Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Books: "Carmageddon" By Daniel Knowles

Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse And What To Do About It

By Daniel Knowles

Abrams Press; hardcover, 256 pages; $28.00; available today, Tuesday, March 28th

Daniel Knowles is the Midwest correspondent for the Economist, and lives in Chicago. Prior to this, he worked as the paper's Mumbai and Nairobi bureau chiefs, as well as a reporter in the Washington, DC, bureau and in London. He has covered stories ranging from the wars in South Sudan and Afghanistan to the drug trade in Colombia, but his preference is to write about cities, transportation, and social transformation.

Carmageddon is Knowles' new book, and he focuses on how he believes that cars are ruining the world and making people happy and unhealthy. The automobile was one of the biggest innovations of the 20th century, as it promised freedom, style, and utility, but sometimes, an improvement can make things worse.

Knowles details the rise of the automobile and the costs people will bear as a result of that. He ombinines history, economics, and his own reporting to trace the forces and decisions that normalized cars and cemented a continued reliance on them.

Readers are taken around the world to show the ways cars have impacted people's lives, from Nairobi, which is shrouded in smug even though very few people have cars, to Houston, where the Katy Freeway has a mind-boggling 26 lanes and there are 30 parking spaces per resident. 

With these negatives in mind, Knowles illustrates how there are better ways people can live, as he looks at New York City, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Tokyo.

In this excerpt, Knowles writes about how the building of highways in the 20th century affected the city he lives in: "Around three miles from where I live in Chicago, southeast from my apartment in Wicker Park, is the most congested stretch of road in the entire United States. Just west of Union Station, once one of the busiest railway stations in the entire world, is the intersection between I-90 and I-290, otherwise known as the Kennnedy and Eisenhower Expressways. Named the Jane Byrne Interchange, this junction occupies an entire city block. From it, the Kennedy runs northwest while the Eisenhower runs west. Most weeks I cycle across one of the many bridges that cross these two highways into the city. At most hours of the day, the traffic beneath me is thick, with every lane full of vehicles of all sorts. The speed limits posted show that drivers are allowed to go at 55 miles per hour. But except occasionally late at night, almost none do. They move along at 30 mph or less, and often sit almost completely still, bumper-to-bumper, hooting at each other.

These roads came long after much of the rest of Chicago was built. The building I live in was constructed in 1890, on a street built for the new upper middle class produced by the late Victorian industrial revolution. My neighborhood is full of these houses, and it is one of the loveliest places I have ever lived. You can walk almost anywhere you need to, and there is a stop on the L train, Chicago's subway system, around a five-minute walk away, which I use to get around when I don't feel like cycling. Most of the houses are beautiful, solid brick buildings, with grand porches, high ceilings, and huge windows. I only rarely use the freeway that runs less than a mile away from my front door, because, unlike most of the residents of Chicago, I do not own a car.

And yet living in Chicago, it is hard not to wonder what the city might be like if it and the other roads that cross the city had never been constructed. The expressways were built in the 1950s and '60s. Some parts replaced factories and warehouses. But they also were built by demolishing lots of homes much like the one I currently live in - the Eisenhower led to 13,000 families being relocated - and now they run like a scar through the city. If you are on foot or on a bicycle, when you cross over or under them you go through whole blocks of what is essentially wasteland - half-used parking lots, derelict buildings, and a lot of awful big-box stores surrounded by acres of tarmac. Just a fifteen-minute walk from some of the most expensive real estate in Chicago, it can feel like an outer suburb. If you travel by car, you will probably miss the colossal waste of space, but if you walk or cycle around, it is impossible to ignore...

This process was something that began fifty years before the freeways, with the plan developed for the city by Daniel Burnham, who first proposed the widening of streets and the creation of highways in 1909. Burnham's plan was meant to be an attempt to re-create a 'beautiful city,' modeled on Paris, with wide boulevards and the like. It was also, however, as the historian Clay McShane writes, explicitly a blueprint for 'providing roads for automobility.' When it was finally implemented, rather than creating a new Paris, it set Chicago on the pathway toward suburbanization that the city has struggled with ever since. Seemingly nobody anticipated that the roads would do this. In 1955 the city's planners were still anticipating that the population would grow to six million, rather than falling from 3.5 million.

The idea of all this road building was, simply put, to make it easier for people to get around. In the 1950s and '60s, car ownership was soaring, not just in America, but all over the rich world. And with it came extraordinary traffic jams. Motorways were meant to be the way to solve it, as part of a general rebuilding of cities. But what Chicago proves, however, is that it does not really work. When you build an enormous road through a neighborhood, it is like putting a tourniquet on a healthy limb. It creates a barrier that people do not want to cross, at least not on foot. Parts get cut off from oxygen and die. Roads - especially big, wide, car-only ones - are barriers, and while they make it easier to get around in a vehicle, they make it harder to get anywhere else. The city spreads out, as everyone gets into cars."

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