Book Review: Autophobia, by Brian Ladd (University of Chicago Press, 2009)

We who live in Hamilton know that the traffic-engineering view of the world dies hard. Ladd recognizes this reality. He does not rail against it; nor does he accept it.

By David Cohen
Published March 20, 2009

Scene. A street in Vienna (it is 1913). A strolling couple comes upon a traffic accident. A man is lying motionless on the pavement. He has been run over by a truck. The woman is troubled. A passerby appears and says that trucks then in use "have too long a breaking distance." The woman is relieved. She doesn't know what "breaking distance" means and doesn't want to know. But she is satisfied. This gruesome event she has witnessed has been brought to some kind of order. It's transformed ... into a technical problem that does not affect her directly.

The scene is from The Man Without Qualities, a novel composed between 1930 and 1942 by the Austrian writer Robert Musil. It is reproduced in Autophobia, the splendid new book by Brian Ladd, to illustrate the new experience of "speed and dissociation" introduced by the automobile in the early years of the twentieth century.

We 21st century citizens live in a world where, Ladd tells us, cars kill the equivalent of a dozen jumbo jet crashes a day worldwide and cripple and sicken far more of our fellow citizens. During the 20th Century some 20 million people on this planet lost their lives in car crashes.

And the slaughter goes on. We citizens of the developed buckle up and think twice before driving to the corner store for a carton of milk; a few of us are actually shifting to bikes. But driving has spread to the developing world where the thrill of speed is new and safety regulations are still primitive. New killing fields beckon.

But lest the reader derive the impression that Ladd's book is a polemic against cars, be assured that is nothing of the sort. It is a social history of the car and, as such, presents a balanced view.

It's most important message is perhaps that the debate on cars, pro and con, has been part of the automotive experience almost from Day One. The debate has changed with the times, but it remains unresolved.

The first car owners were relatively affluent, a sort of sporting fraternity that celebrated the car's speed and convenience as it transported them from the confines of the town or city into the countryside.

But almost immediately conflict ensued. In the country, farmers objected to the noise of the "infernal machines" and they became downright hostile when their animals became wheat we now call road kill.

Similarly, conflicts ensued in towns, and soon the now- familiar pro and con opinion groups coalesced.

The character Mr. Toad in Kenneth Grahame's 1908 children story The Wind and the Willows "embodies the heedless, thrill-seeking upper-class motorist," Ladd writes. On the other side was the English philosopher C.E.M. Joad who in 1927 condemned "motoring" as "one of the most contemptible soul-destroying and devitalizing pursuits that the ill-fortune of misguided humanity has ever imposed upon its credulity."

So the debate went. Car enthusiasts quickly claimed the road as theirs. Their opponents sputtered the utter injustice of this.

Soon, as the mass production of the car (and its resulting broader affordability) ensued, congestion became the defining concern of the debate.

Architects, artists, writers and others weighed in. The most important of these were Le Corbusier in France and Frank Lloyd Wright in the U.S. Each in his own way saw the car as the great liberator and proposed longer, broader, car-exclusive roadways, in and out of cities, to deal with the problem of congestion.

Le Corbusier and Wright were probably the most influential architects of their time. Both were avatars of Modernism. They had an important influence.

But it wasn't until after World War II that the car and car-congestion became an "urban issue."

In the 1950's the situation grew critical (there were by then 100 million cars in the U.S. - probably around a tenth of that in Canada). "Traffic" had become a public issue; it was also a professional pursuit. Traffic engineers and traffic planners became the new urban gurus.

At the same time, downtown centres were beginning to deteriorate. Car-equipped consumers took their custom in increasing numbers to new-fangled "shopping centres", which tended to be in the suburbs.

Soon the shoppers themselves started to live in the suburbs.

"Downtown leaders agreed that the key to stopping the decline of city centres was to make them more auto-friendly, using such tools as on-street parking bans, one-way streets, and timed stoplights, providing plentiful and convenient parking, and ultimately by building express highways into the city centre," Ladd writes.

Sound familiar? He could have been writing about the Hammer. Our Main-King one-way system (inaugurated one night in 1956) is our "express highway into the city centre." And then, in 2003, decades after other cities had foresworn expressways forever, we built the Red Hill Expressway (no! "Parkway"), proving that we were undying believers in a 1950s solution to traffic congestion.

But, Ladd writes, a new breed of auto critic arose in the 1940s and '50s. John Keats, Lewis Mumford, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jane Jacobs did not cowtow to the traffic engineers as did (and still do) most civic politicians. In particular they questioned the inevitability - as if divinely ordained - of traffic congestion.

Even in the pre-freeway era, astute observers had noted that traffic was an "induced" phenomenon: build roads and they (cars, trucks) will come. And the opposite was also true: close roads (or lanes) and traffic tended to (surprise!) disappear.

Such insights inspired critics of road-building in the sixties and seventies. Several major projects were killed in the U.S. The rejection of the Spadina Expressway in 1971 the Ontario government was (and is) the best Canadian example.

We who live in Hamilton know that the traffic-engineering view of the world dies hard. In spite of studies, visions, charettes, plans, traffic flow still flows.

Ladd recognizes this reality. He does not rail against it; nor does he accept it. Instead he describes it as fully as possible. Ladd, whose previous book was a historical look at the urban landscape of Berlin, knows as much about the history of cars in Europe as he does about it in North America. His book is thus enriched by a multiplicity of perspectives.

This is a great book. Read it!

David Cohen is a freelance writer and a part-time teacher. He has worked as a journalist and a communications officer (promoting workplace health and safety). He served on the Dundas Town Council from 1991 to 1994.


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By Kaz (anonymous) | Posted March 20, 2009 at 11:23:54

David Cohen? Blah Blah Blah...I liked him better as Borat.

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted March 21, 2009 at 16:09:39

Sounds like a great book, and I'd love to read it. One of my better undergraduate papers dealt with the Nazi regime's fascination with the automobile (basically, I asserted that this obsession fit in rather well with the regime's avowed goal of obliterating time and space to further the "thousand-year reich"). Even I could not resist quoting Mr. Toad, for whom the automobile was "The real way to travel!. . . .Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped — always somebody else's horizon!" American sociologist Bessie Averne McClenahan wrote an fascinating 1929 article on the subject. "[T]he automobile," she writes, "has cut down spatial distance and tended to increase social nearness to such an extent that every person may live in wide-flung communalities of his own [making], in place of the old closely circumscribed neighborhoods."

Thanks for the review, David. I'll be sure to check the book out if I get a chance. I'm wondering, though, if his stance vis a vis the automobile can really be as neutral as you suggest, whether his writing style is polemical or not. Mind you, I'd be interested in reading the book in either case. It's truly awe-inspiring how ideological the decision was to transform urban and rural landscapes into criss-crossing, concrete expanses carrying high speed projectiles of iron and steel - determined, moreover, by individual preference. It's an amazing (and for me, disturbing) spectacle, whatever one's take on it.

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By brodiec (registered) | Posted March 26, 2009 at 02:36:15

I was hoping to self-diagnose myself with Autophobia. Sadly the book seems like a succinct historical look at the car and the city. Blasts!

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By stoppit (anonymous) | Posted March 27, 2009 at 20:28:29

My car has nearly 150,000 kliks on the needle, like me, drawing closer to its breaking distance with each outing. No problem stopping however, because the brakes ain't broke, unlike me.

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