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The last time I was in Berlin, Brian Ladd’s Ghosts of Berlin was my invaluable key to the contested city’s palimpsestual history. I’ve reviewed his new book, Autophobia, in this weekend’s New York Times, and I’ll no doubt be referring to it again here. Review here or after the jump.

November 16, 2008
Bumpy Ride
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Love and Hate in the Automotive Age

By Brian Ladd

Illustrated. 227 pp. The University of Chicago Press. $22.50

“We can’t build our way out of congestion.” For years this has been the rallying cry against the continuing accommodation — either in the federal budget or the local landscape — to the exigencies of the car. Typically, it is brandished by mass-transit partisans or stubborn slow-growthers and routinely rejected by the road lobby (pave, baby, pave!), right-tilting think tanks and, if you pose the question at rush hour, at least, the average driver.

The quotation above was recently uttered, however, by a spokesman for a state department of transportation, typically among the most eager layers of asphalt. The state in question? Michigan, home of the American car industry — for which roads are as essential as pastures to ranchers. If this reads like an apostasy, it also looks like part of a larger withering of faith. Detroit is having a cataclysmic year while bus and train riderships exceed capacities, the once unsurpassed American road network is in vast disrepair and in countries from Japan to England, fewer people are undergoing the adolescent ritual of getting a driver’s license. With unpredictable gas prices and soul-­deadening traffic, the car has certainly lost some of its luster, lending credence to the words of an English observer: “From being the plaything of society,” the car “has come to dominate society. It is now our tyrant, so that at last we have turned in revolt against it, and begun to protest against its arrogant ways.”

The only problem with this incipient revolt is that these words actually date to 1911, the shaky toddler years of American motorization. That they could have been uttered in 1973, or perhaps yesterday, is what animates Brian Ladd’s “Autophobia.” People have been predicting the death, or at least severe retrenchment, of the car virtually since its invention. But while the literature may be filled with books like “Dead End,” “Car Trouble” and “Autokind vs. Mankind” — among many others — the roads are filled with ever more traffic. The car, since it began, has seemingly been driven by Beckett: It can’t go on, it goes on.

This raises the question of what, a century on, there is to say about motorization and its discontents that hasn’t been said before. But for Ladd, author of the masterly study “The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape,” the work of “Autophobia” is precisely about looking again at what has been said, by whom and for what reason, and why none of the voluminous critiques of the car — by any number of estimable figures — seem to have much mattered. He does this with equanimity and scholarly aplomb (particularly on the European response to motorization), and for a slender volume, this book has a lot under the hood.

Early on, Ladd notes, the fault lines were clear. A wealthy few had cars, and they drove them ruthlessly, generally haranguing and disrupting the people in their paths. Other automobiles were less a risk than were local farmers’ guns. And in one astonishing case in Germany, a couple was beheaded as they drove upon a wire stretched across a road in protest. There were “two strands of rural complaint,” Ladd writes, “both with a conservative tinge: the poor peasant’s resentment of the highhanded rich motorist, and the outraged good taste of educated people who enjoyed their quiet sojourns in the countryside.”

As the automobile and its charms began tempting the masses, boundaries began to blur. Woodrow Wilson’s famous warning that the car would instill “socialistic feeling” in the United States yielded to the fomentations of Adolf Hitler: “The automobile” must “be stripped of its class-specific and therefore divisive character. It must cease to be a luxury and become a practical device!” Cars, Ladd astutely points out, were politically unsettling: “The automotive metropolis offered liberation from old constraints, yet the car’s defenders were increasingly those who called themselves conservatives. Its critics were the ones demanding both the conservation of natural resources and the defense of the traditional city.”

Throughout the car’s life, Ladd argues, its critics have often “failed to appreciate the depth of the automobile’s hold on ordinary people,” reaching for conspiracies to help explain the ubiquity of car culture when the answers seem far simpler. The car, beyond any symbolic power, is usually the fastest — if far from the healthiest — way to get around. But this itself contains a point that the car’s boosters, Ladd argues, often ignore — a so-called path dependence. Once you started to make room for the car in the landscape — doing things that made the car “an easy, convenient, even necessary, but not always wise choice” — it was hard to turn back.

“Autophobia,” Ladd observes, is “an obscure psychiatric diagnosis of ‘fear of oneself,’ ” rather than a fear of cars, though today there may be no distinction. Cars are a good thing — which is why critics have failed to stem the tide — but we have had no easy way, or much will, to treat the problems of having too much of a good thing (which continues to give critics grist). “The democratization of driving has meant that we can all aspire to be petty tyrants of the road,” Ladd writes. “In the end, the driver’s sense of sovereign mastery and the bystander’s perception of inhuman arrogance are two sides of the same coin.” Like the preacher in “The Night of the Hunter,” we may have the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on our hands, but those hands seem firmly on the steering wheel.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us).”

This entry was posted on Saturday, November 15th, 2008 at 2:21 pm and is filed under Cars, Etc.. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



November 2008

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