Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the tag “Jane Holtz Kay”

Being an Advocate

A friend recently asked me how I got into bike advocacy.  Well, actually, she asked me how I got into “advocacy,” and I assume she meant bike advocacy, though I think I’ve been an advocate for social justice most of my life.  It’s just part of who I am, I guess.  I see something that needs changing and I research the issue and often join with others who are working on that issue.  We call such people “advocates” or “activists” or sometimes “troublemakers,” but, really, when you get right down to it, isn’t that just citizenship?  We’ve created these labels for active citizenship in part because we live in an era when our role as citizens is supposed to be passively consumed on TV or social media, not in real life.   Those who get out and organize for change are thus labeled as an aberration—a “special interest”—when in fact that’s what every citizen should probably be doing.

Back to the main question.  I got into bike advocacy because the moment I started riding my bike for transportation I started to realize most of our streets had been misdesigned.  It was only as I studied the issue further that I realized how badly misdesigned they were and how it was connected to other misuses of social space and resources.  About the time I began substituting my bike for some of my short car trips (around 2008 or so) a colleague at work showed me an article on bicycle infrastructure in Europe—focused on either Copenhagen or Amsterdam, I can’t recall which—and it fired my imagination for what could be, what might be, and what is possible.  Since then, I’ve immersed myself in the history of how our society constructed a car-based infrastructure that limits how we live, interact with each other, and get from place to place.  It has underscored the importance of radically changing our infrastructure to adapt to more socially and environmentally sustainable transportation modes.

Shortly thereafter I started finding and joining bicycle advocacy (there’s that word again) organizations like the LA County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC) and CICLE that connected me with others who had a similar vision.  I went on the LA River Ride sponsored by LACBC and several other group rides sponsored by CICLE.  Around 2010, I went on a CICLE-sponsored “tweed ride” in downtown LA.  In many ways I really saw LA for the first time.  Oh, I’d driven through LA many times, usually on my way to someplace, but being on my bike revealed the rich texture of the city for the first time.  It was a revelation that you could feel safe riding city streets if there were enough other people riding too.  I also met Joe Linton on this ride, and he inspired me to continue my effort to be the change I wished to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say.  I wanted to write about my experiences, share them with others to show that another world is possible, but I was reluctant.  Joe provided the encouraging words that helped me to start this blog, too.  I think that the experience of CicLAvia really reinforced how different—how much better—our human interactions could be in car-free spaces.  CicLAvia sort of turned me into an evangelist for creating car-free space in our communities and giving people realistic alternatives to the car.

This hasn’t been easy.  Recognizing how badly we’ve gone wrong when others don’t even recognize the problem exists can be a lonely and frustrating experience.  Reading writers like Jane Jacobs, Jane Holtz Kay, Jeff Mapes, Charles Montgomery, Jeff Speck, Peter Norton, Christopher Wells, and others, made me realize I wasn’t alone and helped me deepen my sense that these changes were not only possible but highly desirable.  Reading deeply about the existential crisis of climate change has reinforced that the status quo is unsustainable and that radical change is essential.

Change is never easy, but without a movement of organized people pushing for change it will not happen by itself.  When I see the need for safer streets for myself, I know that they’ll benefit others, too.  I also know that it won’t happen if we don’t shake people out of their complacency.  No individual can do it alone—it takes a group of people to get anything accomplished and the bigger and more diverse the group, the stronger it is.  It’s only working in concert with others that my choices make a larger difference.  And really, we build on the work of those who came before and we’re dependent on others joining the struggle after us, too.

My experience as an historian leads me to understand that going against the automobile-fossil fuel-industrial complex and changing people’s living habits will not be easy, but neither was the abolition of slavery, the struggle for workers’ rights, women’s rights, or civil rights.  Indeed, as Naomi Klein has suggested in her latest book This Changes Everything, these movements for human rights must be seen as part of the larger struggle for peace, civil rights, economic justice, a livable planet, and livable social space.   Making our streets and communities safer and more convenient for alternative modes of transportation (walking, bicycling, and transit) doesn’t solve all of these issues, but, properly understood, it is part of the solution that addresses each of them in part.

Change is happening, a movement is emerging.  Why am I an advocate?  I want to be a part of it—even if only a small part.  I don’t know exactly where the movement will lead, but that is what makes it exciting.

Remembering Jane Holtz Kay


I first read Jane Holtz Kay’s wonderful book Asphalt Nation in the late 1990s, and it was one of the first books I’d read that systematically dissected the problems of the car-dependent culture.

Oh sure, growing up in Southern California, I knew firsthand about smog alerts, sig alerts, and oil spills, but, like so many American adolescents, I couldn’t wait for my 16th birthday and the California Driver’s License that signified freedom and the state’s semi official recognition of my nascent adulthood.

By the late 1990s, my growing concern over climate change and resource depletion got me thinking more critically about the automobile in our society (though I still drove a car pretty much everywhere), and prompted me to pick up her book and read it.  It got me thinking for the first time about the centrality of the automobile to a wide range of issues, not just air pollution, but sprawl and the sacrifice of public transit and people-centered urban space to the car.  It began an altering of my consciousness about the automobile that continues to this day.

Last week I was saddened to read of the passing of Jane Holtz Kay at the age of 74.  Her New York Times obituary noted that she “felt like a voice crying in the wilderness,” and that people’s response to her book was either “so what?” or a belief that they were powerless to change things.  As an advocate for alternative transportation, I certainly understand those frustrations, yet there was something else in the obituary that made me feel a sense that she was a kindred spirit, her own decision to give up her car and move to an apartment in Boston, within walking distance of public transit.  “She was a big believer in doing things,” her sister told the New York Times.  She lived her ideals, and she never quit trying to open people’s eyes to the necessity of shifting away from the car-centered culture if we are to live sustainably.

The notice of her passing prompted me to reread Asphalt Nation, and what is striking is how relevant it remains and how much it is not so much a voice in the wilderness as a voice ahead of its time.  The book is well worth reading today, and I’d urge anyone who is interested in “taking back” America from the automobile juggernaut—or even creating pockets of walkability and bikeability—to read it.

Her book helps us to see that the problems associated with the automobile do not just revolve around tailpipe emissions (though those emissions are themselves a huge problem), but also have to do with other quality of life issues.  Consider the freeway, the big box, the parking garage: all car-friendly/people-unfriendly places that will continue to dominate our landscape when everyone’s driving a hybrid.  Consider the alienation and monotony of suburban sprawl, the sedentary life behind the wheel, the fast food “drive-thru” meal, and the obesity epidemic it engenders.  Consider, too, the huge drain of car payments, insurance, and auto maintenance on the average family budget.  None of these problems will be ameliorated by buying a Prius.

She saw the end of the age of the automobile as historian Frederick Jackson Turner had seen the end of the frontier in American History, the end of en era that had defined the nation, and the beginning of an era, she hoped, marked not by the desire for “escape,” but by “the cultivation of a landscape that values place more than passage, that restrains auto mobility in the name of human mobility, that re-thinks the way we live.”  She hoped to create a “human and humane frontier” in the 21st century.  (9)

She drew the veil away from many of the myths of automobility:  that cars made us “free,” (they left us dependent on them and cost us extravagant amounts of money); that cars meant “progress,” (instead of destroying walkable communities and replacing them with “road-wrapped sprawl,” marked by its signature architectural monuments—the freeway and the big-box store in the middle of acres of asphalt parking lot.); and that they were simply a reflection of “free market” forces (instead of the massively subsidized system they are).  But her book was more than just a litany of complaints about the automobile, it was also a window offering a glimpse of a way forward, where we might salvage our landscape and environment by shifting the focus from moving cars to moving people.  This would mean reorienting our streets away from the car toward walking, bicycling and public transit.

She asked us, in short, to re-imagine our lives beyond the automobile:

Suppose we didn’t have pockets emptied by car costs and a world sullied by their toxins.  Suppose we didn’t have traffic jams for the rich and cars on blocks and broken-down buses for the poor.  Suppose we had an easier, fuller way to live.  How better to live on traffic-calmed streets with grassy medians and leafed-over sidewalks, to stroll or bike down greenways, to traverse car-free Main Streets.  It is time to create a living space for humans and a healthy planet habitat.  It is essential to retrieve and absorb the walkable, bustling wonders of city life. (p. 357)

The movement to reclaim our culture from the automobile continues.  Her passing merely reminds us that the task is yet unfinished. Like Jane Holtz Kay, we need to be believers in doing things to shift away from the car- and oil-dominated society.

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