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Volume 15, Issue 48 ~ November 29 - December 5, 2007

enVISIONing Ourselves without Cars

A Bay Weekly Conversation with Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation

by Carrie Madren, Bay Weekly Writer

Growing Annapolis will soon need to figure out how its citizens will get around to stores, work and errands. Jane Holtz Kay — architecture and planning critic for The Nation and author of Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back — came to town to help us.

In the third Community Conversations for Change, Kay “challenged us to explore ways to make Annapolis a place where people, rather than cars, come first,” said Greg Stiverson, founder of enVISIONing Annapolis Foundation, which sponsors the series.

The series of six conversations rises from Stiverson’s dream to, he says, “look at the overarching issues that face Annapolis and our future.”

Facing the future may be the ultimate dream for an historian. Stiverson, especially, has sought to bring history to the present tense, first as director of Historic London Town and Garden, then Historic Annapolis Foundation. Since leaving the Foundation last year, he’s had the freedom — with private funding — to follow that dream.

In opening community conversations, Kay follows urban consultant Charles Landry and growth-and-development experts Jason Sartori of the National Center for Smart Growth University of Maryland and William Morrish, professor of Architecture at University of Virginia. Over 400 Annapolitans joined the conversation with Sartori and Morrish.

Come January, we’ll hear about Hispanic In-Migration from Roberto Suro of Annenberg School, University of Southern California. In March, Stiverson will gather a dream team of a dozen international experts to envision a sustainable future for Annapolis.

Kay talked about our state capital’s traffic stoppers: cars and congestion.

As Kay arrived to diagnose our driving addiction and to prescribe remedies, Bay Weekly got answers — elaborated from her book, in italics — to a few of our own questions.

Bay Weekly How did you break your auto addiction?

Jane Holtz Kay In architecture school in Louisville, I had just bought a red Saab, the it car at the time, but [the engine] was like a motorboat. I moved to the Back Bay in Boston, a dense walkable city and street accessible. I went back to the Saab dealer and said, I really can’t live with this. Can you take it back? He gave me every penny back. When I sold my car, it didn’t occur to me that it would be good for me. I sold my car in 1997; I’ve been car-free since then.

Bay Weekly So how do you get about?

Jane Holtz Kay Boston is very convenient, very walkable, an old city with the Commons and a legacy to take care of that. It has a wealthy section of city to support. Paris has a good transportation system. I’m not a fan of buses — I don’t want to stand out in the cold. I think everyone deserves to have accessible and comfortable transportation. [It’s a matter of] looking at other alternatives, like bikes.

Bay Weekly How did we create an auto nation?

Jane Holtz Kay I think it was a series of inaccurate expectations, interest in deserting the cities. Then, the city was not what we know now.

The automobile was once seen as a boon to American life, eradicating the pollution caused by horses and granting citizens new levels of freedom and mobility. But it was not long before the servant became the master. Public spaces were designed to accommodate the automobile at the expense of the pedestrian, mass transportation was neglected, and the poor, unable to afford cars, saw their access to jobs and amenities worsen. Now even drivers themselves suffer, as cars choke the highways and pollution and congestion have replaced the fresh air of the open road.

A lot of solutions can be more about social action than about mobility.

The highway administration always said if you build it, they will come. I feel that if you build it [walk-able communities] they will come too.

Bay Weekly What should growing cities like Annapolis do about beating the addiction?

Jane Holtz Kay There is a life where you don’t have to have people sitting behind steering wheels.

You don’t have to be a walking wonk to appreciate the pedestrian advocates’ tactics, from shrinking ‘neckdowns’ — roadways narrowed by wider sidewalks — to traffic-taming rotaries. … Add bicycle paths for cyclists, pedestrian bridges and the toolkit for “traffic-calming” grows. Take the next step to planning denser neighborhoods that encourage walkable main streets and public transit-oriented development and the pedestrian possibilities mount. … Add to these a host of other car-free options, from rentable pay-per-hour services like “zipcars,” which allows members to pay a yearly fee and then hourly rates for off-and-on use.

I have a picture of a walking bus: Mothers take kids to school in two lines; the kids hold onto two long ropes, and the teacher leads them down the street.

Bay Weekly How do we change our behavior so we don’t depend so much on our cars in the city and outside it?

Jane Holtz Kay Major cities — New York, Boston, Philadelphia — evolved because of the streetcar. Boston, for example, built a streetcar to take people to public entertainment, Norumbega, which was an amusement and recreation center.

Build infrastructure. Streetcar, buses and trains are making a comeback. Portland, Oregon, is a poster city. So is Dallas, where they built a heavy streetcar, unlike in Boston, where we have a light rail. Dallas’ streetcar looks like a train but isn’t as powerful.

Even for car-bound consumers … there are options to make them if not car-less, then less car-dependent. … Offices and institutions have begun to help: to supply emergency vehicles for parents; to give back money to those who don’t use their parking facilities, hence encouraging mass transit and carpooling. The subsidy of free parking like the subsidy of highway infrastructure tilts the balance to being car-dependent. Chits for public transportation and paybacks for not parking have encouraged less driving. …

Informally, of course, Americans share cars. Paratransit — vans that loop through industrial zones or take elderly to hospitals — can help. Here, again, the tighter the land pattern, the more the possibilities.

Work options like flex-time and telecommuting stand high on some lists of solutions for those who want to lessen their auto-dependency. Telecenters, described as urban villages where workers share facilities and space removed from the office and near home, have opened from Oberlin, Kansas, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Sit behind your computer, your phone, your fax, on line, at home. Peer out at the green grass through the window.

Bay Weekly What would your ideal world of human mobility look like?

Jane Holtz Kay Don’t think it’s hard to find examples. Cities have an aesthetic and a sense of planning. We can slowly and carefully do things to become more pedestrian.

In Portland, some very good politicians bought into idea of centering. If you don’t get the center, like throwing pottery on a wheel, everything spins off into suburbs or exburbs.

Bay Weekly Do you think America can change its ways?

Jane Holtz Kay I don’t think it’s too late. [In terms of roadways] it’s not hard physically to change these places; it’s hard getting people to change.

Consider the pleasures of your own mobility, your own tactile, visual and emotional link to the walking journey, slow enough and tactile enough to absorb wind and weather and the lay of the land. Add the lengthening of your “footsteps” by communities that allow biking or create bike paths. Launch your own freedom of motion, here and there, in the outdoors, in the city, and the country. And remember that a long global eco-journey begins with a single footstep.

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