Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “July, 2013”

Cars and the Environment Pt. 2

In my review of Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania (Cars and the Environment pt. 1), we explored the unprecedented environmental harm resulting from the mass production and use of motor vehicles.  Whereas McCarthy argues that consumer decision-making drove the automobile to its apex in modern American life, our next author, Christopher Wells, places those consumer decisions in the context of local and national government policies that created a physical environment that virtually required car ownership for full membership in society.


Wells’s book, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2012) provides a context for those consumer decisions.  If, after all, one is dependent on the automobile because of an infrastructure designed primarily for automobility, how free are those consumer decisions?  And how did this infrastructure come to be so dominant?  Wells sets his interpretation apart from what he calls the “love affair thesis” (i.e., that America’s love affair with cars is the primary explanation for our car-dominant society) and what he calls the “conspiracy thesis” (i.e., that automobile dominance occurred as a result of a cabal of automobile manufacturers and oil companies removing streetcars and weakening public transportation).

Wells argues that we must look at the broader patterns of land use and development that shape people’s transportation needs and choices.  Put bluntly, when developers and government agencies design a landscape to be accessed primarily by automobiles, they create a “car country” that virtually requires automobile ownership.  If, on the other hand, a society designs mixed-use landscapes that are conveniently accessible by walking, bicycling, and transit, people will find it easier to get along without a car.  He contrasts his own experience growing up in car-centric suburban Atlanta, where he was dependent on a car, and where he cherished his beloved Toyota pickup with his later experience living in Switzerland, where he found it easy (and inexpensive) to get around without a car and where, he notes, “I never really missed having a car.”  When he returned to the US, he tried cycling for transportation but it “felt dangerous” once he got beyond the confines of his own neighborhood where “a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.”  He concluded from his own experience that “How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or not I needed one.”  Thus, he seeks to understand how people’s need for a car influenced how they felt about cars, and he provides a social and environmental context for Americans’ widespread use of the car by the end of the 20th century.  Wells makes a persuasive case that land-use patterns, not attitudes (i.e., the “love affair”) are the strongest determinant of a transportation system’s success, whether it is transit-based or car-based. (pp. xx-xxv)  Critics of the car have tended, he says,

to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns.  (xxxiv)

Wells is at his best getting us to “think about landscapes,” and the impact they have on people’s decisions about driving.  He contrasts older “streetcar neighborhoods” of the pre-automobile era that were organized around streetcar routes with walkable distances between housing, shopping, and other neighborhood destinations, and the post-WWII “exit ramp neighborhoods” zoned as single-use, geographically separated areas designed to be conveniently accessed only by automobile.  The process did not happen by itself, but was facilitated and accelerated by government policies that drove highway design and funding while neglecting public transit and FHA loan guidelines that favored suburban housing and retail developments zoned for single-use.  Meanwhile older, mixed-use streetcar neighborhoods were frequently neglected or destroyed by freeway construction and “urban renewal.”  Wells shows that the postwar drive to the suburbs was indeed a “choice,” but it was a choice that was virtually the only rational one for many people, given the fact that its immense costs were effectively socialized by federal, state, and local policies.   Once the process began, it locked in the auto-centered lifestyle, leaving people few convenient alternatives to the car.

streetcar vs. car design

Wells reiterates the tremendously destructive environmental impact of the automobile highlighted by Tom McCarthy, underscoring the imperative to change the policies that lead to car-dependence for millions.  He also highlights the immense challenge this will pose, for the costs of car-dependence are often invisible on an individual level:

Both smog and climate change illustrate a persistent theme in environmental politics: problems that seem negligible or unimportant on an individual scale can, once aggregated, have national or even global environmental implications.  Because the problems do not become clear until after large numbers of people are involved, the damaging behaviors have often accrued both widespread social acceptance and economic importance.  Moreover, the causal linkage between seemingly harmless behaviors … and environmental problems … frequently requires elaborate scientific explanation.  This creates opportunities for entrenched interests to challenge the science … which often take time and study to disprove.  As a result, “attack, delay, and ask for more research” has proven a fruitful strategy for those hoping to avoid new environmental regulations.  Moreover, because such problems frequently necessitate sweeping changes in established behaviors, effective regulations are frequently intrusive and perceived as onerous. (p. 351)

Applied to the effort to move people away from auto-dependence, this theme suggests a daunting challenge lies ahead for those of us who seek to build a new infrastructure around alternatives to the automobile.  Nevertheless, Wells’s study proves that Americans are not hard-wired to love cars, and that creating more compact, mixed-use developments in cities and even suburbs around good transit and safe streets for bicycling and walking can wean Americans from their environmentally destructive and unhealthy auto habit.  It also suggests that for many people changing attitudes are likely to follow, rather than precede, a change in our infrastructure.

Cars and the Environment (Pt 1)


As an historian, my summer reading lists lean heavily toward nonfiction history.  As an advocate for bicycling, transit, and complete streets, it may strike some as odd that I’m interested in the history of the automobile, but there’s no question that, for better or worse, the automobile has reshaped our world and it behooves those of us who are critical of the car-centered transportation system to understand it in all its complexity.  To that end, I will be reviewing two recent scholarly histories on my summer reading list that explore the social and environmental impact of the automobile and my reflection on what this means for moving our culture away from its auto dependency.  I’ll provide these reviews serially, so that I can give sufficient attention to each.

The first study under review is Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment (Yale University Press, 2007), which explores what McCarthy sees as Americans’ “love affair” with the automobile from an environmental standpoint.  According to McCarthy, this “love affair” was the result of millions of consumer decisions, and the car as a medium for Americans’ psychological and social desires.  In other words, the car has played a central role in 20th century American society, McCarthy argues, because it has been much more than a mode of transportation, it has been an expression of economic success and social identity, Americans’ “chief talisman of successful belonging.” (p. 47)  While McCarthy thinks Americans’ consumer-driven car culture has been significantly  influenced by the auto industry’s marketing strategies, he argues that consumers have not always been passive recipients of industry marketing.  He provides examples of consumers acting in ways that auto manufacturers did not expect, such as the rise of the simple Volkswagen in the 1950s and 1960s as a counterpoint to Detroit’s “bigger is better” mentality.  Thus, he sees cars as providing consumers with important cultural capital, beyond the utilitarian aspect.  As such, any effort to shift toward a multi-modal transportation system must grapple with the deep psychological attachment Americans have to their cars.

McCarthy’s assessment of the environmental consequences of the “love affair” with cars is the strength of this study.  By the 1940s, the environmental impact of the use of automobiles and the burning of gasoline for personal propulsion became obvious and prompted an unprecedented government regulatory apparatus to deal with it.  Los Angeles, “car capital” of the nation, not only had some of the nation’s worst smog, but led the effort to regulate it when it became apparent that the smog was negatively affecting the region’s carefully crafted image as a tourist destination. (pp. 116-17)  It is sobering to realize that the industry resisted smog controls for decades, meaning that effective reduction of smog in US cities did not occur until the 1970s following the mobilization of the environmental movement.  Ultimately, it was a mobilized citizenry demanding government regulation, rather than consumer choice and the free market that cleaned the air in Los Angeles. (p. 254-55)  There are important lessons in McCarthy’s book for the effort to regulate carbon emissions today, since it can be argued we don’t have the luxury to wait decades for the industry to shift away from business as usual.

Where McCarthy is at his most trenchant, is his unpacking of a major portion of the oversized environmental footprint of the automobile, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, use, and disposal.  While consumer demand may have driven the industry, McCarthy argues, that demand created unprecedented environmental problems.  By the 1920s, auto manufacturers were (and still are) among the world’s largest consumers of raw materials such as iron, steel, rubber, plate glass, leather, lead, zinc, and aluminum.  Modern strip-mining techniques were pioneered and expanded in order to meet the insatiable demand of the auto industry, deeply scarring the land.  Manufacturing cars produced unprecedented levels of industrial pollution:

Fly ash, iron oxide, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and or course, millions of tons of carbon dioxide belched from the smokestacks of the coke ovens, blast furnaces, foundries, steel mills, and plants of American steel and auto industries.  Iron, sulfuric acid, cyanide, phenols, and heavy metals poured into the sewers and rivers that served as liquid waste conduits away from the plants.  (p. 46)

  A full environmental accounting of the automobile industry would indeed be a vast undertaking, involving an assessment of the environmental impacts not only of the major manufacturers, but the thousands of smaller suppliers the industry relies upon.  A total environmental accounting is beyond the scope of McCarthy’s study, but even focusing on one manufacturing plant, Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, MI, offers evidence of the profoundly troubling environmental legacy of the industry.  McCarthy helps us see that a major portion of the automobile’s environmental footprint came from its raw material extraction and refining.  That relative environmental impact remains true today whether the car burns gasoline or uses electricity to power its engine. Consider the amount of strip mining that will be necessary to provide lithium ion batteries for literally hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of electric vehicles and the toxic legacy of their inevitable disposal.  McCarthy’s historical analysis provides an opportunity for us to see why it simply may not be possible to manufacture cars on the massive scale necessary for even a fraction of the world’s population to drive and not cause serious damage to the earth and its climate, even if they don’t burn gasoline (and this doesn’t take into account the carbon footprint of sprawl attendant to the automobile lifestyle).  McCarthy traces the efforts over the decades after World War II to reduce the industrial pollutants flowing from smokestacks, but large quantities of pollutants and tremendous energy consumption (often fossil-fuel derived) will continue to be an inevitable by-product of large scale automobile manufacturing.  Viewed as an entire system of resource extraction, energy intensive mass production, distribution, use, and disposal, we might reasonably conclude that there is no such thing as a “green” car.

McCarthy helps us see the larger environmental impact of the car beyond tailpipe emissions, helps us understand that we shouldn’t expect these environmental consequences to be addressed by consumer choice alone, and suggests that our society may need to rethink its “auto mania.”  If there is a blind spot in McCarthy’s analysis, it is that by placing so much emphasis on consumer choice as a driving force for automobility, he leaves little room for analyzing the way in which the radical redesign of the built environment around the automobile in the 20th century provided the context for those consumer decisions and eventually precluded virtually any “choice” not to drive.

It is to that aspect we shall turn in my next review.

A Sea Change

Sometimes it is easy to forget the power of people to bring about change.  But yesterday, the Pasadena Municipal Services Committee responded to pressure brought by the city’s new Complete Streets Coalition and brought the Crown city a step closer to real substantive change in its infrastructure.  The committee rejected the DOT’s current proposed bike plan and called on the city’s DOT to come back with a “more ambitious” plan that relies more on protected bike lanes and cycle tracks than the current plan.  As Council member Terry Tornek put it, “We need to grab a hold of this and not be timid.”

According to Wes Reutimann of the Downtown Pasadena Neighborhood Association (DPNA), Mayor Bogaard and City Council members Tornak and Margaret McAustin, who serve on the Municipal Services Committee were unanimous in support of a bolder plan that would put Pasadena at the forefront of bike-friendliness in Southern California.  They also expressed a willingness to devote resources to getting a new bike plan implemented.  This exciting news comes just a week after a complete streets forum in the city sharply critiqued the lack of safe bike infrastructure in Pasadena and the city’s relatively weak proposed bike plan, and represents, as Reutimann emailed the Complete Streets Coalition listserv, “a literal sea change insofar as bicycling planning/policy in Pasadena is concerned.”

This sea change is good news, and it may be due in part to the formation of the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition (PasCSC), and certainly is a result of the advocates who showed up at the committee meeting and raised awareness about the need for better bike infrastructure in the city.  Finally, credit is due to Mayor Bogaard and Council members Tornak and McAustin who recognized the shortcomings of the old plan and all of whom spoke strongly in favor of a bold step toward bike-friendliness.

It will be especially important for the CSC to remain vigilant and continue to organize, develop a clear set of priorities, outreach to the community, and develop a long-term communication strategy.  Make no mistake, there will be push-back from some car-dependent sectors of the community, so the CSC will have to be prepared to mobilize people to continue to make the case when the revised plan comes before the City Council in the future.  We’ll have to see the actual revised plan before judging how serious the city is about its commitment to bike-friendliness.  The CSC must make sure the city’s revised plan does not overlook the less glamorous areas of the city, such as Northwest Pasadena and East Pasadena; it must make sure any network of bike lanes provides connectivity to transit nodes, business districts, shopping, parks, and schools; and it must be vigilant that the city is in fact providing sufficient resources to make the entire plan a reality over a reasonable amount of time.

With these caveats in mind, this development is a most welcome bit of news.  I have renewed hope for Pasadena as a city that can take a leadership role in the region’s transportation revolution, in which living beyond the automobile is one step closer to reality for more people.

Something Happening Here

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena's Bike Plan.  Photo courtesy DPNA

Pasadena Complete Streets Forum discusses Pasadena’s Bike Plan. Photo courtesy DPNA

When Phillip O’Neill was struck by a motorist and killed while riding his bicycle on Del Mar two weeks ago, a cry of grief went up from Pasadena’s cycling community.  But unlike last year when two cyclists were killed by automobiles in Pasadena, there is a chance that this tragedy has galvanized the community in a way that may bring about change.  In response to the tragedy, a “Complete Streets Forum” attended by upwards of 50 people was held last night at Pasadena Presbyterian Church on Colorado Blvd, and that meeting may be the genesis of a new organization that will push Pasadena officials to move faster to create safe streets for all road users (I say may be, for reasons I’ll explain below).  Participants included many from the DPNA, as well as Caltech and PCC students, quite a few bicycle commuters and recreational riders from the area.

The Forum emerged from an email conversation initiated by Margaret Ho of the Caltech Bike Lab and Wes Reutimann of the Pasadena Downtown Neighborhood Association.  Margaret was the first to call for a meeting to discuss the need for more bike-friendly streets, and Wes worked with the DPNA to host the event at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.  The DPNA, active in livability issues in Downtown Pasadena, brought Rich Dilluvio, chief administrator for the Pasadena DOT, to give an overview of Pasadena’s proposed Bike Plan, which will be voted on by the City Council on July 15.

I have my own critiques of Pasadena’s bike plan, which I’ve written about here, here and here, so I won’t rehash them on this post, but it was clear from the questions to the DOT plan that many in the audience were unsatisfied with the slow pace and unambitious scope of the city’s plan and want improvement to the city’s bike infrastructure beyond the current proposal.  After the Q and A, Dr. Mark Smutny, pastor of PPC and a board member of DPNA, facilitated a strategy session in which attendees broke into small groups and shared ideas.  There were three “rounds” of small group discussion, followed by a sharing of ideas as a whole group.  The small groups allowed everyone a chance to share their views and the whole group discussion distilled the major themes that emerged, providing the group with a vision for where we go from here.

As each group shared its findings, several larger themes became apparent.  First, people are afraid to ride on many of Pasadena’s streets.  They want to ride to school, work, socialize, exercise or run errands, but they’re afraid because of a lack of separated bicycle infrastructure on city streets.  While the city’s proposal relies heavily on “bike routes” and “sharrows,” most people in the group said they wanted cycle tracks, buffered bike lanes, or at the very least clearly marked bike lanes, not class III bike routes.  Second, they are frustrated that the city currently has no dedicated funding for bike infrastructure.  Related to this is the fact that the city currently has no implementation goals aside from a vague goal in the current plan of 10 years or longer if funding is not available.  So the group consensus was that the city has to put its money where its mouth is and fund infrastructure change sooner rather than later, with shorter-term goals and timetables that can be measured.

Finally, there was a consensus that the group needs to organize to make its voice heard by those in power.  Several suggested the formation of a bike/pedestrian safety task force to work with the city’s Police Department on enforcement of traffic safety.  But it is clear to many in the room there is a desperate need to push the city to improve its infrastructure, and that change will not come by itself.  There seemed to be a feeling (that I strongly share)  that we need to organize some sort of group to this end.  It was suggested that the group call itself the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, but one participant thought that sounded “too political,” so it was decided that the name of the group would be decided later.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to have turned in Pasadena.  With or without an official title, there is a new organization in Pasadena with energy and with a sense of purpose advocating complete streets as part of a livable, sustainable city.  The group’s next mission is to develop a series of talking points and make our voices heard at the July 15 City Council meeting.  But if real change is going to happen, the group will need to mobilize a wide range of grass roots constituencies in and around the city, develop an effective communication strategy, and organize to put sustained pressure on elected officials.  If the group does these things, Pasadena could be poised to be the next great walkable, bikeable city in Southern California.

To put your name on the email list for the Pasadena Complete Streets Coalition, please go to the DPNA website here.

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