Car Trouble | Essay | Chicago Reader

Car Trouble 

Getting rid of cars may be a good idea, but the author of Asphalt Nation needs to get her facts straight.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The bible of the anticar movement has yet to be written. Environmentalists have Sand County Almanac and Silent Spring, school reformers have How Children Fail, righties have the "Contract With America," Perotistas have aging videotapes of Larry King Live. But those who believe we should rearrange our lives so that we don't have to drive have not yet had their thinking summarized in one pithy, rousing manifesto--at least, not an accurate one.

Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation could have been that manifesto. Kay, who writes about architecture and planning for the Nation, has spoken persuasively about the issue on talk shows and in person; she has herself lived carless in Boston for five years. ("I wouldn't do it if it were a serious hardship," she says disarmingly.) She's been through Chicago twice to publicize her book--on WGN radio in June and at the near-north mansion housing the Graham Foundation for architectural education in October--as well she might, since cars and parking lots are suburbanizing the city at an alarming rate.

Nationally, Asphalt Nation has been praised in the New York Times as "an important service," in E Design Online: The Journal of Sustainable Design and Planning as "a good, basic book," and in C-SPAN's Booknotes as "a bellwether for change." Jane Jacobs likes it and so do NPR's Car Talk guys. World Watch magazine, in a three-page review in its last issue of 1997, concluded that it may become "a standard work in its field."

Let's hope not, because if Asphalt Nation were a car, it would have been recalled for gross defects as soon as it hit the showroom. Here are the big ones:

Kay writes that since automakers began installing safety devices, "the 43,000 yearly death rate [in auto accidents] has stayed the same." As with most of her car-damning claims, Kay does not say where her numbers came from. According to the current Statistical Abstract of the United States, motor-vehicle crash deaths reached an all-time high of 56,300 in 1972 and declined to 43,900 by 1995. That drop is more impressive when you consider that with more people driving more vehicles more miles--116 percent more miles than in 1970, says the EPA--deaths per 100 million miles driven dropped by more than half, from 4.3 in 1972 to 1.7 in 1995.

Kay writes that "For all the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in making 'designated driver' a byword, the menace worsens." But according to the Statistical Abstract, someone was legally drunk in 41 percent of the 39,196 fatal accidents that happened during 1985. In 1995, there were 37,221 fatal accidents, and a drunk was involved in 33 percent of them.

Kay writes that "By doubling the miles driven [between 1970 and 1990], drivers had totally outstripped" advances in fuel economy and air pollution control. By what measure? Total emissions of lead, carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds have declined since 1970, while nitrogen oxides, despite a decline since 1975, increased slightly. And according to the EPA's 1995 "Summary of Air Quality and Emissions Trends," the concentrations of lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone in the air we breathe all dropped between 1986 and 1995, and PM-10 (particulate matter smaller than ten microns) has dropped since 1988, when we started measuring it.

Even in the greater Chicago area, what the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics calls "transportation emissions" dropped significantly between 1985 and 1994: volatile organic compounds are down from 267,000 to 160,000 short tons, nitrogen oxides down from 186,000 to 168,000, carbon monoxide down from 2,249,000 to 1,547,000, and PM-10 down from 7,400 to 6,000.

Kay writes that "while the population of a city like Chicago has stayed almost static, the metropolitan area has grown 55 percent." She cites Chicago's sustainable-city advocacy group the Center for Neighborhood Technology. But according to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission's analysis of aerial photographs of the six-county area, between 1970 and 1990 the area the metropolis covers grew 35 percent--not 55. In that same time the population grew 4 percent and the number of households grew 20 percent. Cars do let us use more land per household, but not to the degree Kay claims.

Kay writes, "The [blight and traffic generated by] roads... create the ghetto itself." But in Chicago, for instance, the black ghetto was firmly in place by 1920, before cars became entrenched as almost the only way to get around. Since then, powerful racists like Richard J. Daley have used the tools at hand, arranging not only freeways but also public transportation and public housing so as to confine and isolate minorities.

Kay writes that sprawling development made possible by cars consumes 1.5 million acres of farmland a year. This is one of the highest reliable estimates, according to farmland preservation advocates Tom Daniels and Deborah Bowers, who wrote Holding Our Ground, but the publicity for Asphalt Nation inexplicably stretches it to 2 million acres. What's missing completely is perspective: the U.S. still had 968 million acres of farmland as of 1996.

Kay writes that traffic congestion is "generated by widening roads," making us "a nation in gridlock," but census figures don't show that average commuting times have increased significantly; during the 1980s, the average commute to work reported by residents of sprawl-plagued Du Page County actually declined from 27.6 to 27.3 minutes.

Kay writes that the gas tax "covers only about 60 percent of our road costs," a figure from the Federal Highway Administration, adding that "By hiding roadway costs in general taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes, our transportation accounting cloaks the price and promotes demand" for cars and roads. This is true but misleading. Most of the remaining 40 percent of those costs comes from local roads and streets--not intercommunity highways, according to "The Transportation/Land Use Connection," a report by the American Planning Association. And unlike I-94, those local byways would surely continue to serve a purpose even if we all got rid of our cars. So why should drivers be expected to foot the entire bill?

Kay also implies that a higher gas tax--a cost that hits us while we're in the car--would cut driving, but it hasn't in Europe. Mass transit ridership in England and Wales, for instance, declined from 33 to 14 percent of all trips between 1971 and 1991, according to MIT urban planning prof Ralph Gakenheimer in the Autumn 1997 Journal of the American Planning Association. And UIC architectural historian Robert Bruegmann has observed that large portions of Paris built in the 1980s are just as autocentric as suburban American neighborhoods built at the same time. The "walking cities" that anticar activists love were built that way when no one had any other choice.

Kay bemoans women's "enslavement to the motor vehicle" in car-dependent households, without acknowledging how the car helps equalize the sexes in personal safety. Cars make it easier for women to go to or through dangerous areas, to travel at night without having to wait alone in a subway tunnel; one feminist of my acquaintance never ventured out to evening political meetings until she moved from New York to Chicago--and acquired a car.

Kay writes that "Rene Dubos's injunction in The Limits of Growth to 'think locally, act globally'...awoke the nation." But Dubos had nothing to do with the 1972 book called The Limits to Growth. What he actually wrote, in his book Celebrations of Life in 1981, was "Think globally, but act locally."

In short, Asphalt Nation bears about the same relation to the state of transportation as romance novels do to love. It didn't have to be this way. Kay could have written a reasonable tract against the car based on facts instead of exaggerations and fabrications. Even 1.7 deaths per 100 million miles driven--43,900 bodies in 1995--is bad news. Pollution controls may not continue to improve faster than the number of miles driven multiplies, and there's certainly an argument to be made that our current "cleaner" air isn't clean enough by a long shot. Kay rightly deplores the predicament of those too old or too young to drive in a car-centered culture. An honest study of car costs might well find that drivers should pay more than they do now, particularly for parking and health costs of air pollution. And, of course, if oil should threaten to run short, or if we should reach a national consensus on carbon dioxide reduction, it will be necessary to break up the shotgun marriage between cars and gasoline in favor of some other propellant like electricity, hydrogen, or last year's crops.

The facts suggest reform: cars could use some improvements. The facts do not suggest that cars are a hopeless dead end into which American society has unwittingly driven, necessitating radical change.

But radical change is what Kay wanted from the start. "I conclude," she writes, "with the conviction that brought me to this book, that we must alter our notions of mobility--and our lives." In other words, "We must question why we travel at all.... We must bring back the corner-store culture: the walkable block, the next-door neighbor, the nearby library and school." Not only should we stay home more, but our homes should be smaller and have more people in them: "We need to revive boardinghouses, maintain SRO (single-room occupancy) dwellings, and re-create row houses, twin houses, apartments, and, don't forget, newer communal homes in which adults share space."

You aren't going to sell this kind of program by telling people that pollution and car accidents are declining but still too high. You need a crisis. Since there is no crisis, Kay had to make one up.

The central idea of the anticar movement has genuine appeal: if people have access, they don't need mobility. If every place that you now drive to were within walking distance, or biking distance, or a short bus or train ride, then you wouldn't need a car.

Think of American society as a game board on which you get to set up the pieces. This is an impractical way to think, since most of the pieces are already set up, and even if they weren't the setup would be a matter of compromise rather than individual will. But it makes some choices clearer. You can set them up for maximum mobility--private cars, spread-out single-family homes, large retail stores surrounded by larger parking lots, jobs and recreation scattered all around, and plenty of parking everywhere. Or you can set them up for maximum accessibility--few or no private cars, and everything you need reachable without them.

"The ability to go anywhere, anytime, at any speed is not a fundamental right, nor even an ideal for individuals to aspire to," asserts the 1995 book At Road's End, published under the auspices of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, the federal lobby of the anticar movement. "Opportunities must be placed where people already are."

Of course, there are trade-offs. A grocery store you can walk to with your two-year-old will not have as many brands of cereal as a big Jewel that draws people who drive in from miles around, and an Oak Street Market can't provide the same spread of organic produce at the price Whole Foods can offer by buying in bulk. A neighborhood church may not have the quality of preaching you could expect from a pulpit surrounded by acres of paved parking. The neighborhood bridge club or swimming pool or branch library can't offer the same level of competition or breadth of material as a large facility drawing from a large area. If the idea is to work close to home, you may not be able to change jobs without changing homes. Bringing home garden tools, lumber, or a new computer will present novel difficulties.

Couldn't you get your car out of storage for the occasional long trip or cumbersome hauling job? Probably not. The accessibility model means that individual mobility and convenience must take a backseat to what anticar activists see as communal needs. When Kay talks about "the way to stop the auto age," she means just that. It's not enough to ban Wal-Mart from one town; it will only pop up in another. Larry Peterson, publisher of E Design Online, recently called it "bad news" that car makers are coming out with "more efficient fuel cells that will use gasoline (and therefore gasoline's existing infrastructure) to give twice the fuel efficiency (80 mpg) and emit one-tenth the pollution....The problem is the car itself, not the fuel."

In Chicago, in 1998, he's right. Many of Kay's exhortations (as opposed to her statements of fact) make sense here. Chicago, like any big city, could truly thrive on the accessibility model, which is why it's tragic that public transportation is headed down the tubes and that new commercial developments are almost always fronted by broad expanses of asphalt. As she says repeatedly, we need to zone, regulate, and fund to discourage cars and encourage transit if we are to have any recognizably urban city left at all.

Whether these same measures should be applied to Schaumburg and Lynwood, whose attractions to residents are entirely different from Chicago's, is another question altogether. But in the anticar movement, it is axiomatic that the urban model should be imposed everywhere. Researchers who have studied the relationship between land use and transportation, like Michael Southworth of the University of California at Berkeley, have found that building just one or two compact "accessible" neighborhoods doesn't induce residents to drive much less. To do that you need to build an entire metropolis that is unfriendly to drivers. Kay would happily do so; she despises the mobility-oriented suburbs, where she says "motion dominates and development is promiscuous....

Car-based design is an oxymoron."

But the cars are winning because most people, given a choice, prefer some degree of privacy, quiet, and flexibility for themselves and their children. Books like Kay's tiptoe right past the question of how you get people to live in neighborhoods tightly packed enough to support mass transit. The answer is, you make it their only choice. Otherwise, once they reach the burbs, they'll see little reason to go on paying for the CTA. As the CTA continues to deteriorate, even city lovers find themselves forced to drive, and if they can't drive, they find their access severely limited. As one disgruntled urbanite of my acquaintance put it, "The well-to-do use cars to separate themselves from the less well-to-do, to suck the resources out of the city, and then, when they decide they miss what only the city can offer, to mold the city for their own convenience."

The only book that might help stop this urban death spiral would acknowledge the dominance of the car, and try to make the case that a good society should balance the preferences of individuals with the communal good. It should minimize health and safety risks within a variety of ways to live. That would be a hard sell. But it's far more viable than using bogus numbers to try to drag everyone back onto the train, where they are simply not going to go.

Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America, and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay, Crown, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Mike Werner.

Tags: ,

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Harold Henderson

  • The Recyclable House

    The Recyclable House

    If Ken Ortiz has his way, no one in Chicago will ever simply "demolish" a building again.
    • Jul 24, 2008
  • Sympathy for the Devil?

    Sympathy for the Devil?

    Progressive scribe Rick Perlstein made his reputation finding the good in conservatives. Then they really started screwing up the country.
    • Jan 24, 2008
  • Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Dynamic Flash for Democrats

    Wanna raise funds to run for office? Nag Schwarzenegger about health care? Or just make fun of Bush? Call Articulated Man.
    • Jan 10, 2008
  • More »

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
June 21
Performing Arts
July 19

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories