Commuters, here's some food for thought: collectively, Americans spend more than 8 billion hours each year stuck in traffic. This is just one of the horrifying statistics mentioned in Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation
, an eye-opening look at the relationship between Americans and their cars. Kay asserts that the automobile is destroying our communities, our environment, and our economic competitiveness, and her supporting arguments are pretty persuasive. In addition to the billions of hours wasted in gridlock, Kay notes that our daily drives are becoming longer and more frequent, and that increased mileage has nullified any advances in emission controls. Asphalt Nation
is comprised of three parts: the first, "Car Glut: A Nation in Lifelock," examines the impact of the automobile culture on life in the United States today. "Car Tracks: The Machine That Made the Land" traces the history of cars from Henry Ford to the present, while "Car Free: From Dead End to Exit" imagines a happier future without automobile dependency.
What makes Asphalt Nation far more interesting than the typical anti-auto diatribe is Kay's discussion of the cultural mores that helped create America's current car glut--namely, our attitudes toward land use and growth management; her comparisons between American and European practices in these areas are particularly interesting. Others have written about the American love affair with the automobile, but Holtz revisits the discussion with lively writing and a dramatic narrative.
Despite some occasional discord, most Americans' love affair with the automobile continues unabated. In fact, highway speed limits have been raised in some places, and Chicago has reopened venerable State Street to auto traffic. Yet antiautomobile activists, highway engineers, and transportation bureaucrats have all begun to reach the same conclusion. Pollution, congestion, and destruction of our landscape from automobiles and highways have reached the crisis stage. Kay is the Nation
's architecture critic and author of Lost Boston
(1988). She documents the degree to which Americans have become dependent upon the automobile and measures the costs of America's "car culture." But Kay also offers solutions, many of which have been successful in places across the country. Hers is an impassioned plea to design public spaces to accommodate pedestrians, to stop building new highways, to reverse the neglect of public transit and mass transportation, to promote the use of bicycles, and to design communities for people instead of machines. David Rouse