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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Radical Vision To Make Cars Optional

Traffic winds its way east and west along a snowy Boulder-Denver Turnpike, in Superior, Colo. on Wednesday. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

Traffic winds its way east and west along a snowy Boulder-Denver Turnpike, in Superior, Colo. on Wednesday. (Brennan Linsley/AP)

The late architecture critic and author Jane Holtz Kay had a radical vision for the U.S. – a society where people would prefer to live without cars.

In her seminal 1997 book, “Ashpalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back,” Kay argued that our reliance on cars is made possible by massive government subsidies, and that building our communities around the car was harming our health, our environment and our economic competitiveness.

Jane Holtz Kay died in November in Boston.

Jane Holtz Kay died in November in Boston.

Kay called suburbs “car-burbs” and pointed out that when cars become the only available means of transport, the young and the elderly who cannot drive become dependent, and the poor who cannot afford cars become marginalized.

Columbia University historian Kenneth Jackson described “Asphalt Nation,” as “a powerful and persuasive indictment of the car culture that came to dominate America.”

The New York Times called her a prophet of climate change, because in that book she calculated that in less time than it takes us to read this sentence, Americans riding around in cars and trucks will dump another 180,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming.


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  • Ted

    Its going to be difficult to “go back”  before the automobile.
    Society is set up for the need for vehicles.
    You can’t simply walk around to do your business say as in the cities of Europe or Asia.
    The auto industry along with Big Oil destroyed the mass transitsystem in America in the 1950′s.

    Read Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives  for a start on the topic.

    Get the obese to start walking as a step towards a more healthy population.
    Its all wishful thinking. Now back to the traffic jam you are sitting in. 

    • Sonny

      The geography of 99% of our country is not conducive to a pedestrian oriented lifestyle, and that if fine with the majority of us.

      • Aukauk

        The 2000 census found that 79% of the people live in urban areas, and 58% live in urban areas with over 200k people. Why are we letting the outdated habits of a minority dictate the transportation spending priorities?

      • Irvin Dawid

        Sonny – you might look at where the people live – not just all the open space….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

    I have not driven or owned a car for 5 years. When it became clear that I could either afford to feed myself & keep a roof over my head OR maintain, insure & drive a car in Massachusetts the course was obvious.  Adapting to a car-free lifestyle ( a serious downgrade in my social life ) was extremely challenging. It doesn’t help that I am marginally disabled, already.  I swear that people behind the driver’s wheel are not in any way concerned about people on foot. Sometimes I even feel that they AIM for us, in a menacing “Me first!” kind of way.

    Since giving up the wheel, I have moved to a more walkable area. I have access to essentials (Post Office, library, shops, etc) within five minutes walking time.  It cheers me up to see cars that wouldn’t let me cross the street, in the crosswalk, have to stop & idle at streetlights while I walk right by them, doing- oh, maybe 4 miles an hour. I still get there first. Funny culture, this. Yes, I seldom see friends or family, not even on holidays, because they all drive cars & I don’t. I cannot “get there”, meaning the deep, car-dependent suburbs, and they wouldn’t dream of sharing THEIR rides with a walker. To even ask for a ride gets you labeled “dependent” & dependent folks are marginalized in this country. Whether it’s true or not, the label sticks.

    I do not expect to live long enough to see some of Jane Holtz Kay’s wise suggestions made manifest, scared that I will be yet another pedestrian fatality before folks sober up from lifelong addictions to automobiles & realize that “There, but for the grace of God, go they.”

  • Douglas P

    I used to live in Huntsville, AL where autos are an absolute necessity. I now live near downtown San Diego and work in La Jolla (northern SD). I chose to live within walking distance to Balboa Park and I love it. I now walk and walk and walk and I use public transportation to/from work (trip requires 45min including a 15min walk). I could use public transportation the entire distance but I have chosen to include the walk for exercise. I have even made friends with the security guards at the CA Western School of Law which I pass each day.

    Since relocating to SD, I use my vehicle very little and generally purchase only about once per month. I never thought moving to CA would save me gas money.

    This report is the first I learned of Jane Holtz Kay’s philosophy and I will definitely get a copy of Asphalt Nation because I have had similar ideas for years. Thanks for making me aware.

  • golfer75

    This is a completely bizarre idea and is in no way feasible.  And how much work would it be to build a transportation system to replace cars?  You woud need trains built, tracks built, energy to power trains or whatever vehicles would be needed and all the rest.  That would be a massive effort, replete with massive carbon emissions.  Ms. Kay’s vision is completely unrealistic.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1408098372 Mari McAvenia

      Completely? That’s a very strong, one way statement. The Internet was a bizarre idea, too 25 years ago. For the record, I was a card carrying union carpenter who built bridges for a new interstate highway, in the late 70s. They thought a woman couldn’t do that kind of work back then. I did. Many others followed in my footsteps to make the auto roadways you hold so dear, today.

      I use public transportation all the time now. City buses, commuter railways & subways are cheap, reliable forms of transportation, still. They can be expanded easily with a tiny investment from the federal, state & local governments.Technology has come a long way towards creating materials & methods for building stuff that will boggle your mind if you care to look at it.  These jobs can provide employment for todays young workers, both male & female.

      Cars are like dinosaurs. They may thrive at this very moment- devouring everything else they come across- and die out completely tomorrow. Go check your ignition. Sometime it might not turn over when you want it to. Yes, that happens. Often. The trains will still run on time.

      • golfer75

        Yes, completely.  I meant what I said because it’s the truth.

        Comparing the development of the Internet to the development of a railway system, for example, is really a comparison of apples and oranges.  It is significantly easier to lay fiber optic cable at maybe one pound per 100′ of cable versus several tons of gravel, ties and steel for 100′ of railway track.  Never mind the energy demands of powering a railway system.

        Also, public transportation is not an alternative in most parts of the country.  Where I live (in west-central Indiana) there is a city bus system.  It does not stop at my home, nor does it stop in the small town where my son attends school, neither does it stop where my wife works.  Moreover, the bus doesn’t stop at the golf course where I like to play golf, nor does it go to the small town in Illinois where my in-laws live.  We would be stuck without transportation without the use of our cars.  Building a bus system that would travel to every specific stop we require would be completely out of the question in that there would need to be many different stops, hubs for switching lines, and so on.  Even more so, building a train system with these types of requirements is completely unfeasible as well.

        I reject the notion that cars are like dinosaurs.  Modern automobiles have satellite  navigation systems, satellite radio systems, video and audio players, engines that burn multiple types of fuels, engines that burn no fuels and run off of electricity, and in some places, cars which completely drive themselves.  Today’s cars have more computing power and technology in them, through their mechanical and electrical designs, than our national space program had probably five decades ago.

        Finally, I don’t feel its a fair assessment to compare the reliability of a train system.  Train systems have many more moving parts compared to a car, and with each moving part, a possible point of failure.  As such, I contend that the reliability of a train would be considerably lower as a consequence.

        • Kk4est

           Take that! Now go make me a sammich!

  • Aukauk

    How did we get duped into spending a major fraction of our income on vehicles that are so inherently dangerous that they come with airbags; so unreliable that they require regular monitoring of fuel gages, check-engine lights and even automatic “on-star” emergency radios; so unpredictable that we need radio traffic reports every 10 minutes and still have to pad our schedules; rely on roads that are crumbling and too expensive to maintain; and are so inefficient that changes in fuel prices throw our entire economy into convulsions? The car industry likes to argue that consumers deserve choices, but committing to road infrastructure makes cities so spread out that their citizens have no choice except to drive a car for almost everything, and risk getting run over if they walk or bike to the train. We deserve better options.

  • Mikkiansin

    A great piece!

  • Irvin Dawid

    Great discussion on making urban design work for the person,not the car.  However, in terms of accommodating cars in dense urban settings, SF is doing more than reducing parking requirements - they are applying market-based tools – like those in the private sector. Other cities are doing it too. See ”
    Cities Begin To Rethink Parking Policies
    Motorists Save With Efficient Parking Pricing

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