Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brian Ladd's Autophobia -- a cultural and intellectual history of anti-car arguments

Hi folks -- I keep up with the literature whenever I can, and also try to review auto history books if the opportunity affords it. While I can not tip off too much concerning a future review, I did want to alert readers to this book and to suggest that they consider reading it for themselves. As the title suggests, Ladd examines the various arguments that were made against the automobile during the twentieth century. In so doing, it is a loose ideological history interfaced with an urban context, as cities and roadways are secondary and tertiary loci of study.
A few off-the cuff remarks. First, it was somewhat surprising to find both a good bit of well-worn material in this book, but on the other hand there are also many interesting sources and topics that have not been thoroughly studied prior to this work. Strong points include car culture literature and film, particularly with origins from the recent past. Additionally, this author is very comfortable with the European scene and foreign language sources, and thus brings in material from Great Britain, France and Germany in virtually every thematic case study. So Bravo, Mr. Ladd for refusing to focus on just one country as so many scholars have done in the past.
Secondly, even after reading the book, this reader still does not clearly understand why the automobile became ascendant in Western Civilization. Ladd fails to bring in the phenomenon of demographics, and thus his analysis comes up short when discussing the mass transit automobile debate. City populations exploded not only because of the car, as in the case of Phoenix, but also for other reasons not directly related to automobility. Could any mass transit system keep up with the increases in population after WWII, without increasing density to a point of unbearable proportions?
Finally, does the freedom associated with the car mean far more than mere self satisfying convenience and economic self-reliance. Could it possibly be that the rise of democracies around the globe are somehow tied to a modernizing populace that simply cannot be controlled?

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