Friday, June 8, 2012

The Culture of Cars.


The rise of the private automobile has had a profound effect on the daily lives of Americans, as well as on the development of our towns and cities. While I admit that I do love my car, I am lucky in that I live and work in the same neighborhood. I can walk to work in about 7 minutes, so I do not drive on a daily basis. This is not possible for a large majority of people, though, who rely on cars to get to jobs and to meet their daily needs. It's easy not to think too much about transportation and just do what we need to do to get around, but two recent books explore different aspects of our transportation culture and how the authors think it can be improved.

Straphanger: Saving our Cities and Ourselves from theAutomobile by Taras Grescoe focuses on the history and future of public transportation. Grescoe, a proud "straphanger" himself, has never owned a car and relies primarily on public transportation for his needs. He makes a strong argument for investment in public transportation, using several different cities (from New York to Moscow) as case studies. He points out how daily commutes have grown over the years, and the affects this has on health and happiness. The need for lengthy commutes has increased because communities have been planned and developed to serve the use of cars. There are alternative to this, he argues, and expanding and improving public transportation is key. The most fascinating parts of the book to me focuses on the history of public transportation, and how it changed the landscape of the various cities he discusses. Did you know that an early form of public transport in New York City has a Pneumatic Railway? It began in 1870, and for a brief time blew cars of people through tubes. I had never before considered how subway tunnels were using only the technology available in the early 1900s, and it was a treacherous undertaking. The comparisons between the cities he profiles illustrate the many different ways of approaching transportation needs in the United States and around the world.

Most of us don't spend much time thinking about parking until we can't find a parking space when we need one. Eran Ben-Joseph, however, looks at parking in-depth in his new book Rethinking a Lot: the Design and Culture of Parking. The need for huge amounts of parking spaces has changed the landscape of our towns and cities profoundly. While people may feel like they can never find a parking spot, most areas have many more existing spaces than there are cars to fill them. Large stores build lots with enough spaces for their most peak shopping days, meaning most of the time large areas of space sits unused. The large areas of paved space means fewer trees and plants, causes problems with water drainage, and leads to increased heat. Despite the impact they have, little planning is put into the design of the large majority of parking lots. Ben-Joseph argues that applying some creativity thought into the design of these spaces could vastly improve their functionality and appeal. He discusses specific examples of how parking can be more fully integrated into our cities and built to work within the natural environment. The large number of photographs throughout the book illustrate his arguments, and they are fascinating just on their own.

Both of these books encourage the reader to think critically about transportation in our daily lives and communities, and to imagine different alternatives for the future. I know I'll never look at subways or parking lots quite the same way again!

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