The Quest for the Holy Rail


Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, by Jane Holtz Kay, New York: Crown, 403 pages, $27.50

The City After the Automobile, by Moshe Safdie with Wendy Kohn, New York: New Republic/Basic Books, 187 pages, $24.00

The car is rapidly becoming the ultimate Rorschach test of political and social attitudes. Try it: Do you see the car as a means of freedom, a great democratic tool offering mobility and independence to the masses, a symbol of comfort and self-expression, an instrument capable of providing pleasure and enjoyment, a venue for romance? Or do you think of the car as essentially a rolling cigarette, complete with addictive properties and second-hand emissions that are harmful to our children? Do you think the car is a symbol of dependence instead of freedom? Do you speak disdainfully of Americans' "love affair with the car" as though it were a despicable perversion, or at least some kind of serious irrationality? Do you think American Graffiti should be classified as a pornographic movie? Do you think cars lead to aggression and crime (think of "road rage" and those drive-by shootings), and are responsible for despoiling the earth ("They paved paradise/ Put up a parking lot")?

The second set of attitudes now constitutes the politically correct view of cars and car culture, and if the car haters have their way, it won't be long until the "car lobby" evokes the same odious connotation as the "tobacco lobby." If you think this is a paranoid exaggeration from a Jeep-driving life member of the Auto Club, just browse practically any page of Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation, which is the most complete compendium of anti-car claptrap ever assembled. Perhaps we should not be surprised at the result, since Kay is the architecture critic for The Nation. The book would make for hilarious saloon reading–in fact, I thought perhaps the book could be a tongue-in-cheek put-on, which is what I think Click and Clack of NPR's Car Talk had in mind when they provided a dust jacket blurb–were it not for the fact that anti-car sentiments are becoming increasingly accepted. Not long ago I watched a grown congressman on C-SPAN calling for a tax break for commuters "who would like to do the right thing" and ride mass transit instead of driving to work. The premise–that driving to work is immoral–went unchallenged.

You know you're on the wrong side of the elite divide when the very first sentence of the book begins with "It took a village"–I'm not making this up–"to raise this book." "Our transportation is a tangle," Kay writes, "our lives and landscape strangled by the umbilical cord of the car." Cars are bad because they are a means of "instant gratification," which we all know is the modern American vice par excellence. "The licentious motor vehicle" allows for "unleashed consumption." The car is a "voracious icon" of "hypermobility," an agent of "spatial greed," an "accomplice" in the rise of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. We need to supplant the car culture, she concludes, because it would be good for our "state of being." We even get a dose of postmodern feminism in the mix. Independent mobility is a boon to women, you say? Not only is this thinking like a man, according to Kay, but "it is a false form of consciousness that fails to assess women's enslavement to the motor vehicle."

The only anti-auto clich√© missing from this book is the old chestnut about the alleged 1940s conspiracy by General Motors and other auto-related companies to put L.A.'s beloved Red Cars out of business (though the demise of the Red Cars is duly lamented). But while this standard myth is absent, Kay makes up for it with several new whoppers of her own. Car vibration causes muscular and skeletal damage, for example. And those big urban riots in the 1960s that have baffled social scientists for so long? "Freeway construction" was "a major cause." Buybacks of old cars to reduce air pollution are bad–because people will buy new cars. Japan, she thinks, is more competitive than the United States because they pay "truthful" gas prices ($5.00 a gallon) and ride their bikes a lot more. (Apparently Kay hasn't checked on the vigor of the Japanese economy lately.) Meanwhile, Kay thinks "the car culture paved the road to `Black Tuesday'" (i.e., the 1929 stock market crash). We even have the reductio ad Hitlerum: "Adolf Hitler's emerging autobahn had sparked America's vision for a transcontinental road." Gee, the Nazis built big highways, ergo…

At times it seems as though Kay is striving to find new extremes through which idealism can marginalize itself. Even the Progressives and FDR come in for criticism because they liked cars and roads too much. But far from being marginalized, Kay's anti-car philosophy is the intellectual underpinning of the dominant currents in transportation and urban planning policy today. From the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act ("Ice Tea" to the cognoscenti) to the much in vogue "new urbanism" on the local level, the moral disapprobation of the car is the central premise of policy. For both Kay and Moshe Safdie in his The City After the Automobile, at the heart of the argument about cars is a much bigger argument about land use and urban planning. You know what's coming: a huge expansion of government power.

Cars, as Kay points out, make possible "the scum of sprawl." Safdie is less lunatic in his aversion to cars than Kay; his book is not the anti-car screed the title would suggest. An avant-garde architect (he was the principal designer for Expo '67 in Montreal), Safdie is concerned chiefly with urban form, and his thesis could be reduced to four words: Don't make things square. Safdie is right that much of the monotony of urban form arises because of rigid planning codes and, more important, lack of imagination. But both Safdie and Kay, along with many of the "new urbanists" who share their view, display an amazing inability to learn from the planning mistakes they rightly decry. If planning has made a botch of things in the past, constraining imagination and the marketplace alike, why should we embrace an even more intensive scheme of government planning?

The answer, of course, is that reformist idealism, along with faith in the ability of well-meaning people to "do better next time," is irrepressible. Combining old-fashioned reformist idealism with the anti-auto animus, we will be, to paraphrase the old millennialist slogan, "forced to be (car) free." Kay finds light rail "exhilarating" (she clearly needs to get out more, and perhaps write a stage play entitled A Desire Named Streetcar) and joins the chorus singing the praises of Portland, Oregon, as the model for the nation. This model calls for compelling much denser development, urban limit lines to contain urban size, and intensive use of mass transit. For mass transit, Kay rightly points out, "you need mass." Portland has established a powerful regional government to enforce the plan and has spent billions for a lightly used light rail system, while eschewing new road construction completely. Evidence from Portland suggests this model is already starting to break down (even The Washington Post recently ran a front-page story entitled "Cracks in Portland's Great Wall"), but the propagandists continue to portray it as the promised land.

Kay cites Jane Jacobs, who, to be sure, dislikes cars, but who dislikes ambitious planners even more. Both Kay's and Safdie's vague prescriptions call to mind Jacobs's warning that "people who get marked with the planners' hex signs are pushed about, expropriated, and uprooted much as if they were the subjects of a conquering power." Safdie, for example, ends a confused passage about central planning and the free market with this inscrutable imperative: "We must create new conditions in which a vision of the city is integrated with feedback from the city's inhabitants, and in which a central authority is vested with power to enact this vision in a manner unthreatening to individuals or communities." Whatever that means exactly, it can't be good.

Safdie is an innovative architect, but he should stick with designing geometrically challenged buildings. His suggestion for solving our mobility problems is truly bizarre. He thinks we should make cars a public utility. Inspired by the use of communal bicycles in Amsterdam, Safdie thinks we should give up owning our own cars and instead be able to pick up and drop off small "utility cars" (or U-cars) as we need them at depots scattered throughout cities. Think of it as Hertz and Avis in every neighborhood. Because such cars could be stored more efficiently than in typical parking lots or private homes (he has hand drawings of the spatial arrangements in the book), we would save huge amounts of space in our cities. Kay, meanwhile, is not only largely oblivious to market solutions to genuine mobility problems (such as congestion pricing and privatization), but is positively hostile to them, especially for transit systems. "[T]he quest for `efficiency' through privatization is a menace," Kay writes.

Even though commonsensical Americans are not going to stand for being coerced out of their cars any time soon, the anti-car and urban planning nostrums of the idealists are achieving axiomatic status. People are being made to feel just a bit guilty about driving, at least by themselves or for "unnecessary" trips. Forget the Sunday drive. It is a crime against nature. As James Q. Wilson recently pointed out, if the automobile were first invented today, it would face insurmountable political obstacles to its introduction into the marketplace. So even though all urban areas and roads take up only about 3 percent of the land area of the continental United States, we go on acting out the mad tea party scene from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it. 'No room! No room!' they cried out when they saw Alice coming. 'There's plenty of room!' said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table." We go on lavishing billions of dollars on new rail transit, the urban mobility equivalent of the Maginot Line, even though transit ridership continues to decline.

It's enough to send any happy motorist into road rage. The time has come to run these plodding idealists off the road. Go ahead; gun your engine, go for a Sunday drive. It gives the phrase "drive them nuts" a whole new meaning.

Contributing Editor Steven Hayward (hayward487@aol.com) is a Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute.