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Book Reviews: Jeff Mapes, Tom Vanderbilt, Antero Pietila

Today’s guest post is by Scott Adams, a voracious reader, a great cook, and a fellow Clemson alumnus. His blog (and Erin’s. Hi!) is pretty badass.

Here are my thoughts on a handful of books I’ve read in the last several months, ranging from driving/bicycling to rowhouse types to redlining/demographic change.


Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

by Tom Vanderbilt

This book takes in interesting look at a seemingly mundane task: driving and traffic. Anyone who’s out on the roads should read this, as it’s got a lot of great food for thought.

Page 81 has a particularly resonating quote about the real danger of cell phones, DVD players and numerous other in-car distractions, “… keeping one’s eyes on the road is not necessarily the same thing as keeping one’s mind on the road.”

In another section, the author summarizes the theories of Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic engineer who advocated a much more nuanced approach to traffic and pedestrian safety. Monderman noted there is a “traffic world” (highway, impersonal, standardized, meant only for cars, speed, efficiency, homogeneity) and a “social world” (village-like, the car is a guest, not sole inhabitant, street has other uses besides conveying people from one place to another, behavior governed by local customs/interpersonal contact, more than abstract rules). These are valuable concepts for both urban planners/traffic engineers and everyday drivers – drive fast on the highway, not in a neighborhood or town center.

Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities

by Jeff Mapes

This book provides a great overview of the evolution of bicycle transportation and culture. Its focus is America, but The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany also feature prominently for their development of bicycle transportation.

Chatham Village: Pittsburgh’s Garden City

by Angelique Bamberg

I visited Pittsburgh last summer and had the chance to walk around this community. The slate roofs, brick homes and mini-parks all look pretty sharp even after 70 years. A section from pg. 64 notes:

“The project concept thus changed from that of a long-term housing solution for low-income families to a short-term solution for the middle-class. Modern row houses, available at moderate rents, were to provide a middle-class alternative to high-rent apartments in run-down slums for those unable to take out a mortgage.”

Given today’s housing market, it’s a good model for future housing: quality rental housing for the middle-class.  A mortgage is okay if you can, or want to afford one, but why not free up your money for other things?

The Baltimore Rowhouse

by Charles Belfoure, Mary Ellen Hayward

Daylight rowhouses, built from the 1910s to the 1940s, offer an ideal housing type for achieving density, walkability and transit access. They also provide individual residents with small, manageable front and backyards while allowing natural daylight into every part of the house (only two rooms deep, at 20′ wide x 40′ deep).

You’ll learn about every type of rowhouse built in the city from from the 1800′s to modern-day, plus get some insight on how the park system was created (hint: streetcar lines paid a tax that supported land-acquisition).

Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American city

by Antero Pietila

This book is essential reading for understanding urban America’s past and its present. The author spares no one in highlighting the many nuanced and overt instances of bigotry playing out between the Baltimore’s racial, religious and economic groups. One fascinating example is how German-descended Jews often barred Eastern European/Russian-descended Jews from real estate and social club interactions. For example, the Suburban Country Club was a German Jewish club that would not allow any Eastern European Jews, hence the Woodholme Country Club was established.

Overall, Baltimore was a big, proud ship in 1950, with almost 1 million people, but has taken hits from torpedoes known as riots, de-industrialization, job loss, and other issues to slowly sink to 620,000 people.  Let’s hope the torpedoes stop, the holes get plugged and the ship stabilizes.