5:53 PM EDT, March 20, 2013
I learned a little after the fact that the writer Jane Holtz Kay passed away late last year at age 74. She was a lot of things — architecture critic for The Nation, preservationist, Boston activist.
She was also the author of a book that put her in a class with Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson and other top-tier thinkers about the built and natural environment. "Asphalt Nation — How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back'" is a fierce polemic about America's near-total dependence on the automobile, the damage it is doing, and how we might correct it.
The book was written in 1997. I revisited it recently, after hearing of Ms. Kay's passing. Though the data is obviously old (but could easily be updated), the book stands up marvelously. Some of her insights are prescient and most are as relevant today as they were 16 years ago.
Driving is a tremendous convenience, but it comes at a cost that is only belatedly being recognized. Ms. Kay grasped an essential truth that has eluded most policy-makers — cars require vast amounts of space. A car demands 300 square feet when standing; 3,000 square feet when moving at 30 mph. It needs three parking places each day; one at home, one at work and one at the mall. With roads, parking lots, ramps, etc., 30 to 50 percent of urban America is given over to the car (see: downtown Hartford).
The car culture worked when there weren't many cars. But as the country was built to depend on the car, the number of cars increase exponentially. Space became an issue; highways became congested. Attempts to solve the problem by widening the highways were futile — the roads simply filled up again — but officials kept doing it anyway.
The result is, among other things, an environmental crisis. When the book was written, Americans were traveling 60,000 miles by car, using 3,000 gallons of petroleum products and spewing 60,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every second. Ms. Kay was among the first to observe that it was causing climate change, which would result in such things as melting ice caps and coastal flooding. Traffic congestion is also hugely expensive, costing billions of dollars a year in lost productivity — "congestion is cash."
Ms. Kay has a number of other observations worth your attention. Running interstate highways through cities didn't wall off ghettos, they created ghettos by degrading neighborhoods, usually working-class minority neighborhoods (Hartford again). The car culture increasingly isolates the poor, handicapped and elderly, the third of Americans who can't drive. A third of U.S. energy usage is for vehicles.
She also opined that suburban children who are driven everywhere as they grow up fail to expand their horizons or gain independence in the ways they would exploring cities on their own. Interesting. We had become a nation in gridlock, she wrote, wasting time and energy, ramping up stress and choking on our exhaust. The way out of it is to rebuild livable cities and towns and live in them, rebuild and use public transit and make walking and biking part of our lifestyles.
How have we done? The paradigm hasn't changed much; the highways are still congested. The federal government has yet to address climate change. On the other hand, "Asphalt Nation" has helped spark interest in smart growth and transit; many states and regions have built new transit systems and transit ridership has increased to numbers not seen in decades.
Ms. Kay came to Hartford in 1999 to speak, and she came by Peter Pan bus. She had moved to downtown Boston and given up her car in 1991. "You can't call yourself an environmentalist, or an urbanist, if you don't deal with your own driving habits," she told me.
I have not given up my car; that would be a huge challenge in most of Connecticut. But we can still deal with our driving habits by carpooling, combining trips and walking or biking where possible. Perhaps that way we can, she suggested, "save paradise and tear up a parking lot."
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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