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Where Would We Be Without Cars?

Autophobia, by Brian Ladd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) is a study of the world in which the automobile has been “bought, driven, parked and crashed.”  Its title is a play on the psychiatric term for “fear of oneself,” —as Mr. Ladd explains, the automobile having become “such a central tool (and toy) of modern life” that fear of cars (which the term might seem to denote) “is tantamount to fear of being human in the automobile age.”

Mr. Ladd’s thesis is that those who propose the automobile has liberated, connected, enriched, employed, thrilled, and excited mankind are equally opposed by those who say it has enslaved, separated, impoverished, killed, crippled, and sickened mankind, and polluted and depleted the earth.  The contestants are so equally matched that “few of us [can] identify wholeheartedly with one side or the other.”  Thus, he says, the collective response to the question, “Where would we be without cars?” is— “There ought to be a better way.”
Mr. Ladd outlines the early history of the automobile’s acceptance in Europe and the United States, and the post-war “car culture” that developed worldwide.  These opening chapters describe both the intensity of the growing “love affair” as well as the increasingly impassioned expressions of anti-auto sentiments—from stone-throwing by rural opponents to civil actions leading to damage awards big enough to establish Ralph Nader as an “institutional presence in Washington providing a counter-weight to the auto lobby’s resistance to safety mandates.”
He details the effect of the automobile on cities, noting particularly urban sprawl and then the opposition to freeways into the city core.  The effect on the debate of the 1970s energy crisis, the 1980s collapsing oil prices, and the environmental movement are outlined.  The effect of the automobile on the history of public transit is studied, as is the nature of what he calls our now almost complete auto dependence.  The fatality statistics that are provided, including: “[Cars] kill the equivalent of a dozen jumbo jet crashes every day and cripple and sicken far more,” and “30 million dead in the twentieth century and 1.2 million more every year since” implicitly question our collective willingness to pay this particular price.
Mr. Ladd’s conclusion, couched in ambivalence: “The abhorrence of cars is inseparable from their appeal” nevertheless invites “vitally necessary” change, but without confidence that it will come.  For now, he says, there is “good reason to conclude that the car has triumphed” and that “its opponents are spitting into the wind.”  The debate, he says, is and may always be stalemated.
This study of our collective conflicted feelings about the impact of the automobile on our lives and on the world is especially timely.  Fundamental changes are in the offing including the rocketing upwards of global car ownership levels, the availability of real alternatives to the gasoline-powered, internal-combustion engine, and the development of intelligent transportation systems connecting vehicles with each other and the roadway infrastructure.  Autophobia motivates consideration of whether or not these will provide the elusive ‘better way.’


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