Asphalt Nation Review
Book by: Jane Holtz Kay
Review by: christopher mitchell
Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take it Back, by Jane Holtz Kay is quite an eye-opener for people who have little background on the car culture. Though slightly dated (published in 1997), it is now more relevant than ever with the ever-increasing size of SUV's and recent drops in gas prices.
When I picked up Asphalt Nation, I was not sure quite what to expect. Some statistics perhaps, a bit of history, and stunning revelations like cars cause air pollution. Kay delves much deeper -- from studies that tried to measure the full cost of cars when taking its whole life cycle into account to the ways in which the automobile has changed architectural patterns from walker friendly to walker dangerous.
Throughout it all, her writing is refreshingly informal for the amount of information she offers. The grim seriousness of the destruction caused by autos to the earth is offset by occasional understated irony: "Restaurants in Los Angeles ban smoking at dinner, then send their patrons home in traffic to breathe the worst air in America." (110).
I was slightly disappointed that the book was weighted more in favor of "how the automobile took over America" than to "how we can take it back." However, I would have suggested changing the title rather than modifying the book as it reads quite well for an introduction into the problems with the automobile.
Though 4 years have passed since Asphalt Nation was published, the statistics are undoubtedly roughly up to date. "On-road consumption of fuel accounts for half of all petroleum consumed nationally." (94) No surprise there eh? Well stay tuned: "Car owners dump 100 million gallons of used motor oil a year into the ground, storm sewers, or waterways." (95) If she missed any of the pollution caused by cars in her roundup, it certainly was not from lack of research.
Gas is probably the first culprit to come to mind when one thinks of cars and pollution. Then perhaps tires. "Heaved at the rate of roughly one per vehicle each year, or 250 million tires nationwide... spinning through the countryside, each one loses a pound of rubber every year before it gets to this final resting place. And, as the small grains rise into the sky, they filter down into our lungs and waterways." (87) And when they burn, they burn.
I expected to learn the things noted above. What I found more interesting was the history of automobiles and highways through the depression and World War II. Roosevelt's New Deal helped to gut the city by favoring autos over public transportation. "The WPA's funding ratio of road to rail was twenty to one." Furthermore, according to Kay, "The Housing Act of 1937 decentralized housing out of the city and did little to help slum dwellers." (201)
On a more positive note, the wartime shortages of materials and petrol during WW II sets a possible precedent of Americans ditching personal transportation and taking to public transit. Possible precedent because that transition was aided with posters such as "When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!" (222) Kind of hard to imagine a similar slogan today that would capture the attention of suburbanites. At any rate, the end of World War II brought easier mortgages for veterans building in the 'burbs. Then came the highways.
At any rate, Kay definitely lays out a convincing argument for those not already persuaded that the reign of the car is detrimental for people and earth alike. She then moves on to what people have done about it and what others can continue to do. This was lacking in some respects.
She presents a number of options from new zoning ideas to taxing which I, as a direct action advocate, found somewhat uninspiring. Maybe I am too jaded, but I really don't see SUV drivers voting to tax themselves more. And since the political system is considerably more responsive to the SUV crowd than it is to the mass transit crowd, such minor changes may well not be worth the massive amounts of political energy it would take to enact them.
What I found more interesting and hopeful was the brief mentions of campaigns to halt new roads and recapture waterfronts from highways. Sadly, Kay mentions these more in passing than in depth. Some solutions, such as modifying residential areas to preserve green areas and ways of naturally slow traffic are described in wordy detail too much when a diagram or photo would have been much more helpful.
That being said, I thought perhaps the best aspect of this book was that Kay did not miss gender and class differences in both the car culture and solutions to it. Though only briefly, she does point out that taxes and similar actions to penalize drivers (thereby encouraging mass transit) tend to penalize women more as they are most often saddled with the errands that come with being the primary caregiver for children.
Kay's Asphalt Nation is a good choice for those who want to understand how the automobile has impacted everything from culture to health. Though she offers some solutions, there are probably better books for the person specifically looking for them.
She explains why we have to change more than how we can change it. And that may well be best as different communities should be able to solve these problems in various ways.