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Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back Hardcover – April 1, 1997
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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
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Top customer reviews
Ms. Kay knows what she is talking about and expresses her ideas, oh, so well.
I was more taken with the second part, where Kay reports the history of how automobiles, and specifically traffic planners, conspired to create the sprawling, pedestrian-hostile multilane disaster we call the modern American city. This portion of the book was fascinating, and I would have liked twice as much of it.
At the end of the day, however, I was hoping the author would have a more nuanced and thoughtful point of view than, "Cars are bad, walking is good." I already knew that. Still and all, a great book if you're inclined to think that maybe what your city needs is NOT one or two more left-turn lanes.
What I found here was both fascinating and disturbing; the book really had an impact on the way I look at and think about the man-made environment around me.
I have since gone on to read more about this subject; I would have to say that although this book is a good introduction to this topic, Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere is both more comprehensive and more compelling. Kay's book really seems to lose its focus somewhat when it offers suggestions for change, a few of which seem reasonable, but most of which seem unlikely to ever win the support of the majority of the public.
Additional weak points:
- No presence of counter argument.
- Not enough attention was payed to the 'taking it back' portion of the title. Roughly 4/5 of the book were taking over America, 1/5 taking it back. No new ideas were presented in the 'taking it back' section.
The content is wanting too. Despite the "how we can take it back" part of the subtitle, the book contains no apendices or tables listing resources for anti-car activism; I have had to jot down notes _en passant_ and look up the names she mentions using the internet.
This is all very unfortunate, because the point of the book needs to be made, and I give Jane Holtz Kay three stars for making it. But if this is the best kind of popular scholarship and writing we can expect in support of the anti-auto movement, then that movement is likely doomed.