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Kay, Jane Holtz. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1997 (418 pp.). Kay’s encyclopedic indictment of America’s car-mandatory culture probably won’t sit well with folks in sprawling megalopolises that remain addicted to the car. Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, and similar 21st-century cities that have expanded into distant exburbias are emblematic of the car’s assault on our pocketbooks, health, and psyche. There are many anti-car studies in print, and just as many grassroots groups throughout the country trying to take the streets back for walkers and bikers, but this book is the most comprehensive and well-written. Kay is a journalist whose engaging style makes Asphalt Nation an interesting read – at once a history, an intriguing mystery, and a political diatribe. The book is divided into three parts: costs, history, and solutions. In the first section, Kay documents the consequences of our car addition. She surveys everything from the auto’s actual costs in dollars for the average American (road subsidies, insurance, gasoline, parking); to the myriad of health-related costs from pollution, accidents, and the like; to costs that are less easy to quantify, such as the loss of open space for more roads or the costs to employers when their workers sit in congestion for hours every day. The middle part of the book provides a history of how America got to this point – starting with Henry Ford and moving through the Roaring Twenties to the post-WWII period, when the car culture we know today was really formed, and then into the 60s through the 80s, when the nation waged a full-scale assault on downtowns in subservience to the car. This is exciting reading, as Kay shows how America’s previous reliance on streetcars, trains, and other forms of mass transit was undermined through a political and corporate cabal – not to mention the cultural shifts taking place in America after WWII. A principal motif throughout the book, which is central to this section, is that Americans see spending billions of dollars for roads as an "investment," whereas they consider spending what amounts to pennies on mass transit as a "wasteful subsidy." Kay wants people to understand the real costs of our car culture – and how these costs are a direct result of legislative and banking policies that encourage sprawl at the cost of downtowns. In effect, she argues, taxpayers subsidize that stock broker living in the suburbs, driving his BMW to central city everyday, much more than they do buses or light rail – which are cheaper, reduce pollution, are safer, and discourage sprawl. While her book focuses mainly on the car, it’s a story that can’t be told without the context of suburbs, shopping malls, poor zoning policies, Wal-Marts, and related developments that go hand-in-hand with the car – and which, together, sap life out of America’s downtowns. Kay has a long section about the demise of Main Streets as the suburbs, exburbs, and Edge Cities continued to sprawl outward – all subsidized and encouraged by government. Her history of the car in America is often counterbalanced with transportation history in Europe, which, of course, moved in the opposite direction – toward mass transit and away from the individualistic car mentality. The last section, "Car Free," is a review of the ways in which cities and regions are taking back the streets from the car, whether in Europe or places like Portland, Oregon and Washington, D.C. This is the least satisfying part of the book, and it could have probably been summarized in a chapter, not an entire section. She documents countless grassroots organizations, as well as government programs, that now understand the consequences of our car-centric way of living, and provides examples of how towns can reverse the trend – whether it’s through reviving streetcars, installing bike lanes, creating auto-free zones, adding more buses, or changing zoning so residents aren’t separated from stores or offices, which forces them to drive more. She also reviews the work of contemporary architects who advocate a return to a more dense, urban city design – the so-called New Urbanists. Kay is architectural critic for The Nation, and her book is laced with interesting examples of how our dependence on the car influenced building design and city planning. Implicit in all of these steps to reclaim the street, however, is a cultural shift that needs to take place among Americans, since we are the ones who make on average 10 car trips a day – most just a few miles that could be walked or biked. Asphalt Nation is filled with hundreds of citations; the overabundance of statistics, quotations, and other references doesn’t get in the way, however; it only make her case stronger. Whether most suburbanites can wean themselves from their reliance on the car remains to be seen, at least in this lifetime. Still, Kay notes that cities like Los Angeles, long the king of highway culture, is investing more in mass transit and that the road builders don’t rule as they once did. It will take baby steps – a bike path here, a carpool incentive there, but the most important thing is to let people know what this machine has done and is doing to their lives, their lands, and their pocketbook. Asphalt Nation is one of the best voices yet to do just that.


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