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Americans and Their Cars

After 100 years of blacktopping and traffic jams, it's time to end the love affair

Don't ask me to honk my Humvee for this year's 100th anniversary celebration of the automobile. I'll pass up the parades, the auto shows, the gala dinners promoted by the car manufacturers. To tell the truth, I'm baffled by the cheery messages chirped by anniversary publications and the upbeat public television series sponsored by the automaker's American Automobile Centennial Commission.

Could there be a worse time for Americans, manufacturers, and motorists alike to glorify the motor vehicle? In 1896, the Duryea Motor Wagon Company launched the industry, producing 13 proto-automobiles. Today, carmakers are churning out a vehicle that can't show a major improvement since before Harry Truman launched its 50th birthday in 1946. The rest of us, meanwhile, are embedded in the asphalt nation it created.

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Assaulted by the $20,000 average sticker shock of a new car, "freedom of the road" has taken on a new irony. Never have Americans suffered more from the kingdom of the car, nor been more in servitude to it. Buying approximately 1 million motor vehicles a month, we have doubled traffic on the nation's roads in the last two decades. Today, the two or three cars owned by half of all American families gridlock our lives and landscape.

The impact of congestion, however, has gone far beyond the commute that made rush hour the opposite of its name. Getting to work is now a small portion of the time we are stuck behind the wheel. We use a scant 22 percent of our vehicle miles to take us to the office. Similarly, vacation travel, the other reason we give for owning this pricey vehicle, devours a scant 8 percent of our journeys.

In fact, two-thirds of the miles we drive go to chauffeuring and consuming by car. This is the romance of shop 'n drop. And, still, the automakers applaud our "love affair" with the car.

We use 2,000-plus pounds of steel to do our errands and pollute our environment because we have no other way to travel in our car-bound nation - not by foot or bicycle through menacing traffic; not in mass transit decimated by funds given to automobile demands. Our local and national governments underwrite single-family mortgages in the fringes and support the roads to take us there, undermining the walkable city or town that releases us from the automobile.

What are the true costs of these policies and practices? First, there is our personal outlay, some $6,000 a year to keep the motor vehicle up and running, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Then, there is the indirect sum of $3,000 to $4,000 or more to pay for less visible exactions: parking facilities, environmental damage, uncompensated accidents, land opportunities lost by hardtopping some 40 percent of our cities, to say nothing of green fields.

And, yet, for all the $93 billion spent per year in federal, state, and local funds, the nation's highway infrastructure is frayed and faltering, demanding repaving at an average $30 million a mile. New roads grow ever pricier. Los Angeles' Century Freeway came in at $2.2 billion, the current Central Artery project in Boston at an estimated $10 billion. Some free ride.

And the roads just keep on coming. There aren't two weeks that go by when I don't get a call from activists. Some are staving off a widening camouflaged as a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane, such as the proposal that will gnaw the landscape of Westchester, N.Y. Others battle bypasses, such as one around Traverse City, Mich., that will erode village life. The classic struggle against the freeway threatening historic South Pasadena, Calif., has endured since Gov. Earl Warren's day.

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Yet, perhaps I should be cheering - cheering that we have physically, emotionally, and geographically reached gridlock; cheering that a new constituency of activists is trying to release us from the immobility of a car-dependent world. Public transportation, though on the downsizers' hit list, wins new fans. Even in the midst of budget-whacking, the romance with rail and the recognition of Amtrak's essentiality gain grassroots advocates.

Greenways and trails for bikes and walking have proliferated. "Traffic calming," curbing the car by narrowing and greening urban and suburban streets, is spreading. Meanwhile, planners promote shifting land-use patterns to promote the density and enriched urban cores that make walking and transit viable.

Surprisingly, too, not everyone deplored raising gas taxes. In the recent skirmish at the pump, some motorists shrugged or nodded. Transportation economists compared rates here with Europe's $5 a gallon, which supports a more-balanced system.

It isn't easy to effect, or even perceive, the revolution needed to reverse auto-dependency. But it is not impossible by any means. The signs are there. And if the spurious celebration for the wonder days of driving does nothing else, it could encourage a recognition of the true state of our late motor age. At the least, it should encourage some harassed skeptics to honk their horns for footpower, not horsepower; for a balanced, human mobility, not motorized immobility.

*Jane Holtz Kay is an architecture critic and author of "Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back," to be published by Crown.

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