Asphalt Nation by Jane Holtz Kay

Kay was an architecture critic who looked upon suburbia and asked, in essence, "Why is the United States so ugly?" Her lively, readable narrative is scrupulously researched and backed by long pages of footnotes. She starts by citing dismaying if unsurprising statistics about land use and public expenditures. Notably, on p. 67, "A pedestrian requires 5 square feet when standing and 10 on the hoof . A car and its access . . . demand 300 square feet when standing, 3000 when moving at 30 miles an our. In commercial terms each shopper takes 70 times his or her floor space to drive and park the car." From that perspective, it's hardly surprising that our driver-centric design has resulted in seas of parking, mammoth roadways and the degradation of public spaces. Besides the statistics, Kay's book is full of striking anecdotes that illustrate the real cost of our society's automotive reliance.

A particular strength of Asphalt Nation is the attention to questions that seem, in retrospect, obvious. Why should mass transit make money when police departments and public schools do not? Why does the Federal Government spend so much more on infrastructure for air travel than for rail? Why should transit riders even pay a fee when downtown parkers do not?

The most striking discussion is about the regressive nature of road-building, which has through subsidy created the suburbs and depopulated city centers. Housing and transportation policies meant 'redlining' in real-estate loans and a virtual requirement in many places that job-holders have driver's licenses. I had not considered to what extent the urban poor have been disadvantaged by shifts of funding from mass transit to the building of suburban and rural roads which they lack the means to access. The mortgage interest tax deduction and free parking offer little benefit to those who cannot afford a car.

Asphalt Nation is divided into 3 sections, with the first tallying up the costs of automotive-related dominance, the second describing the history of how we reached our current predicament, and the third focusing on potential solutions and signs of hope. Given the book's 1997 publication date and the increasing acceptance of many of its core contentions, the second part of the narrative is the most informative. The first part is full of thought-provoking numbers, as cited above, and the third describes how the nascent environmental movement of the 1970's birthed new thinking about transportation policy.

In the final analysis, it is Kay's pleas for human mobility over automotive and that will stay with the reader. Her convincing diagnosis of our current malaise is that we live in a landscape that we have designed for cars, not for people. I disagreed with some of her points; notably, as a cyclist and rollerblader, I like curb-cuts! But overall Asphalt Nation is a surprisingly entertaining book that is the result of a considered analysis of a vast amount of research. The reader may regret the lack of an updated edition that takes into account the advent of electrical vehicles, the renaissance in cycling, and the promise of new connected car technologies, but will find the volume a worthy read nonetheless.

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