Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took over America, and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay

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Places Discussed

Posted 2005-04-20

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

This book critiques our over-dependence on the automobile by examining the history leading to the car's dominance and then suggesting ways to improve the chances for people-centered environments.

In part I, the author describes an automobile-centric way of life in terms of the environmental, social, economic, health, and human costs. In part II, she narrates the history of the automobile, from its introduction to cities early in the 20th century, its remarkable period of coexistence with other modes of transit before, between, and even a short time after the century's two world wars, and the gradual accommodations of the car leading to its dominance over all other transit modes during the last half of the century. This dominance stemmed from the work of such people as Le Courbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Henry Ford (p. 216) among others, as well as from the public policies of US Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower who both encouraged and established the highway system as "a self-perpetuating--and perpetual--motion machine" (p. 219). In part III, she describes a variety of approaches showing promise for re-orienting cities toward human beings including a variety of transit modes, intermodal transit strategies, traffic calming, mixed land uses, compact development, and walking and bicycling trails.

A great strength of this book is in its description of a "golden age" in the first decades of the 20th century when the car had not yet crowded out all other forms of transit. During this time, a mix of streetcars, trolleys, long- and short-distance trains, sidewalks, automobiles, people walking, and even some frightened horses provided a rich set of choices for mobility within a context of businesses, homes, and public buildings located near each other and with walkable connections among them. It is the word "mix" that seems to capture this golden age as well as characterize the promising efforts to rebalance urban life now: by providing a mix of land uses, housing types, business locations, and transit modes.

I am very sympathetic to this book's entire central point--that we must rebalance our living environments to favor human beings instead of automobiles--but I found this book lacking a complete analysis of the factors that favor the public's vast preference for automobile travel. Certainly, this book masterfully covers the historical context and the tax and public policy factors that have favored car travel at the expense of all other transit modes. These factors alone are so overwhelming that it is no wonder car travel dominates. However, this book does not delve into the preferences individuals have for travel. On page 193, the author summarizes the view of people who pass up mass transit: "Why stand in line, why face the hurry-burly of strangers when the car promises comfort, privacy, and personal mobility?" Until a coherent answer can be found for these concerns, and until mass transit can offer a consistent level of security, civility, dignity, convenience, and mobility, I doubt that a significant portion of the public will ever consider mass transit.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©