Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age | Brian Ladd | University of Chicago Press | 236 pages | $15.00 (Softcover)

It's an experience not at all unfamiliar to many of us: the flush of a first meeting, a growing attraction, a desire to spend every waking moment together, to visit new places and explore a world previously unknown, to create new memories together. In this blissful period of initial attraction, when the bloom is still on the rose, there are no shortcomings; everything is perfect. Enamourment drives us to passionate defenses and the abrupt dismissal of those who would impugn the virtue of the object of our affections.

And then things change.

A broken promise. Mismatched expectations. Financial concerns. External stressors start to weigh heavily on interactions. Suddenly those long, romantic drives feel never-ending and leave you with more aches and pains than they seem worth. Bickering and stubbornness prevail. And the romance fades.

Autophobia* by Brian Ladd documents one such love affair, trying to pinpoint just where it is our unbridled passion for the auto industry went awry. It traces the misgivings of those in the fast lane to well before the rise of the horseless carriage when speedy wealthy citizens presented a threat to the poorer foot traveling populace. It seems that the concerns then were not so different from the concerns now: how to control the hulking menace created by speed, increase safety, and preserve the natural wonder of the landscape which must inevitably be altered to permit speedy travel.

I learned to drive in a little grey four door 1990 Mazda. It had been used—I mean really used—when my parents bought it, and by the time I got behind the wheel, it had to be nearing 100 on the speedometer. Perhaps fearing for my safety, my parents soon traded it in for a brand new champagne colored Kia Sephia. Kia was still new to the American market and no one I knew had heard of them, but I didn't care. (Don't laugh. One of my friends had a Ford Probe—a Probe. Can you even begin to imagine the jokes that surrounded that car?) That Sephia was my ticket to freedom. I imagined myself coolly cruising down the expressway, pulling into a parking space at school, smoothly sliding from behind the wheel, slamming the door and hitting the alarm as I walked into the building. It didn't quite work that way. For one, it didn't have a remote alarm, so there went that idea. But my driving dreams were also almost immediately curtailed: After much, much begging and pleading and proving myself to be a responsible driver by running endless Saturday morning errands for my dad (while he puttered around the house relishing the freedom of not having to go to the bank or the grocery store or the post office), I finally got the keys to the car with clearance to take it to school—and in that first week, on a local road, a much older man in a brown Lexus ran a light and nailed me. Well, he clipped the rear driver side pretty badly. And the ensuing scene involving insurance, the school, and my parents (!) was not pretty. I briefly entertained a life as a gypsy. Furious did not begin to describe my mother's reaction. In hindsight, it's somewhat miraculous she let me live so I could share this story with you.

That Sephia took the brunt of my parallel parking learning experiences, and while I remember it fondly today, I can't say I was sorry to see it go. My driving experience (or lack thereof) aside, I don't think either one of my parents took an easy breath when I was behind the wheel of that car. I had a feeling it had something of a curse on it—not at all like the used Grand Cherokee that replaced it, which I loved and still miss to this day. (The Cherokee also had a name—Kee—which might have made a difference in terms of how it treated me.)

Many car-owning Americans can probably tell a similar story. Well, not one where they get into an accident after getting the keys (though I'm sure those stories aren't at all too uncommon either), but one where the ideas of freedom and mobility are tied to dreams of car ownership. Behind the wheel of a car, the paved world beckons. We are the master of our destinies, limited only by our sense of direction and the amount of gas in the tank. But the relationship soon sours when we find ourselves sitting in traffic or facing rising fuel costs or car repair costs. Then the appeal is minimized and the voices that denounce cars as the bain of civilization grow louder:

"They make us fat and lazy, unfeeling and selfish, prisoners in our steel cages. They poison the air and change the climate. Their voracious appetite for natural resources yokes us to the whims of distant dictators with oil wells" (2).
I could go on (and Ladd does), but well, you get the idea. Autophobia is actually the fear of oneself. But cars and lifestyles have become so intertwined, so definitive of each other, that Ladd feels justified in extending this definition to the relationship we have with them. "Fear of cars," he says, "is tantamount to fear of being human in the automotive age" (11).

What is there to be afraid of? Concerns represent the thematic divisions within the book: health and safety issues, indebtedness to foreign entities, volatile gas prices, social isolation, and the sterilization of the natural landscape. Ladd explores these issues thoroughly. It is clear that they cannot be considered independently; they are bound by the importance we have assigned to mobility. The undercurrent of Autophobia asks readers to consider the ways this importance has taken on cultural significance—to ask why car ownership represents a social milestone. While statistics are neatly woven into the discussion, the more compelling analysis lies in the psychological and behavioral shifts that have developed as we have pursued a more mobile lifestyle.

Car ownership encourages us to think about the spaces we occupy and have access to differently:

Once you choose to buy a car, for example, you have a reason to live in a place where it is easy and cheap to park that car—even if you end up with no other way to get to work. You might start shopping at stores that were previously inaccessible. And as others make the same decisions, as our suburban home, office park, and shopping mall become organized entirely around automotive access, it becomes difficult, costly, and unappealing to reorganize our life (and your neighbors') to eliminate or even reduce your driving" (9).

And just as suddenly nothing is far—or left to discover. With every place within our reach, we find ourselves desperately seeking the solitude of the natural world even as we refuse to relinquish the isolation we find within our vehicles.

Cars were once toys of the wealthy—and to a large degree, they still are. Looking beyond the showrooms of collectors and enthusiasts, owning a car requires collateral. For many people, even a used car is a considerable expense, and yet after WWII Americans owned 6% of all the cars in the world. Cars are a badge of prosperity and power. Ladd draws attention to the marketing language used to sell motor vehicles: cars are powerful machines, beasts with roaring engines, they devour the road and refine aggression. For example, Acura's recent marketing campaign links athletes with automobiles, suggesting that performance can be harnessed (video below).

For people in the developing world, cars represent freedom but they also mean access to jobs (even while they provide employment for the enterprising driver), as well as access to education and health care. Cars make available possibilities that were previously unthinkable. So it is not surprising then that those without access will likely be the least supportive of restrictions on the automotive industry that might prevent them from gaining access or increase the price of access before they've had a chance to experience the open road. While much of Autophobia focuses on the nature of arguments against cars, Ladd astutely highlights the ways people who are still reaching for car ownership may feel differently:

"But those who are left on the outside are, understandably, less likely to demand that cars be taken away from the privileged than they are to want their own vehicles. And they may oppose restrictions on car use, knowing that these are likely to fall disproportionately on poorer and weaker motorists. Not only do the poor want to live like the rich, they must also negotiate cities built to accommodate the preferences of the rich—for example, with new freeways instead of sidewalks or transit systems. Prosperous Westerners who are tired of their cars often fail to understad how important personal mobility is for residents of poor countries, and how crucial the automobile is for that mobility" (178).

The psychology of car ownership seems an important consideration as we create regulations to reduce carbon emissions, manage petroleum dependencies, and encourage mass transit use. Ladd rightly notes that the perception by many is that mass transit is not a substitute for a personal vehicle, which is certainly a luxury but one that we continue to set our sights on. He highlights many of the concerns with public transportation including harassment—which I can testify is still an issue today—cleanliness, timeliness, and safety. These concerns echo through the ages with staunch reminders that the golden age of trolleys and streetcars were ripe with these issues and perhaps not so golden after all. That is not to say that public transportation is not a transportation solution but that these factors contribute to a particular perception of car ownership.

Autophobia is not brand spanking new off the printing press, but an interesting read in light of increased pedestrian traffic in urban spaces and the call for more green spaces. Mayor Bloomberg's reclaiming of Broadway as a public pedestrian space for the City met with mixed reviews that seem pretty typical of these sorts of clashes. This suggests that the arguments for and against transportation and its uses are at once old and new in the sense that traffic and urban planners are constantly trying to play catch-up. The systems in place are always a step or two behind the unbridled growth of usage.

Ladd defines a car as a metal or rigid box powered by petroleum and mounted on four wheels that is capable of carrying multiple passengers at once over great distances in shorter times, and is limited only by objects in its path. It seems so simple a thing, really. How could it have gotten so out of hand? I don't quite have the answer, but I think perhaps this evening I'll roll down the windows, turn the radio up, and take the long way home.

*NB: This book was provided by the publisher free of charge. Bloggers sometimes receive and request review books with the understanding that they are not required to provide a review—and any resulting review does not have to be favorable.