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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Asphalt Nation

Air Date: Week of

Jane Holtz Kay, author of "Asphalt Nation, How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back." met up with Steve Curwood at a busy intersection in downtown Boston to survey firsthand the ways in which dependency on cars has altered our lifestyles and the landscape.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Many of us would find it hard to imagine life without a car. We drive to work. We drive to the store. We drive to pick the kids up from soccer practice, to just about everywhere. Driving is convenient, but there's a price to pay. Our roads have become increasingly clogged. Collectively, Americans spend 8,000,000,000 hours stalled in traffic each year. Eight billion hours! Now if our time is worth, on average, $12 an hour, that's over $100,000,000,000 worth of lost time, making traffic jams a bigger drain on society than the federal deficit. The environment has suffered as well. Cars contribute heavily to smog and greenhouse gas emissions, make sprawl possible, and our cities less livable, says Jane Holtz Kay. She's the author of "Asphalt Nation, How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back." We met up with Ms. Kay in downtown Boston at the busy intersection of Congress and State Streets, to survey the damage firsthand.

[Car passing, honking]

CURWOOD: We're standing now at one of the worst pedestrian intersections in the city, wouldn't you say?

KAY: Yes, one street width away from the site of the Boston Massacre.

CURWOOD: Are you ready to try crossing the street? Let's go!

KAY: Ok, this is a little tricky. I wouldn't normally start here.

CURWOOD: But everybody else is walking here.

KAY: Well, they're walking seven abreast here in true Boston style, but it's pretty lethal, because you see, we're not walking across a crosswalk, and you don't exactly know where the automobiles are going--

CURWOOD: Now, what is so bad about this intersection, why do you say this is one of the worst intersections? Whup, here we go!

[Engine sputtering]

KAY: What you have here is three lanes of traffic funneling into one on one side, three funneling into two on the other side, which means why should there be three lanes if they're only going to funnel down?

CURWOOD: So, how does a road like this get planned? I mean, don't traffic engineers realize that this is really, really dangerous for pedestrians?

KAY: No. I think their orientation is to make the traffic flow.

[Truck releasing air-brake pressure]

KAY: Even in this city, where about 3/4 of the people come here without a car, it is still planned to make the traffic flow from here to where you see, way down at the end, where it narrows. And yet for those brief instants, they want the cars go 50 miles an hour, exactly at the spot where the bulk of pedestrians in the city try to cross the street.

CURWOOD: Well, let's take a look down here at the Big Dig. We can see it from here.

[Footfalls on pavement]

CURWOOD: Ok, now we're down at Boston's Central Artery. This is a huge elevated highway that runs straight through the center of the city. It's pretty ugly, and it's congested--why was this road ever built?

KAY: To speed cars faster on their merry way. That was the period when that was being done.

CURWOOD: So look at it. I mean, how fast are they going now?

KAY: They're not going very fast, is the axiom and it's scientific and both a kind of cliche: 'If you build it, they will come.' And we're always a generation behind, not because it was slow, but because you build a new road, and it fills up and encourages more cars.

CURWOOD: So what's the impact this road has had on downtown Boston?

KAY: The Central Artery basically severed the city from its waterfront, its historic origins, and everything you see was a big scar.

CURWOOD: Now, Boston has decided, indeed the elevated highway here, the Central Artery, is a mistake, and so there's some $10,000,000,000 that's being put into a construction project, the most expensive highway project in the country's history, per mile. They're building a new highway underground, and they're going to knock down this elevated road, and build a surface level road, with a park running down the center. Now, don't you think the Central Artery will look a lot better then?

KAY: Yes, theoretically. But there'll still be a speedway, a highway, between the city and the waterfront, and it may make this noisy, disgusting place we're standing in--

[Loud truck passing]

KAY: --better. But what happens when you put a tunnel in, I liken it to a very long balloon, like a balloon at a kid's party. And you take that snake, and you squeeze its middle, that's the part underground, and that's better, but it has to come up, and when it comes up, all the other pieces of the road are going to be elevated and difficult and ugly.

CURWOOD: Ok, so where should we go next?

[Truck accelerating]

KAY: Well, we'll move away from that polluting truck and head down this way, and we can go to a more congenial environment altogether.

[Fades, and sound of walking]

CURWOOD: So Jane, we've walked over here, to this place you consider a good example of civic planning. What about the street that you like?

KAY: I'm not sure this street was planned, actually. I think it was planned in the way that old cities were planned. In Boston they say the cows did it. This street certainly looks that way. It's very erratic, it was certainly not laid out for the automobile. There must, at one time, have been a brook, or some rocky outcropping, or there was some reason that made somebody take an 'S,' and it still embodies that heritage, partly because nobody's paved it in 20 years. This is not glam Boston.

CURWOOD: But people live here. I see there's some potted plants out there on the fire escape, and it's a quiet little place. It's hard to imagine that we're just really a few steps from the snarled expressway and all the noise of the city.

KAY: You can see, we've been standing here a while, there's no

CURWOOD: Oh, here comes one now.

KAY: If we get run over, we're going to mess up my nostalgia here.

CURWOOD: Oh, he's just turning around.

[Sound of car slowing, then accelerating]

CURWOOD: This is your quintessential Boston driver. Look at his tailpipe! Wow!

[Vroom, vroom]

KAY: He's going to poison us, here.

[Sound of Kay giggling]

KAY: Cough, cough, smoke that cigarette!

CURWOOD: Ok, this street was built 300 years ago, at a time when cars obviously weren't here in Boston. What can be done with today's streets, to make them more walkable? More friendly, less disruptive to the community?

KAY: Well, I think there's a good body of solutions to the problem of streets that are built as basically freeways and expressways in the city. There's a word called "traffic- conning," widening sidewalks, narrowing streets, putting in grassy medians, the speed humps.

CURWOOD: So one plan is to just slow cars down, but don't cars pollute more when they're idling than when they're driving right along?

KAY: Cars pollute when they drive more miles, and the reason that we have not lessened the pollution is that we have improved the automobile in a certain scientific fashion, but we drive more and more and more. And there is no way that we are going to improve our environment unless we eliminate some of the two or three cars in half our households, and cut down on the number of miles that they drive, and that's partly by making the walking environment more civilized, and it's partly by reversing the money that's spent, 7 times as much on the automobile.

CURWOOD: Now, you don't own a car, do you?

KAY: No. I sold my car when I began this book, actually. As soon as I sold my automobile, I had $6,500 a year in my pocket. That's the figure from the American Automobile Association, not for the car itself, but what you save in the registry, and the insurance, and the maintenance, and buying the car, spread over time. So, I had $20 a day, and I could do lot of alternatives. I could walk in the city, even though it's been a hairy trip--


KAY:--I could take mass transit, I could use messengers, I could use cabs, I could bum rides, share rides, and of course, it's made my life a lot pleasanter, read in the subway, walk more, actually healthy, not a car potato, so for me, it was a very good choice.

CURWOOD: Ok, Jane Holtz Kay. You got rid of your car, but you live in downtown Boston.

KAY: Right.

CURWOOD: You live, in fact, close enough to your office that you could walk, in 1/2 hour or 40 minutes, if you wanted to. You've got a streetcar that goes--What about those of us who live further out from town. How do we get rid of cars?

KAY: Well, I think one of the reasons people say they have automobiles is to get to work and to take trips. Well, getting to work is 22% of the miles, trips is 8% But the 2/3 of the miles, the 10 to 12,000 miles we average a year, is on what I call 'shop and drop.' They now feel they need a $6,500 car to go to the Home Depot and save $1 on a hammer. Or, to load up, when there are other expedients for grocery shopping once a week.

CURWOOD: Your book is called "Asphalt Nation, How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back." What's your prediction for the future, Jane Holtz Kay? Do you think we will take America back from the automobile?

KAY: Ah. I actually couldn't have written this book for five years if I didn't feel that there was every possibility. Cutting down on the car is a very, very positive approach to life. I'm saying that you can spend less money, have a better environment, have better cities to live in, and live better, by just getting a grip on this ton of wheel and steel that's rolling over our lives.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you, Jane Holtz Kay, for spending this time with us.

KAY: It's nice to be in this city with you.



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