Worcester, Mass.
July 27, 1997

Ex-road warrior critiques the "Asphalt Nation"

By Lynne Tolman

   Architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay of Boston sold her car six years ago when she began writing the book "Asphalt Nation:  How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back."
   She figured it would be hypocritical to keep driving while she blasted the car culture for all the ills it has wrought:  perpetual gridlock, air pollution, suburban sprawl, the erosion of neighborhoods by highways, the isolation of the elderly and infirm, the insurmountable distances between poor people and jobs, and the annihilation of the landscape for what she calls "the architecture of the exit ramp" -- public and private spaces designed to accommodate cars, not people.
   Kay calculates she saves about $6,500 a year, or $20 a day, by not paying for gas, parking, insurance and all the other costs of a car, and she doesn't miss the aggravation of being a road warrior.  She gets around by foot and mass transit -- subway, train, bus -- and the occasional taxi.
   Kay is all for bicycling but finds it "risky around here," she said last week in Boston, over the sounds of the Big Dig grinding along beneath her window.  "Asphalt Nation," published in April, goes a long way toward explaining how our highways and secondary roads and even side streets have become so unfriendly for biking.
   The history gets particularly interesting when Kay looks beyond  "the romance of the road" and lays bare the political and economic decisions that shaped the growth of highways, malls and garages and the evolution of errand-running, kid-ferrying "soccer moms."
   "When you take an objective look at how we transport ourselves in this country, it just makes sense to have a bicycle," Kay said.  "Half our trips are under five miles ... Why don't we bike, then?  It's not because we're 'car potatoes,' but because the trips are dangerous and unpleasant."
   A big part of the solution, Kay said, is the new style of road design called traffic calming.  The idea is to slow down cars and ease the way for pedestrians -- both goals that also can make cycling more attractive.
   "Asphalt Nation" suggests methods that have worked in one Toronto neighborhood where parents wanted their kids to be able to walk safely to school:  "Grass over a small section of road, plant a tree.  Create a bend in the road to slow down speed by cutting off the driver's sight line.  Swell the sidewalk out at the corners.  Set a median in the middle.  Throttle movement at the entry where cars and people intersect.  Surface the street with bumpy pavement ... Raise the road, and you have a speed table, or speed level; a less jarring intrusion than the speed bump, it is an encumbrance but not a threat to motorists."
   "I have found the bicycle activists the most passionate, militant and thoughful advocates," Kay said, of what she calls in the book  "making the landscape fit for human mobility."
  But because she has high hopes for the resurgence of rail travel, she has "a lot of reservations" about one solution many bicyclists have embraced:  converting rails to trails.  "I think the trails are great; sometimes, clearly, the trails preserve the open space," she said.   However, "I'd like to see the energy go into the rails."
   Also on the recommended reading list for bicycle buffs is "No Hands: The Rise and Fall of the Schwinn Bicycle Company, an American Institution" by Judith Crown and Glenn Coleman.  Published last fall, this book by journalists from Crain's Chicago Business is a business case study, a family history and a chronicle of the evolution of bicycles.
   Schwinn shaped and dominated consumer tastes in bicycles for generations, but ultimately descended into bankruptcy and takeover by an outsider.  The chapter "Just Being a Kid," which relates the 1970s adventures of mountain bike pioneers Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly and Tom Ritchey in the hills of northern California, is a roaring ride down the rocky slope that played a big part in Schwinn's undoing.  Schwinn came late to the mountain biking craze, the most important bike trend of the 1980s, and proved unable to meet the challenge.
   TIP OF THE HELMET -- To Sean Cahill from Uxbridge, who's leading the expert men's 19-34 division in the Nike ACG New England Mountain Bike Championship Series.  Cahill, 24, is working this summer for his race sponsor, Don's Cycle in Fairfield, Conn., while finishing college.  He hasn't won a race in the Nike series but has the most points, from consistent third-, fourth- and fifth-place finishes in May and June at Pedrostock, Jack Rabbit Run, Wrath of SunValley, The Arcadian and the Northfield Power Circuit.
  The series continues Aug. 9 at Killington, Vt., and the final race is Sept. 6 at Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford.  Michael Broderick of Chilmark, winner of the Wrath of Sun Valley race, is seven points behind Cahill overall.
   Cahill, who ran cross-country at Fairfield University and was a T&G All-Star runner at St. John's High School in Shrewsbury, is in his third year of mountain bike racing and moved up from the sport category to expert last year.  He also won the Down Under race at Yawgoo Valley Ski Area in Rhode Island in this year's Trail 66 mountain bike series and is leading the Jamis Connecticut Point Series.

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