Jane Holtz Kay
Jane Holtz Kay
Asphalt Nation:  How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back
ISBN: 0520216202
Asphalt Nation
Jane Holtz Kay, the architectural and planning critic for The Nation talked about her new book, "Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back," published by Crown. She examines how U.S. society became dependent upon automobile transportation and points out successful efforts to make people less dependent on automobiles in communities across the nation. She also talked about the various social, economic and environmental problems caused by the dependence on automobiles and the relationship between urban planning and transportation.
Asphalt Nation
Program Air Date: May 25, 1997

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jane Holtz Kay, when was the last time you owned an automobile?
Ms. JANE HOLTZ KAY (Author, "Asphalt Nation"): 1991, when I began this book and dispensed with the automobile.
LAMB: You actually got rid of it?
Ms. KAY: Oh, yes. I actually was at a lecture at George Washington University in St. Louis, and someone in the audience said to me, `Do you have a car?' And it was kind of--the duck came down. `Oh, I'm only going to get asked this question again and again.' So I sold the car and it was a very positive experience, but I was prepared, if it hadn't been, to have gotten the car back again and written a different book.
LAMB: Where'd you get the title "Asphalt Nation"?
Ms. KAY: It came to me, I think--I used the word `karma'; there's lots of bad puns in writing a book about automobiles, but kar--my karma was--we had a working title, "Car-bound," that nobody, including me, liked. And my editor asked me for a list of cars, kind of a brainstorming thing. I sent it to him. He called back and he said, `We're going to call it "Asphalt Nation."' And I said, `Oh, that's good. Where'd--where did that come from?' And he said, `It was on your paper.' So somehow in this list of playing with metaphors, that one surfaced and that was the title of the book.
LAMB: What's the point of your book?
Ms. KAY: The subtitle, "How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back," which they came up with, but I thought it was kind of rinky-dink. But it's been very helpful. If somebody says, `What's your book about?' and it's how the automobile took over America, how the servant became a master and how we can alter that relationship, end automobile dependency.
LAMB: Has anybody ever been successful in stopping the automobile or stopping a road or stopping some of this mass transportation that you're talking about that--not mass, but the specific transportation with the gas-fed engine?
Ms. KAY: Well, certainly, there are a lot of cases where the roads have been stopped. The Macadaire in San Francisco is the classic; the highway that would have gone to Jimmy Carter's library; there are roads that people are proposing now--Corridor H in West Virginia--that are being stopped as a vehicle that's ever accelerated its miles--not yet.
LAMB: Got a lot of statistics in the book. The first one I wrote down was that 9 percent of the nation's household own no car.
Ms. KAY: Right.
LAMB: Explain that. What's that mean to you?
Ms. KAY: It means to me, and the figures show, that the poorest segment of society, minorities and women, have least access to the things that you, in this car-dependent society, need to get a job; that is, it impinges on policy right now, the welfare issue. Everybody now needs a job; there's no more welfare. The entry ticket, to use another figure, to get that job is an automobile that costs a year, in personal costs, $6,000 to $6,500. And that, I think, raises high, as they say, the barriers of race and class that already existed in this country and add to the spatial entrapment.
LAMB: Break down that $6,000 a year. How did you get that figure?
Ms. KAY: Well, the $6,000 was from the Bureau of Labor Statistics; $6,500 is the more recent one from the AAA. And it is what we pay when we buy the automobile originally, spread over time, and the money that we spend on insurance and registration and gas and maintenance and parking and servicing, all the normal expenditures. Now that doesn't include social costs or environmental costs, which are between $3,000 and $5,000 or often more, but I tried to be conservative on those numbers.
LAMB: Last year was the 100th anniversary of the car?
Ms. KAY: Well, by some lights. It's a little bit of a mystery. I started the book in 1908, which is when the Model T came out and the car took over America. And if you were deciding on the merits of invention, you'd have gone back even further and taken the French, who invented--who were the mechanical geniuses behind the automobile. But somewhere--and this is my next history project--around a hu--50 years ago they had the first 50th-anniversary celebration. And I have a feeling they took the Duryea brothers, who turned out eight automobiles in Springfield--that was Springfield, Massachusetts--that was America. And it was in the heyday of the gas guzzlers and going further out.

And my abstract sense--and I didn't even think it was an anniversary when I wrote the book--is that there's a story there that Harry Truman and somehow the automakers decided this would be the time to light the candles. But that's the next book, when I find that one out.
LAMB: How did the automobile change us initially?
Ms. KAY: Change us initially?
LAMB: As a country.
Ms. KAY: Well, I think in the opening stages, it was perceived as an element of reform. And it would get the farmer out of the mud; it would enable the farmer's children to get to the cities. It was going to be an agent of reform in the city, and it was a very positive element of the reform movement that started this century: that the turbulent, oppressed cities and--with the masses of immigrants were going to be relieved. And, of course, they were going to get rid of the horses and the horse manure and the difficulties of movement. So it was a very positive element in the minds of many reformers of the period.
LAMB: You had a figure in there, something like--What?--12 million, 14 million horses.
Ms. KAY: Yeah, right. Right.
LAMB: Did people ride all those horses? Is that--was that the only reason that they were kept?
Ms. KAY: No, they were pulling carriages and they were pulling drays.
LAMB: But that's what I mean, they were being used?
Ms. KAY: Yes. Right. Yes.
LAMB: Did you happen to check and see how many horses there are today?
Ms. KAY: There are a lot now, I think, as I recall.
LAMB: When did the car become a--mass used? In other words, when was--I know in the beginning, of course, people that could only afford it. But when was it--when were there a lot of cars in this country?
Ms. KAY: Well, I would say it was the 1920s when the automobile took over as an ...(unintelligible) and a means of transportation. And when you examine what happened with that absorption of the automobile in the culture and in our households, I came upon the fact that should have been known to me because I've written histories of cities and study histories. There is not a city that has evolved since 1920, when the automobile became the dominant mode of movement. You know, Los Angeles had pockets that looked urban. Houston--you can see places that looked like a city as we would define it. But everything receded in terms of looking and being walkable and urban once the automobile began its so--slow progression through our culture.
LAMB: What's the negative of the automobile?
Ms. KAY: The negative of the automobile today?
LAMB: I mean, I could say, `Read your book,' but I mean, w...
Ms. KAY: Chapters 1 through 6. No, no, I won't say that. Well, clearly, I came to it as an architecture and planning critic, very aware of the damage it had done to our environment, having seven parking spaces per automobile. And that figures out to one at the mall, one at the house, one at the office, and all those spaces that turn around in. Plus, 30 percent of our good city's devoted to the car and 50 percent of our not-so-good city.

So we had an architecture of the exit ramp, and as I broadened the argument, because I think it needed broadening, to the way of life that we live because of the automobile, and charted the people who were suffering or abused by having this dependence on the car, it was that 9 percent of households you mentioned. But it was the elderly, our fastest-growing age skew, soccer moms, shop-and-drop lives spent behind the wheel. And it was compellingly, to me, an environmental and economic argument of the damage done by the car.
LAMB: When would--when did you have your first car?
Ms. KAY: I had my first car with my first child. I went to work...
LAMB: Had you not had a car up until that point?
Ms. KAY: No, no. I took a somewhat onerous trip to my first newspaper job.
LAMB: Where was that?
Ms. KAY: Patriot Ledger, south shore of Quincy. And...
LAMB: Massachusetts?
Ms. KAY: Massachusetts, sorry. And they demanded going by bus to one stop, train to another stop and bus again. Later, I got a ride. And today, actually, that route is done very nicely by a mass transit system. But that was how I went.
LAMB: How many cars have you owned in your life?
Ms. KAY: I think this was my third car that I sold.
LAMB: Did you ever like the car?
Ms. KAY: Did I ever like the car? Yes, I was kind of--thought--it was red, and--and it was pretty and it enabled me to do some things in my life. I'm not, like, this awful, awful artifact-in-my-garage kind of person. But I also like my life a lot better without the automobile.
LAMB: What's your life like now without a car? How do you travel around?
Ms. KAY: I travel on foot and I travel on mass transit. And I have all sorts of alternatives that I've developed between--taxis. I mean, for openers, I know that of that money I've discussed, I had $20 a day that I could spend. And that'll take you in a cab, and that'll get you a messenger or a delivery. And it's been very freeing. There's a little arranging here and there, but I don't have to take care of this very large, very expensive piece of machinery.
LAMB: Were you ever around people that just loved the car and it was their--the most important thing in their lives?
Ms. KAY: Oh, yes. There are a lot of car lovers, and I've heard from them on the radio and I've heard from them since the book came out. And there are those who say, `Any politician who takes away my car will never get elected,' which is a little megalomaniacal to think that that one person would happen. But I try to say that there are 200 million vehicles and more vehicles than people. I'm not trying to take everybody's car away because that would make me have--have a problem as a human being or change agent, if you will. I'm just saying that we don't need two and three automobiles per household; that we can live better if we learn to decide for ourselves--200 million cars, 200 million decisions in the naked city--that we can reduce our driving 10 percent, car-share, find traffic-calming means to make our streets pleasant and safe so our kids can walk, reduce six trips.

You know, there's 100 pages of very small, personal decisions and also larger political ones to address what's happening now in Congress with our transportation bill that's trying to maintain our capacity to have flexible funding: half our funding go to non-motorized vehicles. So we can act in many ways, bo--fu--bond or fund mass transit, on and on and on.
LAMB: If you were to pick a spot in the United States where they have the best-thought-out urban area for the kind of things that you think are important, where would you go?
Ms. KAY: Again, it's what we--what I would prefer, because I love where I live--New York has 30 percent of the country's mass transportation and o--you know, quite a miraculous subway system. Portland is taken as a place that was very creative...
LAMB: Oregon?
Ms. KAY: Portland, Oregon--in terms of stopping a highway and then installing a n--a new system that enabled people to build up the city and to conduct their lives not on wheels. But there are 12 new lines of mass transportation, and there are a lot of places--the best places we have in this country in terms of livability and also not just aesthetics--the most expensive residential housing we have is p--are places where you don't really need a car: the Georgetowns, the Back Bays, the San Franciscos, where you can walk around without an automobile.
LAMB: What have--or what has the Wal-Marts done to the country, to the ca--to the automobile?
Ms. KAY: Well, I think the superstore is really the enemy of Main Streets. This is an argument that has at its root a kind of notion that distance is dollars and distance is destroying our lives and that we should be concentrated on cores and Main Streets, walkable ones. It doesn't have to be Manhattan, super density, but it can be a way of--of walking around and conducting. Two-thirds of our--the miles we travel on our cars, 10,000 to 12,000 miles, are spent shopping and dropping, you know, a third doing purchases with a ton of steel to buy a quart of milk, another third chauffeuring parents and kids. And it seems to me that there's a better way of doing that. And that's what this argument is all predicated on.
LAMB: You wrote what seemed to me to be kind of your philosophy on Page 51. You say, `The pubs, the coffee shops, the communal collage vanish. Cordoning us from community life, the car accentuates an environment of exclusion. The mall cafe is our vacuous symbol. Its umbrellas lack breeze or sun, its security guards manning the escalators to handcuff spirited teens. Its architectural island walled by the automobile offers access only to the licensed shopper. No public realm here.' What did you mean by that?
Ms. KAY: It means that we are basically deprived of accessibility. The issue we all talk about is mobility, but how do we get the goods of life? How do we make them accessible? Do we have to wrap the superstore, as we were discussing, or the mall in concrete where the price of admission is $6,500 a year or a $20,000 vehicle? Can't we live in a better way? And can't we stop funding the superstore and the mall? And when I say funding, I mean--I don't talk about the automobile, per se; I talk about the car culture. And we have been funding a drift from the cities to these evermore distant fringes since--especially since World War II when we gave $500 apiece in mortgage down money to our $10 million vet--to our 10 million veterans and we started building the interstate highway system.

And that goes on and on today, and not only with highways, where the culture aspect comes in that we are building highways out to the fringes, but we are also putting in sewage and pipes and electric lines. And the inner suburbs or the inner city or the city are paying for all that. And I don't even just mean the older ones. If you have a home that was built in '97, you are now paying for the dispersion of two million houses a year, by and large.
LAMB: You had a statistic that the Federal Highway Administration says that 7.2 percent of Americans are walkers.
Ms. KAY: Yes.
LAMB: What does that mean? What kind of walker?
Ms. KAY: Well, I think we have to walk from our car to our mall as well as anything else. But I think that's a lowball figure. Actually, we could be what I like to use is that 30 percent of our trips are under a mile. So, potentially, we could all be walking 30 percent of our trips. And we do--do many of them, but the reason we don't do that mile, which is 15, 20 minutes--it'd be nice not to be car potatoes--is because it's such a grim landscape; that--in order to do it, you have to cross the highway, you have to cross the mall, you have to do acres of parking. So that's basically why the walker is the key, and the walker is the person who takes mass transit, takes a car also. But if we manage to live in a little closer fashion and not, you know, continue to sprawl, within--if we're within seven minutes of mass transit, we can expand our lives and live in a m--a car-free, less car-dependent environment.
LAMB: How much do you walk?
Ms. KAY: I walk a lot. I'm not a triathlon walker. I take mass transit to work. I try to get off at a stop or so before my house. But I would say I do a mile or two a day...
LAMB: Where do...
Ms. KAY: ...but casually.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Ms. KAY: I live in the Back Bay.
LAMB: In Boston?
Ms. KAY: I work downtown. Mm-hmm. Back Bay of Boston.
LAMB: And what's--what would you call your full-time job?
Ms. KAY: Writing.
LAMB: Writing?
Ms. KAY: Writing.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
Ms. KAY: This is only my third book. So I'm basically a journalist or an architect critic for The Nation and for other publications, professional some of them. But this has been the consuming one.
LAMB: And what were your other two books?
Ms. KAY: The first book was called "Lost Boston," and it was a history of the city illustrated with photographs of buildings that came down. And it was a `pave paradise, put up a parking lot' kind of book then, even though I didn't quite realize that that was some of the motivation.

And my second book was a bit more expansive, both geographically and in terms of the landscape it was describing. It was called "Preserving New England," and it was about preserving not only our urban environments, but our farm and wilderness or what passes for wilderness in New England.
LAMB: What year did you write the first book?
Ms. KAY: The first book came out in 1980, and it's still around--didn't get out of date because the buildings were already flattened. The second book was '86, "Preserving New England." And then in the interim I did a lot of writing and tried to find a subject that was compelling, and it was five years ago it came to me.
LAMB: Where were you born?
Ms. KAY: I was born in Boston.
LAMB: So it's...
Ms. KAY: I'm native.
LAMB: It's everything. Now where'd you go to college?
Ms. KAY: Radcliffe.
LAMB: Right there in Boston?
Ms. KAY: Right. I didn't travel very far.
LAMB: What do you think those that grew up in Boston see that s--those that, say, maybe out in the Midwest or in the far West don't see?
Ms. KAY: Well, I think it's an older attitude towards the landscape and cityscape. We can walk around. But there's a defining quality about living in New England, despite the malls and the s--the strips and everything else. And that was the message of "Preserving New England," a message that cities and inner suburbs are cities and inner suburbs and country is country, and that one--there were two ways of life. It was the old Henry Adams--winter was city and summer was country. And the kind of mindless scattering in this green countryside not only messes up the environment and takes two million acres of farmland a year, but destroys the sense of abandoning on the one hand and a true link with the natural environment on the other hand.
LAMB: You say that there are 12 million bicycles bought a year in this country?
Ms. KAY: Right.
LAMB: Same--roughly the same number of cars bought?
Ms. KAY: Yeah, 15 million cars, 12 million bicycles.
LAMB: Is that number going up or down?
Ms. KAY: It's been static. The automobile--both cars and bicycles have been pretty static.
LAMB: What do people buy the bikes for? I mean, how many of them commute with it? Do you know?
Ms. KAY: Not a large percentage. It's very difficult...
LAMB: How does that compare with other countries?
Ms. KAY: Oh, way down. I mean, we don't provide a place where bicycles can go. A lot of it is recreation. We've been building, with this transportation bill I was telling you about, some bike paths. There's plans for them to go across the country in several directions, like the Lincoln Highway was the road of choice. So that's what we're doing with the bicycles. But we don't tend to our sidewalks and we don't tend to our bike paths. The figure I like to use--people always say it's impossible to bicycle in much of the country because it's snowy, a lot of inches just recently in--in Boston and the Midwest and everyplace else. In Finland, it's 90 percent or 95 percent of the year; the bicycle paths are open. I mean, all this is an attitude towards the public realm, if you will, and the public sector. And I think that's why the European countries and Japan have such vastly superior transportation systems and cheaper.
LAMB: Two hundred million automobiles, but 80 million commuters by car.
Ms. KAY: Mm.
LAMB: What's happening to that figure?
Ms. KAY: That figure seems to be about the same. The length of time we travel has stayed the same since the 19th century, interestingly enough, when it used to take a half an hour to get to work and people were doing it on foot or mass transit. So that's staying somewhat the same, but it's basically growing. Every f--all the car statistics are growing, and that's distressing because it reflects moving further outwards.
LAMB: You say that if people travel by Amtrak, they pay 80 percent of the ticket, the government paying the other 20 percent. If they travel by car, it's 50 percent cost--I mean, the cost to the individual driving? Who pays for the other 50 percent?
Ms. KAY: We all do. They're kind of social costs. They come out of the property tax. They come out in mysterious way. A hundred billion dollars goes to support the military budget and half our military budget in the Middle East. So there's a lot of subsidies for the automobile that we don't really think about.
LAMB: The Gulf War.
Ms. KAY: The Gulf War, right.
LAMB: What do you think caused the Gulf War, from your perspective?
Ms. KAY: Oh, from my perspective, from Daniel Yergin's perspective, from lots of folks' perspective, it's our oil interests. There's no question in my mind that--why are we so protective about the Middle East? I mean, I'm not a foreign-policy expert, though people expect me to be an expert on crime and education and the city and everything else. But, I mean, we are running out of oil in this country. The estimates are 20, 30 at best. And it's one of many subsidies. There are other figures about what we subsidize at a local level: for example, the ambulance calls, the fire calls.

One of the fascinating events that happened to me on the road to telling this book and trying to do it as stories, not just as, you know, throwing numbers at people, is going to a pedestrian conference that's held every year in Boulder, Colorado. And we sat there and they poured the figures out. And we were sitting in this audience, and the numbers were flying. And all of a sudden, through this gauzy white window, the lights start to flash, the sirens start to come and a car is caught on fire. And we can sort of see what's going on. And the fire engines come; they wash it down. It goes on and on as we're sitting and listening to this unreeling of numbers. And then the ambulances finally come, take the cars away and someone in the audience who's recorded all of these elements of the burning car says to the guy who's putting out the figures, `Did you stage that?' You know, it was like an epiphany or an icon or something about how our lives and our expenses are conditioned by the automobile.
LAMB: You say that American corporations spend $40 billion a year to promote autos. How?
Ms. KAY: Right. Advertisements. There is no cost equation on the lobbying, the PACs, the whole--without being conspiratorial, but the whole collusion of the highway people in our political system and in our local politics, very pertinently in the local politics where a lot of the dollars get spent.
LAMB: You said $1 billion is spent by General Motors. Is that all advertising?
Ms. KAY: It's advertising and it's--yeah, it's advertising and it's advertising in the sense of wining and dining as well.
LAMB: Did you figure out how much in a car's cost is actually advertising?
Ms. KAY: No, I didn't. Next book.
LAMB: Rural America--60 percent of the elderly are not licensed to drive.
Ms. KAY: Yeah.
LAMB: How do they get around in the rural communities?
Ms. KAY: Well, with difficulty. There are ways out of this solution. Either they are being driven around by their parents, who are also driving another kid who goes to McDonald's to make $6 an hour to buy a car--is taken there by his mother, basically. And the elderly are being dependent on that kind of treatment--I mean, which is why, when I started to deal with the solutions to this, that is really the thorny problem. But at the same time if we manage to siphon some of our money into para--transit to take elderly people around, or if they're within a range of a walkable older core, we can solve some of these problems without, again, these two- and three-car households.
LAMB: That--80 million Americans do not operate autos; they're too old, they're too young or they're too poor. What impact has the automobile had on the poor?
Ms. KAY: Well, I think it means that the ticket of admission to a job is a staggering amount. And not only the ticket for admission to a job, i.e., buying the automobile, but the ticket to all kinds of accessibility of goods and services.

I talk about this environmentalist doctor who was discussing a woman who had to take her child to a hospital. And by the time she got on rotten public transportation, deprived because we don't tend to provide the good things in life for the poorest among us, was exhausted in terms of going to work.

No, again, I try to be positive. I mean, one of the things that hadn't happened when I wrote this book, but the transportation bill that I've been talking about, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, had some things, for example, such as putting day care in a mass-transit node so that, theoretically, somebody could drop off a kid and head to work. There are all these little solutions that we've basically denied by putting all our eggs in this one automobile basket.
LAMB: Show this photograph right here. It kind of opens your book up. Where is this photo from, and what's in that picture?
Ms. KAY: It's a drive-in movie from the '50s, the heyday of `take a Chevy to the levee,' and they're watching an airplane. And the train's in the background, and it's in the Midwest. And all the appurtenance of the automobile, including the--What was the word then?--smooching couple, are played out in that picture, which has its charm to all of us. I mean, it's the "American Graffiti" way of life.
LAMB: Where did you get this picture?
Ms. KAY: There are two collectors who had an art show and--about the automobile in art. And most of them were paintings, but this was one of their photographs.
LAMB: Where did the interstate highway system come from?
Ms. KAY: Well, it was a long way aborning, but it basically came to connect the cities across the nation. And it came from the post-military--the postwar impulse. The road gangs, so-called, that had run the war effort, the World War II war effort, were very much involved in both the new transference from making war goods to making military goods and were in the seats of power, and both urban mayors, who thought that these roads would give their cities some money, and the urge to stop the congestion and relieve--there was always, always congestion as soon as the automobiles started coming, and the solution was always to build more roads. I mean, let's build it before we're too old to enjoy it in the teens. Let's build it because our cities are impacted in the '20s, the 30s. And always, the solution was to widen and build.

I mean, `If you build it, they will come' is a cliche now, but that--that was always true, and that bred the interstate highway system for our automobiles. But it was not an accident, it seems to me, that it was called the Interstate Highway and Defense Act. And I talk about the sort of load, the cache of--C-A-C-H-E--cache of images that someone found that showed photographs of cities. There was a sweet little Swiss village, and underneath it said, `Unsafe in times of atomic attack.' And then there was the picture of the spaghetti highway: `Safe in times of nuclear attack.' I mean, this is the era of the atomic cafe And there was definitely the sense--we hid under our desks. And if there were an atomic attack, you were supposed to--and I remember this as a kid--you were supposed to be able to get in your car and head out. And I remember people thinking it was laughable, but it wasn't so laughable, either.
LAMB: Who started the highway system?
Ms. KAY: Oh, well, I think we're all co-responsible for that. But I thought it was very interesting that Dwight Eisenhower, who's not such a heavy in some aspects of the highway system, was leading one of the first convoys across the country after World War I when it started to pick up and the road-building urge spread. There were these very splashy, very colorful--and I must say I enjoyed reading about all that; I wasn't so anti-car that I couldn't enjoy, you know, the fun and games of going out on the road. And they go through these roads which were disgusting and rutted and pitted, and they're showing with these long convoys of Army cars how we could have a better American way. And of course, I enjoyed only one thing more, and that was the web of streetcars that laced the nation all but 200 miles in the earlier part of the century...
LAMB: What...
Ms. KAY: ...which I think was a tele--technological marvel, actually.
LAMB: What happened to them?
Ms. KAY: They were dismantled. There are many theories. There's a very strong theory that General Motors and the bus companies bought out, bribed, did all sorts of dirty tricks to make sure their buses were installed and that the cities dismantled their s--their subway systems. I myself tend to be less, in a way, Manichaean about this. I feel that it was a combination of our will and indifference. I mean, people bribe, people cheat, society evolves. But it isn't only because of these disastrous enemies, strong as they might be, but it's their own enchantment with the automobile on a personal level and their failure to see its consequences, that technology bites, that things get out of hand, that we can't know the consequences and we fail to s--think this all through.

Now there was also a very good kind of structural reason. The trolley cars were owned by the developers, and they were used as a device to open up the land to either side. And people didn't like them a lot, and they didn't like developers--I mean, they're not crazy about developers today--so that everything that they were doing to improve the quality of the streetcar was considered a bit of a bad item as opposed to the roads, which were seen as public good and were paid for and provided by the municipalities. So the streetcars also had a heavy burden. So it was an unfortunate combination. And always, as opposed to Europe, a government that didn't interfere, wouldn't put the tax--the gas tax in alternate modes of transportation and didn't care to plan. You know, we had so much land; it wasn't like Europe, where you had to be a little bit careful or protect your centers, that--this is a vast continent. So it was--it would have been tough to stop this juggernaut.
LAMB: How many miles are there in the interstate highway system?
Ms. KAY: Forty-two thousand miles.
LAMB: How long did it take to build?
Ms. KAY: Well, it started in '56 and my own state is supposedly doing the last five miles at $10 billion to complete the system.
LAMB: Where is it being--where are those last five miles?
Ms. KAY: A stone's throw from my office. It's been a little disrupting. It's between--there's a big central artery in front of the waterfront, like so many places. And in theory, it's a very good idea to bury it underneath and connect to the waterfront. In practice, the city's grown up around it and what's happening is that this vast amount of money is being spent so you can speed commuters north and under the city and south and under the city. But we're not--I mean, the interstate is finished, but there are 16 beltways planned across the country; you know, loops everyplace. And the trick now, as far as I'm concerned, is just to stop them, to just say no. It's the solution that failed, and we have to move on to something else.
LAMB: Did you say that 128 up around Boston was the first loop?
Ms. KAY: Yeah.
LAMB: First?
Ms. KAY: Yes.
LAMB: What year was that built?
Ms. KAY: That was in--it started in the '60s.
LAMB: And what did this inter...
Ms. KAY: I'm sorry. It started in the mid-50s. Yeah.
LAMB: What did this interstate highway system cost the taxpayer?
Ms. KAY: Altogether?
LAMB: And where'd the money come from?
Ms. KAY: Well, the money came from the gas tax for the interstate system, as opposed to the local roads. The local roads to this day are paid for 60 percent--different in different states--by the property tax.
LAMB: And what do--what do you think that whole thing cost since '56?
Ms. KAY: I don't know. I--that's a good question. I don't know that anybody's assessed it because you'd have to do inflationary material for it.
LAMB: How big is the federal highway trust fund today, and where does that money come from?
Ms. KAY: That money comes from the gas tax, still.
LAMB: Do we know how much is in it?
Ms. KAY: Mm--well, what they give out every five years is $151 billion. So...
LAMB: Every five years? To do w...
Ms. KAY: Over five years, $30 billion a year.
LAMB: To do what?
Ms. KAY: Well, this is a highway bill again. And it's supposedly flexible. But basically, more than 80 percent goes to roads. And some of the roads are widening while we don't maintain, and because of the bill, there's more going to things of--that are alternate kinds of mobility and intermodal, as the act's name says, that connect the dots, which is very important, but still, the bulk of that money is going to roads.
LAMB: Here's another two-page picture. What is this?
Ms. KAY: This is Central Park swallowed up by an automobile. And the advertisers are promoting the convenience and sense of being able to control the whole world and your whole destiny in this automobile.
LAMB: Is this an ad?
Ms. KAY: This is an advertisement. I'm sorry. Step one.
LAMB: For...
Ms. KAY: Ah, I've forgotten the name of the car, which is small, actually, a compact car, but is nonetheless occupying...
LAMB: It's a Mazda.
Ms. KAY: Mazda, sorry. You can see I'm not a car fan. It's taking up the whole 789 acres of Central Park. I do know the figures on the park.
LAMB: Now what's been the reaction from the kind of folks you've talked to about this book--call-in shows, automotive editors in papers you've talked to?
Ms. KAY: Basically, aside from that automotive editor you just mentioned, I've been surprised that I haven't gotten more trashed by attacking, if you will, this icon. I think people sense that there are problems with the automobile and that there ought to be alternative ways. And the questions are couched in a very civilized way. Very often, I have people come--I say that I have become the Dr. Ruth of how you can make your life more car-free, because they come with their very personal problems. And they're very painful, and again, I just say, `You are the expert in your own life.' I mean, I find it quite fascinating how people move and how--the choices they make. But there's no question in my mind that you can reduce your automobile driving 10 percent. You can work politically to have neighborhoods that are more walkable. And we could do what the Germans do: have 100 days where you don't use an automobile; see if you atrophy.
LAMB: Explain that.
Ms. KAY: Well, they have a 100-day program that's just being initiated that I just happened to read about, 100 days without a car. Now I don't think we can do that. We're not so compact and we haven't got good mass transportation. But again, if we have two or three cars in the garage, what could we do if some--one of us decided not to drive? And if at the end of that time we can't do anything, then maybe our lives need rethinking. And the 30 million of us, for example, who are self-employed can think, `Is this where I want to run my life, that I need a ton of steel to get a Popsicle, that I need to take my kids everywhere in the car; they can't bicycle or walk?' There are a lot of personal decisions we can make, and there are political ones in our local areas: supporting mass-transit bonds, moving to have safer neighborhoods through traffic-calming devices, which is narrow the street, widen the sidewalk. There are, as you know, 100 pages of solutions in there and right--making the price right, paying for the automobile.
LAMB: So you haven't made anybody real mad with this book yet?
Ms. KAY: A few have been mad. There was one man who said to me, `Any politician who takes away my keys is never going to get elected,' as I mentioned. But I got a reviewer real mad. But sometimes, the people who get the angriest tend to say, `Yes, we know; this is kind of old stuff. So--so what?' And I think the anger is the entrapment, not to be too psychiatric about this. And I think it's a period in time where social activism is not a major way of life for most Americans and they feel powerless to do things. But what I feel very strongly is that we have seen major changes in our life, that this may be a sea change, but we've gone through them. We have seen women enter the work force. We have seen the environmental movement. We have seen recycling. We have seen smoking become a pariah.

The natio--one transportation writer said to me that the road gang who was acting really vicious in this current fight reminds him of the NRA. When he was a boy living in New Hampshire, the NRA was like the Boy Scouts. They taught you how to shoot safely, which wouldn't have been my preferred mode of upbringing, but it taught you all the rules of the gun. And they became so militant and so hostile that they're now seen as a threat. Now will that happen? Could that happen to the highway? Well, I think there are enough excesses out there and enough reason to change our lives and attitudes to the automobile, to make us freer and to improve the quality of our cities, the quality of our landscape, that there could really be a change.
LAMB: You say there's 120 deaths a day on the highways. Up or down?
Ms. KAY: Well, not--not on the highways, per se, but...
LAMB: Automobiles.
Ms. KAY: ...on--automobile accidents. They have been stable: 43,000 a year. And this is one of the interesting little corkscrew aspects of--of life that made me become especially alarmed--or especially aware of how hidden the automobile is in our life. I mean, we have a--an airplane accident, and the sirens ring, the emergency vehicles come, it's on the news, FAA spokesmen, the president--everybody speaks. We stand in airports waiting hours to be grilled on whether we talked to anybody as we came into the airport.

We look at the automobile statistics and 43,000 a year, and 1/5th of them pedestrians, and the highway people say, `This is great.' They really do. They say, `This is great because we're driving more and we're not killing any more people than we have over time.' But I say what kind of blinders do we wear that we can't analyze why this is happening and do something about it?
LAMB: How is it that it's 43,000 every year?
Ms. KAY: Well, give or take 1,000.
LAMB: Or, I mean--yeah, but why does it stay in that range? Is--have you ever analyzed that? I...
Ms. KAY: No. That's a good question. I would say there must be improvement here theoretically, but maybe it's because there are more people driving and so they're a little more cushioned. Cars are a little--cars are definitely better padded. It's the same as the--or protected. The steel frames are better. But it's the same thing as the pollutants: The pollutants are down; the tailpipe emits less, but we have the same amount of environmental degradation and our cars contribute half of global warming--the world stock of cars--and we contribute half of that. And yet we are improving the automobile, and these destructive, ravaging conditions continue.
LAMB: How long have you written for The Nation magazine?
Ms. KAY: Oh, about 20 years.
LAMB: Why do you do that?
Ms. KAY: I think, as Winston Churchill say, we shape our cities and then our cities shape us; we build our buildings and then our buildings shape us. And I believe very much in planning and in good design and good architecture and good buildings and good cities and good countryside as a very important enve--element of our lives.
LAMB: But The Nation, though--what is that magazine to you? What impact does it have?
Ms. KAY: Well, it gives me a voice.
LAMB: How often do you write?
Ms. KAY: Not as often as I should, especially over the last five years. And a lot of my writing--I write in the Boston Globe and The Times and anybody who will, you know, take a story. For example, I wrote about traffic calming and the pedestrian movement five years ago when I began that. That was in The Times. These issues interest me, and I try to write for a professional audience often, because I think architects and planners are not always the best planners because it's very developer-driven. And I think one of the things about The Nation that I like especially is that you can say that it's developer-driven or you can say, without any restrictions, how you feel about the making of the society. There's a lot of latitude there.
LAMB: How would you describe your political views and The Nation's political views? Is there any way to do that?
Ms. KAY: Well, I think probably--I certainly am an architecture critic. That's the title. And I don't know that the magazine is mono--mono minded. I think I tend to be an optimist. I tend to think that writing this is--is an agent for change, not that people writing for any of these publications that care about social causes, not just The Nation, don't feel that way. But I think that this is an era that you can see very concrete change. And you can. I mean, we have preservation laws that protect our buildings. We have environmental laws that protect our air and water. And those were brought about through--I'm from a political family. I had a father who ran for office. And I think that one goes out and does one's small bit. And, of course, if it's approaching 200 million motor vehicles, it's a massive bit at a certain level, but it's a big juggernaut to face that kind of car situation.
LAMB: What office did your father run for?
Ms. KAY: Well, he was a state rep, and then he ran for Congress and lost.
LAMB: What year was that?
Ms. KAY: '56.
LAMB: Did you participate in that campaign?
Ms. KAY: Oh, yeah. We were kids. And I rang doorbells and heard my father say the same speech over and over again and did the whole thing. It was the first television and hand-painted billboards, and it was colorful, informing.
LAMB: Why did he lose?
Ms. KAY: He ran in a Democratic district. First--he ran twice, actually: '54, sorry.
LAMB: What--what party was he in?
Ms. KAY: Democrat. He was the first Democrat to carry our town since Roosevelt. But it was an old, established Republican congressman who was there a very long time, and...
LAMB: Do we know that name? Is it...
Ms. KAY: Lawrence Curtis. I don't know that anybody would know him anymore because this is awhile ago. And he lost. It was a very interesting constituency. It ranged from Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the very, you know, affluent aspects of the city, to Roxbury, the classic impoverished black--African-American community and I--pockets of middle-class Irish. It was a fascinating experience, especially for a kid.
LAMB: What was your dad's profession?
Ms. KAY: He was a lawyer.
LAMB: Is he still alive?
Ms. KAY: No.
LAMB: You have here a dedication in your book, who--we'll get a close-up of it in just a second, so people can see it. Who are these two folks?
Ms. KAY: You just made my children famous: my daughters--and readers, I should say.
LAMB: And where are they?
Ms. KAY: One's in Paris and one's in New York--city kids.
LAMB: Doing what?
Ms. KAY: My older daughter is teaching and translating and doing some cross-cultural things in France. And my younger daughter is a lawyer with the--with women's issues.
LAMB: And what do they think of this book? Have you talked to them about it?
Ms. KAY: Oh, yes, they read it. I'm lit--that's literally true because I--even from the time they were freshmen in college, I--I ran a lot of things by them because I'm trying to be mainstream. And I figured if a college freshman can't understand what I'm writing--and they were extremely helpful, both intellectually and a literary sense. You know, I--I brought up my own editors in--in that sense.
LAMB: You've got a picture here of Sun City, Arizona.
Ms. KAY: Right.
LAMB: Where did you get this and what does that say? Why is it in the book?
Ms. KAY: Wow. `The Three-Car Culture'--I mean, it says that we're living in this cul-de-sac kind of community that we can only get around in because of the automobile, and that we've built one-use suburbs; our zoning precludes having any kind of shops or mixed-use or land-use patterns, which is a very central theme of this book, that would enable us to use mass transit and get around on foot.
LAMB: It begs this question: It seems like that if this was so bad, why do people buy these houses and live in that environment?
Ms. KAY: Right. I think there are two reasons: one, because they generally want to get to sunny places at the end of the road, and we're always trashing and moving on rather than fixing and staying. And, two, because a series of economic decisions and subsidies, whether it was the postwar mortgages or the current mortgage deductions, just enable--or the highway expenditures, the infrastructure of moving to the suburbs--are all free in a certain sense. And their ride was paid for. It was, as one environmentalist said, a free ride that--a free meal, a free lunch that you're getting paid to eat.
LAMB: What's the difference in the way we treat the automobile and, say, the Europeans?
Ms. KAY: Well, I would say the Europeans probably worship their car at least as much as we do, this pretty little toy. But they also have a $4 to $5 gas tax. They also preserve their cities. They're suffering from a lot of the problems of buying too many automobiles, but they have it more under control. We spend 15 percent to 18 percent of our gross domestic product on transportation, mostly the car; they've spent half of that, all the industrialized nations. And they have a balanced transportation system.
LAMB: You point out in your book that the first red and green traffic light stood on the corner--in a--on a corner in Cleveland in 1914 and that the first yellow light was in Detroit three years later. Where'd you find that?
Ms. KAY: Oh, I--you've seen the bibliography. I'm not exactly sure where I got it at the time. But there's a lot of material about the car culture. And, also, a historian named Clay McShane has done a prodigious chronology of the automobile, unpublished, but I'd like to see that published, too.
LAMB: Well, you also said that the first gas tax was in 1919 in Oregon. It was a penny. What's been the history of the gas tax in the United States?
Ms. KAY: It's stayed pretty low, as we all know. And in real dollars, it's lower now than it's been.
LAMB: Why?
Ms. KAY: Why? It's been--certainly been an unpopular tax, but it's also been a tax--no taxes are popular in America, but it's been a tax that a lot of people want to pay or are willing to pay, and it does--they should be willing to pay that little bit because it doesn't pay the whole freight. But I think there's a growing sense--and this is one of the economic solutions--that we should pay more for the gas tax. And if we don't want to pay for the gas, per se, that we should be paying our way the way we do for a telephone call: that the more we talk, the more we pay, or perhaps a carbon tax or a gas guzzler tax. That's the kind of equity that I think Americans would accept. The more you drive, the more damage you do or the more you take advantage of the road, to put it both positively and negatively, the more you should pay for it. And there's--there is movement in that direction.
LAMB: Back over the last so many years that you've been thinking about this issue, when'd you first start thinking about architecture and transportation and all these issues you're talking about?
Ms. KAY: Oh, architecture--well...
LAMB: What'd you study at Radcliffe?
Ms. KAY: History. And I actually wrote my undergraduate thesis on Lewis Mumford, who was the man who invented the phrase `a cloverleaf culture,' though we--America has adopted a cloverleaf culture, and wrote about the city and history and any number of these issues, was a great thinker and architecture critic.
LAMB: The reason for the question is, if you look back over the history of all this, what would you say to people that are activists and have they been s--where have they been successful in stopping the kind of things that you think ought to be stopped?
Ms. KAY: Well, some of the ones that I suggested--one of the ones that I think is especially wonderful is in my own hometown, where there was supposed to be an inner s--inner belt. And it would have gone through poor communities, plus a more affluent, academic Cambridge community and poorer Cambridge community. They took the money from this--what would have been this road and, through the Highway Transfer Act, didn't build the road but covered over the train that comes out of the city and, on this linear path of five miles, connected two old districts. The path is beautiful. People bicycle down it. It's integrated. They play basketball. They have vegetable gardens.

Hartford also is taking its highway money and doing some good things with it. And Portland, that we mentioned, took its highway and did restore its city and its trolley lines.
LAMB: On a national basis, though, who has the most political clout to stop some of these things?
Ms. KAY: I think it's a thousand flowers blooming. I mean, that's my attitude towards politics. I think that we have the energy and the power, both through supporting this legislation nationally, but then every time that there's a decision to be made by law, a transportation-planning element has to go into it. And that means the community has to be consulted. And if the community isn't consulted when there's an offensive road or, conversely, when a solution is evolved that isn't mass transit or that isn't a walkable, bicycle, sidewalk place, I think it's up to everybody to get out there.
LAMB: Where's this picture from? What's it represent?
Ms. KAY: That picture, like a lot of the other pictures, are from archives--Bettman Archives, some from activists, some like the New York Historical Society. And this gentleman waving his hat with great aplomb and happiness is looking at the suitor for the young woman or--in the vehicle, who is underneath the automobile fixing it. And it's a classic `get a horse' picture of tha particular era. I think that was from the Library of Congress, actually, where a lot of these images came from.
LAMB: And then you have a cover that has a couple of stacked, wrecked automobiles on it. Whose idea was this? And where does this picture come from?
Ms. KAY: This cover, like every other author's cover, as you much know, has almost nothing to do with the author. I'm actually quite fond of it. The picture came from a stockhouse. But the bottom car, by some mysterical--mysterious process, is the first car I ever owned, which...
LAMB: What is it?
Ms. KAY: It's a Saab from the late '60s, two-cycle engine, totally polluting. Talk about hidden elements of the car--you put the gas and the oil in the same place and it emitted disgusting smoke, like a motorboat. So nobody is born pure.
LAMB: So you did you know that this was going to be on the cover before it...
Ms. KAY: No. No. They didn't show it to me. I mean, authors are the last to know, and especially a visual author because I came from an art criticism background as well as an architectural one. But, no, I think I got lucky.
LAMB: What's your next book?
Ms. KAY: Everybody asks that. I say, you know, "Son of Asphalt Nation." I don't know. I think I'll go back to doing journalism and spreading this message for a bit and hope it doesn't take me 10 years to do another one.
LAMB: Here's the cover of the book--the full cover: Jane Holtz Kay, and the name of the book is "Asphalt Nation." We thank you very much.
Ms. KAY: Thank you for having me.

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