We introduced a series of book reviews in 2015. This is the eighth installment in the series; hopefully, you enjoyed some of the earlier reviews and perhaps some of the books. Partake of them, please. If you are interested in purchasing any of the books, I’ve provided the ISBN number with each review. Enjoy! And remember: it’s all about the journey, not the destination.
Asphalt Nation offers an important examination of the growth of the freedom of personal mobility and its unintended consequences. This is an indispensable resource for those addressing sustainability in the United States. In almost all cities in the U.S., mobile mechanisms are now responsible for more emissions than industrial sources. Don’t be fooled by the age of the book; it is as applicable today as it was when it was published.
Jane Kay was the urban design and architecture critic for The Nation. She wrote in the clipped, shorthand style typical of columnists, restlessly leaping from one example to another. As a contributor to the Boston Globe and the New York Times, she put forward her unique prospective in the platforms, so it should not be a surprise that portions of the book can come off as a collection of elegantly manufactured sound bites.
Nonetheless, Asphalt Nation remains a brilliant and powerful indictment of the devastation wrought by our misguided love affair with, and reliance on, the automobile. We should rejoice that a major publisher had the courage to publish it.
Kay applies her critical, detailed analysis to tracking the factors causing the rise of the automobile in the U.S., similar to the analysis that Edward Gibbons employed in explaining the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in his book of the same title. Asphalt Nation takes a sobering look at how the automobile has changed the U.S., and at the hidden costs associated with those changes. Kay illustrates in detail how the automobile:
• Created the concept of transportation oriented development (TOD);
• Made it easier to live farther from populated areas, causing sprawl, leading to yet more driving;
• Changed the way houses are designed by the need/desire for large garages, separating people further from their neighbors;
• Influenced how public dollars are spent, leading governments at all levels to dedicate more and more public funds to building roads rather than to other needed public programs such as mass transit;
• Changed architecture in metropolitan areas by requiring the buildings to be “automobile friendly” with parking space, leading to still more human separation and less walkability of areas;
• Influenced environmental quality by requiring more land to be paved, impacting the surrounding ecosystems and polluting the atmosphere;
• Impacted human health by increasing the stress associated with driving and by reducing exercise and physical activity in general ; and
• Led to the “geography of nowhere”—suburbs that are identical across the U.S., diluting and confusing an individual’s sense of place.
Kay, in her excellent but scathing critic’s prose, demonstrates the interconnectedness of these topics. She highlights the most sobering point of all—engineers understand that we cannot build our way out of this, even as politicians continue to push it. Kay clearly understands that if roads are “improved” to accommodate more traffic, then more traffic results, thus increasing the need for yet more improvement, thus facilitating yet more traffic.
In America, despite our learning these lessons decades ago, by and large, we have not changed our transportation policies.
For me, the importance of this book is that it is the best illustration I’ve encountered of the law of unintended consequences. The most well-intentioned ideas can often be saturated with them. Improving personal mobility is a great thing! However, when every U.S. citizen views it as a God-given right to drive anywhere at any time, it causes the issues we face today. This topic is a bellwether for me. If America can take steps to address this issue, then it gives me hope that the United States can address other climate change and sustainability challenges.
Like The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard, this book helps answer the questions: “What can I do? I am just one small individual in a massive crowd. I don’t control much of anything. Why are you not talking to the big corporations? They are who can make a difference.” This book substantiates the fallacy of those statements. Yes, each individual driver makes a very small impact. However, taken together, on-road sources in the U.S. are among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, pollutants, and air toxins. The big corporations—whether they are the automobile manufacturers, the petrochemical producers, or the road-building companies—all respond to demand: the ever-increasing want for vehicles and their countless accoutrements. What we can do individually is to vote with each dollar we spend. If we have to buy a vehicle, buy the most efficient! We can also vote with our feet: walk more places; take mass transit. If we thus increase demand for better modes of transit, corporations and governments will respond. Above all, we need to stop underpricing and subsidizing vehicles (via fuels and roads).
There are only a few events that have led to decreases in the annual Vehicle Miles Traveled in the U.S. They are: World War II, OPEC oil embargoes, and the 2008 economic downturn. The fact that people turned to mass transit during these times is encouraging. However, recent data suggests that, in an improving economy, more commuters return to their vehicles.
Think about some of these ideas.
I consider this book to be a seminal work regarding the tactics of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Despite ongoing negotiations and the positive results of the COP21 conference (Conference of Parties) in Paris, consensus has not yet been reached on the actions to combat climate change. And even though the world’s mega-cities have collectively taken more than 8,000 such actions in the past two years, worldwide emissions were up both in 2014 and 2015.
A number of private sector leaders and companies have looked well beyond the current stalemate. Their actions are motivated not by fear of a roadblock to growth and innovation but by unique opportunities to increase competitive advantage, productivity, and profits. These “cool” companies understand the strategic significance of reducing heat-trapping emissions and have worked to cut them by fifty percent or more. In the process, they have not only reduced their energy bills, but have increased their productivity, sometimes dramatically.
In Cool Companies, energy guru Joseph Romm describes the experiences of these remarkably successful firms, as he presents more than fifty case studies in which bottom-line improvements have been achieved through upgrading processes, increasing energy efficiency, and adopting new technologies.
Fortunately for me, I know many of these companies well and some of their named individuals, so I am probably a not a completely independent reviewer in this case.
The author documents efforts to reduce emissions in the context of proven corporate strategies, showing managers how they can build or retrofit operations with the latest technologies to reduce emissions, achieving timely returns on investments. The case studies explain the concept of “lean production” and why systematic efforts to reduce emissions so often lead to productivity gains. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate how changes in office and building design can measurably increase productivity, thereby compounding gains from “cool” power options: cogeneration, solar, wind, geothermal. Additional efficiencies can be found in manufacturing, including motors and motor systems, steam, and process energy. In profiling successful companies such as DuPont, 3M, Compaq (later, HP), Xerox, Toyota, Verifone, Perkin-Elmer, and Centerplex (among many others), Cool Companies turns on its head the notion that combatting climate change comes with enormous costs. And Romm does so through a massive number of quotations from the companies’ CEOs and financial leaders. Each chapter includes key lessons that are succinct and insightful for non-technical readers. This is a unique book that is essential for anyone concerned with increasing profits and productivity while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The stories and lessons are applicable to us in higher education—as we can easily trade upon the notion of profitability as cost reduction. I encourage you to take up this tome, go forth, and do great things!
Brian K. Yeoman is Director of Sustainable Leadership at NAEP and is the retired Associate Vice President for Facilities Planning and Campus Development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back
By Jane Holtz Kay
Published in 1997
Published July 15, 2006