May/June 1994, p.15
Review: The Ecology of the
By now everyone knows that the automobile transformed American culture in this century. And anybody without his head in his airbag can tell you that highways plowed through and destroyed countless urban neighborhoods. But have you ever wondered what percent of Swiss workers took public transit to work in 1990? Or just how many tons of auto pollutants fell on Mexico City in 1989? Sure you have. Now, thanks to Peter Freund and George Martin, professors at Montclair State University in New Jersey, there's a book that provides all the answers to even the most arcane transportation questions.
Freund and Martin provide more numbers than cabs on Madison Avenue. The first third of the book gets stuck in a statistical gridlock dig only a transportation policy wonk could love. The dedicated will learn that vehicles rub one millimeter of asphalt off the roads of West Germany each year, that the per capita cost of congestion in Atlanta in 1987 was $650, and that less than 3 percent of American trailer homes ever move from their original locations. What's missing from all these figures, however, is a soul, a style that makes the reader wonder if these guys grew up sending away to Pueblo, Colorado and Rockville, Maryland for U.S. Government information manuals.
The Ecology of the Automobile" does manage to raise some interesting, if not exactly original, points in its middle chapters, devoted to what the professors call 'the ideology and phenomenology of automobility" For instance, the authors argue that automobile travel has led to a compression of space and time for the modern man and woman. That is, twenty miles seems Eke just around the corner. They also point out that the speed at which people travel by car has brought with it an architecture that is more easily perceived by the eye of the speeding motorist Instead of baroque articulation, which is interesting to the viewer on foot we get drab walls of concrete and glass, meant to keep one's eyes fixed firmly on the road.
The authors also note two central contradictions of American auto transportation. First while the choice to drive an automobile is an individual one, the consequences of that decision are not. Each of us imagines that we are acting alone, but when the effects of millions of drivers are viewed collectively, the damage is substantial. Second, although most Americans prefer to reduce and slow down auto traffic in their own neighborhoods, they also want to widen roads and remove all obstacles in everyone else's part of town.
The Ecology of the Automobile" makes many points, far too many to digest. The best transportation books explore one person or one place with great care before attempting to make grand conclusions. The camera starts up close, then slowly widens its scope. Only then will generalizations work, after the reader is hooked on the stories of real people and places. Jane Jacobs, whom the authors quote repeatedly, writes about a specific place and time, and does so with accessible clarity Professors Freund and Martin imagine that readers, having endured a barrage of general statistics, will want to slog through a section called "Deconstructing Auto Hegemony."
The professors misjudge their audience. Their prose dulls the senses of the general reader, while their lack of focus frustrates the specialist, who has already heard most of what they have to say. In the end, 'The Ecology of the Automobile" reaches for far more than it can grasp.
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