St. Paul-based cartoonist Andy Singer has never owned a car, even though he's lived, over the last 47 years, in places as diverse as New York City, Ithaca, Oakland, Boston, and now the Twin Cities. He's clearly a minority among Americans, but he's made a career out of using art to convince others to rethink their romance with the automobile.
His latest is Why We Drive, a book released late this summer that uses political cartoons and historical photos to make the case. Many of his main arguments are familiar: he's anti-sprawl, pro-public transportation, pro-biking, and against the types of hidden government incentives that make these policies difficult to put in place.
But Singer takes a more visual approach to advocate for sustainable living. He chatted with Cities about his new book and how he's used his work as a cartoonist to make arresting visual arguments in favor of alternative transportation.
How did you become interested in issues of sustainability, transportation, and auto culture?
I had a moment in high school, going to a concert in Nassau County, Long Island. I bought tickets off a scalper, which turned out to be bogus, but the people whom we had driven there with got into the concert. So we spent three hours just trying to amuse ourselves walking around the parking lot [at the Nassau Coliseum]. And it was just this moment of realizing that everywhere you looked there was nothing but concrete and cars. And I think that was the first moment where I realized, wow, there are too many dang cars.
How were you inspired by some of the urban and suburban forms you see around you in St. Paul, where you live now, and other places you’ve made home, including New York and Boston?
I’ve just noticed in different places that I’ve lived that people like to visit old places. When you go to New Orleans, for example, people want to see the French Quarter, the older parts of it. Or when people are in Boston they want to walk the Freedom Trail and see Paul Revere's House and Beacon Hill and the old parts of Boston. There are historical reasons for that because they want to see the history behind something. But I think that people also like those spaces, and they like those spaces in part because they're walkable.
The first cartoon in the book — across from the title page — shows the 'Goldilocks' version of mixed use development. How did you come up with this idea, and how does it map onto how you view the discussions about density and urban development?
Another peeve I have is that there is pretty much a common awareness among people in New Urbanist circles that low-density sprawl, car-oriented sprawl is a bad thing — environmentally, socially, economically, etc. But there's also this non-agreement as far as how much density is too dense.
And there's this idea that we can have hyper-density that is somehow much more environmentally efficient than this low-density sprawl. I think that it could well be more efficient than low-density sprawl, but is it the most efficient level of density?
And you see when there’s a power blackout, in a lot of these hyper-dense cities, a lot of these buildings become uninhabitable because they require electric elevators and water pumps and all sorts of mechanical stuff to make them usable. You're not going to be able to get up to the 25th floor of your building and back down on a regular basis. And they require much more energy-intensive materials to build and to take down than, say, a three or four-story walk-up.
You write that you are "an advocate of car-free cities, car-free city sections and car-free living." How do your drawings try to illustrate how people should think about these possibilities?
I’m trying to encourage people to look at the pre-automotive sections of their own cities as a guide or an envisioning of what their city, or sections of their city, could look like without cars, at what life would be like without cars. I think a lot of times when you see something or you envision something, you understand it more. A lot of people see a freeway, for example, in the Twin Cities, and they think that that freeway has always been here. And maybe for their entire lifetime it's always been there. But they don’t realize that, wow, there used to be townhouses and apartment buildings and homes on that land before that freeway was put in, and people lived in a very different way 100 years ago.
Any last words?
If there’s a takeaway that I want people to have, for lay people or people who are not steeped in all this, it is to appreciate some of the ways that automobiles impact our landscape and impact our lives and our environment and economy.
But I think for people who are more into these issues, I want people to think about the tax structures, the way that in almost every state we have all of our motor vehicle fees and gas taxes being dedicated to highways. This tends to cause states to choose highway solutions to transportation problems, even when another solution using transit or better land use would be more appropriate. There are systemic forces that tend to drive highway building.
This interview has been edited and condensed. All images courtesy of Andy Singer and Micirocosm Publishing.