It’s a book, it’s a manifesto: ‘Why We Drive’

Here’s a book that might be worth checking out when it’s available. If nothing else, the author’s suggestions for living less auto-dependent lives could be worth considering. Few can give up cars completely, but biking or walking when we can – and it sometimes takes ideas from someone else to realize how much that’s possible – can be good for us, the environment, our budgets and traffic.

 

It’s a book, it’s a manifesto: ‘Why We Drive’

By Frederick Melo, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL (AP) — St. Paul cartoonist and bicycling advocate Andy Singer takes a look at “Why We Drive” in his new coffee-table book romp through the history of a car-centric culture.

Roughly half of “Why We Drive’s” 160 pages are illustrations, including prints of old postcards, street maps from around the country and historical images, as well as Singer’s signature drawings. Vaguely reminiscent of “The Far Side” sketches of Gary Larson or Nick Park’s “Wallace and Gromit,” his cartoons typically feature puffy people in unhappy situations, a commentary on the supposed ease of car ownership.

Singer contends it’s not the general enthusiasm of drivers, but city planning, state and federal tax policies and longstanding political alliances between industry and government that have contributed to the ascendancy of the automobile in America, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.

Andy Singer on his preferred mode of travel: a bicycle. Photo courtesy of Andy Singer

Singer, who at times veers from historical essay into something approaching manifesto, contrasts sprawling, porchless suburbs with denser communities that were laid out before cars entered mass production, such as St. Paul’s popular Merriam Park and Cathedral Hill neighborhoods. He contends that walkable areas, including the cobblestone streets of downtown Boston’s car-free commercial district, tend to be among the most popular places in the country to live or visit.

“These buildings and much of the neighborhood were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s along an electric streetcar line,” Singer writes of his hometown. “Buildings were designed to be taller and closer together, so that everyone in the neighborhood would be within easy walking distance of the streetcar line.”

More than a little corruption went into killing the streetcar, Singer contends. The Twin Cities metro was once home to some 530 miles of track and more than 700 passenger trolleys or streetcars. Taken in St. Paul in 1954, the cover photo of “Why We Drive” depicts Fred Ossanna, an attorney who ran Twin Cities Rapid Transit, a passenger train company, receiving a check while standing in front of a burning trolley. Through a partnership with General Motors, Ossanna ripped up tracks and oversaw the dismantling of much of his company’s train car system, which was converted to GM buses.

At the behest of automakers, similar rail-to-bus conversions took place throughout the country. Six years later, Ossanna was convicted of fraud, conspiracy and embezzlement.

Singer appears to be no fan of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which he contends controls more than $1 billion of state and federal funding without sufficient oversight. He’s also critical of policies that funnel gas taxes in many states toward highway construction instead of public transit. He closes with a series of suggestions for bicycle enthusiasts and others who wish to live a mostly car-free lifestyle, as well as a directory of 22 transit advocacy groups throughout North America.

“In 47 years, I’ve never owned a car, and I’ve lived in a lot of places,” writes Singer. “It just requires some planning when deciding where to live and where to work.”

“Why We Drive” is slated for publication this month from Microcosm Publishing of Portland, Ore.

This is Singer’s fourth book from small, independent publishers, if you include his cartoon compilations.

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