Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Asphalt Nation

Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back
© 1997 Jane Holtz Kay
418 pages

Lord, Mister Ford, I just wish you could see what your simple horseless carriage has become!
It seems your contribution to man has to say the least gotten a little out of hand --
Well, lord, Mister Ford, what have you done?
("Lord, Mister Ford", Jerry Reed)

The United States is in ways a nation without a history. Relatively young, it came of age in the early industrial period, where access to profoundly powerful technologies shaped its growth in a way not seen in Europe or Asia, where new influences worked against what was already there. This is most obviously seen in a comparison of dense, almost compact European cities, and their American counterparts, which sprawl out for mile after dreary mile and -- with some exceptions for cities which date to the 18th century --  often lack a distinctive center. This radically different urban landscape is the mark of the automobile: while Europe's cities were built for people, America's cities and now its sprawl are made for cars. Americans embraced the automobile like no other nation, and now after a century of giving it dominion, are slowly waking up to the price. No green and pleasant land, we are a nation covered in asphalt and mired in traffic. In Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay examines the consequences of the United States' self-made dependency on the car,  explains how it came to be that way, and offers ways for recovering a sensible approach to urbanism.

Although some of the costs of the automobile are obvious -- pollution; the economic drain of cars on private households to pay for insurance, maintenance, and gas;  and thousands of lives each year -- the greatest harm is more subtle, in deforming the urban landscape. The automobile's effect on American urbanism has been marked by purposeful decentralization and the rise of sprawl, a disaster for the nation. Not only does sprawl create manifestly hideous cityscapes, but it drives cities into bankruptcy as they attempt to cover greater areas with less efficiency. Public transportation becomes especially inefficient. As jobs move away from city centers, those who can't afford transportation to get there are stuck living in areas with few opportunities for work, leading to inner city decay. Once vibrant city centers become home to nothing but poverty and despair.

It didn't have to be this way. After cataloguing the damage, Hay launches into a history of American car use and the rise of a "car-ridden" society.  Although the automobile matched the United States' strong individualistic tendencies nicely, the success of the automobile is far from a triumph of the free market.Cars and the roads they require have always been heavily subsidized by the government: in the 1930s, building the infrastructure for automobile transportation was seen as a way to put people to work. The car companies themselves were proactive about ensuring their dominance, as General Motors eagerly bought up trolley lines and promptly closed them down, allowing its line of buses to flourish. Holtz's history section  can be depressing, as it catalogs the slow decline of American urbanism and the rise of congestion, but it must be read. Every chapter is a lesson in where we went wrong, one that might allow us to find our way back. Interestingly, the rise of the automobile fits into the pattern Neil Postman identified regarding technology;  at first, it was merely a tool to be used, then one with a central role in our lives...and now, for Americans, one our society has become fundamentally dependent on.

The final chapters devote themselves on recovery. Reining in the automobile will be a difficult task, and may prove to be a long term challenge for the 21st century, just as establishing the car's preeminence marked the 20th. First, we stop the ever-increasing expansion of roads, reexamine zoning policies that encourage sprawl and the destruction of our cities; begin restoring transit like trolleys and trains; begin rolling sprawl back and restoring our urban centers; and finally, begin "depaving America",  beginning with the elevated highways that cut cities apart.  The car should also be put in its proper place by no longer being so heavily supported by the official policies of the government.

There's never been a timelier moment for this book, except for perhaps in the 1970s when the oil crisis offered Americans a chance to reconsider their relationship with the automobile. Today the United States is facing a prolonged recession and a difficult century ahead. The infrastructure required for our asphalt nation is an enormous economic liability, one we would do well to shed ourselves of. Ending sprawl and restoring life to the cities will allow government to function efficiently and restore that sense of community that Robert Putnam mentioned in his Bowling Alone. Asphalt Nation is thorough, its author never shrill. I not only recommend it: I think it a must-read.


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