating funding in a way that reduces greenhouse gas pollution and improves equity outcomes. 

Funding non-highway projects supports a transportation system that allows Oregonians of all ages, abilities, and income levels to safely, affordably and conveniently get where we need to go. Funding non-highway projects also reduces the burden of air pollution, traffic injuries and deaths, and the impacts of climate change on communities. Non-highway projects are the most effective investments to meet the EO 20-04’s requirements for ODOT to prioritize activities and investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

It is time for the OTC to show climate leadership, and for us as Oregonians to call upon OTC to do so. Our status quo isn’t “the way things are.” We have chosen this road. Now let’s unchoose it.

Aimee Okotie-Oyekan, native to Nigeria, West Africa, is pursuing a concurrent master’s degree in Environmental Studies and Community and Regional Planning at the University of Oregon. She organizes with the NAACP Eugene/Springfield Environmental and Climate Justice Committee and has passions for raising awareness about the intersections of environmentalism and social justice.