Car Troubles: Critical Studies of Automobility and Auto-Mobility

Edited by Jim Conley and Arlene Tigar McLaren
Ashgate Publishing, 2009, 258 pages, ISBN 9780754677727

Car Troubles is a collection of 13 academic essays, all but two written by professors at universities in Canada, UK, USA and New Zealand. The editors make a distinction between the system that supports car travel (vehicles, roads, gas suppliers) and the personal experience of car travel (freedom, frustration, thrill, rage). They signal this distinction with a hyphen: “automobility” for the system and “auto-mobility” for the personal experience.

The essays in Part 1 analyse the content of automobile advertisements, present a cultural analysis of transportation infrastructure, and describe the drag racing community in Vancouver, Canada during the mid-20th century. The essays in Part 2 discuss the changing discourse around auto-safety, argue for the integration of technology and social behaviour for improving car safety, and present how parents in Auckland, New Zealand think and talk about a walking school bus for their children. Part 3 includes a case study of the political and social discourse around hypermobility in Atlanta, USA an examination of the political and economic context of mobility in Chile, and a discussion of the pragmatic conditions and constraints that make driving seem compulsory. While the entire book is critical of cars and car usage, the essays in Part 4, titled “Beyond the Car”, may appeal most to the carfree minded.

Todd Litman, the head of Victoria Transport Policy Institute, writes about cars as “positional goods,” items that confer social status on their owners. He uses this framework to discuss the many downsides to car-centred transportation systems and policies in North America. He offers a list of six policy strategies to reverse these negatives, yet devotes only a sentence or two to each idea. I wish he had expanded on these. How can we raise the prestige value of walking and bicycling and public transit? How could we devalue the status of car ownership? He suggests these can be done, in part, through promotion and marketing, but what would that look like?

Sociologist George Martin compares patterns of motorisation in North America and Western Europe with those in Asia and Eastern Europe where car ownership is surging. He says there is a chance that cities in less developed countries may evolve into what he calls “soft motorisation”: cities built around multi-modal transportation where cars are smaller, powered by alternative fuels and often shared. I hope he’s right.

The book closes with a thoughtful discussion by sociologists Kingsley Dennis and John Urry about how the current car system will likely, but unpredictably, change during the 21st century such that “the steel and petroleum car system will finally be seen as a dinosaur”. Some combination of technological and sustainability turning points will usher in a post-car system, they say, though it’s impossible to say when or how this will take place. This article is more optimistic about the future than their co-authored book After the Car (reviewed in Carbusters #39).

The practice of building landscapes and lives around automobiles is thoroughly and repeatedly critiqued throughout Car Troubles. In much shorter supply are ways forward: how could we make changes in how we think, how we live, how we get around? While the book is slow reading, with academic language and many in-text citations, it does offer multiple frameworks for thinking about cars and the problems of car-centredness. It’ll be up to you to find ways to use this information to move forward and make a change.

By Kelly Nelson

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