Americans have long had a love affair with the automobile as cultural icon. Though the automobile culture has brought about unprecedented personal freedom and mobility, its social and environmental costs have become increasingly apparent. Public transportation has declined, cities have suffered from suburban sprawl, the poor are isolated, and the quality of life declines as people spend ever more time in traffic jams. Americans today spend 8 billion hours stuck in traffic. In ASPHALT NATION: HOW THE AUTOMOBILE TOOK OVER AMERICA AND HOW WE CAN TAKE IT BACK, urban planner Jane Holtz Kay documents the costs of Americans’ auto dependency and offers sensible transportation alternatives.
Perhaps one of the most short-sighted and destructive public policies ever made was the federal decision in the 1950’s to underwrite the Federal Highway Program. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 transformed the American landscape by encouraging wasteful patterns of low density, suburban sprawl, and strip development. Before World War II, American cities had depended upon a mix of subways, trolleys, trains, interurbans, and buses for public transportation. After the war, the automobile undermined urban life and public transportation by encouraging auto commuting from outlying suburbs. Gradually a new suburban lifestyle emerged, totally dependent upon the private automobile. The promised freedom and convenience of the automobile, subsidized by cheap gasoline, gradually evolved to the frantic, congested, auto-dependent culture of the 1990’s.
ASPHALT NATION presents a social history of the automobile culture and its impact on American life. Taking her cue from urban reformers, environmentalists, and proponents of public transportation, Kay examines the implications of auto dependency and offers specific recommendations for new urban planning policies that will allow people to take back their cities from the automobile and make them more hospitable to pedestrians, bicyclists, and the poor and elderly who depend on public transportation.