Resource Centre - For Love of the Automobile

Book Review

by Charles Komanoff - from Vol. 3, Issue 2 of Kokopelli Notes, a journal dedicated to self-propelled transportation. It was published in 1993.  Charles Komanoff is active with the New York pedestrian rights group Right of Way.

More than ninety years ago, the people of Graubunden, Switzerland, grew alarmed that automobiles were turning their narrow streets into a "playground for cars," endangering people and horses alike. In response, the local council declared on August 8, 1900: "The driving of automobiles on all streets of the canton of Graubunden is prohibited."

As Wolfgang Sachs recounts in For Love of the Automobile, "The prohibition set the fuse for a conflict that was to flare up repeatedly. It was a conflict featuring a flood of pamphlets and polemics, and no less than 10 referenda," in nine of which Graubunden reaffirmed its ban on cars.  Only after the central government in Bern intervened and ordered streets opened to through traffic, did a scant majority, in 1925, decide to concede the right of way to the auto.

Was the 25-year prohibition on cars in Graubunden merely a footnote to this century of motorization?  Or was it a harbinger of measures now under way in European cities such as Amsterdam - and perhaps in the wings in North America - to reinvigorate town centres by removing cars? While Sachs forcefully advocates the latter, you need not agree to enjoy and benefit from his masterly book.

For Love of the Automobile was published in Germany in 1984, but was only translated into English last year. The book's subtitle, Looking Back into the History of Our Desires, signals its intent: to dissect society's cultural adaptation to the automobile. Set in Germany, the book has powerful resonances for any car-dependant country. Indeed, readers may find it refreshing to explore the hegemony of the automobile - and its possible decline - in a society other than America's.

Sachs' premise is that, "The automobile is much more than a mere means of transportation; rather, it is imbued with feelings and desires that raise it to the level of a cultural symbol." A truism, to be sure, but one that Sachs plumbs relentlessly.  What would it mean to marry the power of the railway (and its freedom from the exhaustible nature of the horse) with the individual mobility of the carriage? Nothing less than that automobiles would come "to crystallize life plans and world images, needs and hopes." Or, as German Auto-Times rhapsodized in a 1906 issue (one of many historical documents that Sachs weaves into his narrative), through the car, "Humanity will conquer time and space."

Of course, this "alluring mastery over time and space had to be achieved over the wrath of the people," as Sachs notes in describing obstacles faced by the early auto enthusiasts. "The car demands of those without a car that they behave according to the rules of its existence." Thus, a history of the car must also record how it came to dominate the social environment.

In recounting this history, For Love of the Automobile brings to life heroic objectors like Micheal Freiherr von Pidoll of Vienna, whose 1912 manifesto, "Automobilism Today: A Call to Protest," decried the automobile's "constant endangerment, disruption, and mobilization of passersby." Von Pidoll presaged today's auto-free activists in declaring cars "legally and actually incompatible with the rights of non-motorists, the great majority of the population."

The solution to this incompatibility, in Germany as in the United States, was to multiply the population of cars and drivers, until "the power of established fact caused the protest to grow quieter over time and degenerate into grumbling." But it would take decades to muster the industrial base to make millions of autos and to generate consumer purchasing power to purchase them. To pave the way for the car in the interim, auto interests hitched the automobile to the idea of progress, the greatness of the nation, the future itself. In this way, the costs of the car to daily life "could be neglected in favor of the promises of the future."

Sachs reminds us that despite strong currents of resistance to the car, "nowhere was there anything like a systematic weighing of the advantages and disadvantages of this new technology." Rather, as the automobile became "invested with the emotional aura of consumption," for many "the fascination it inspired began to outweigh the irritation. As economies expanded, the grapes no longer hung too high for the spectators." Hitler's dream of a "people's car" (Volkswagen) and of national highways "to meld the German people into a stronger political and economic unit" (autobahns), though postponed by war, took root in the fifties, in time to power the postwar German "economic miracle."

"The mass desire to be free of fixed rails, schedules, and other people," notes Sachs, was "the sentiment that underlay the automotive economy." Once this desire was ascribed to everyone, then democracies had to make it available to all. Yet Sachs sees mass motorization as the car's Achilles heel and, for auto opponents, as grounds for optimism.

First, there is the ineluctable reality of gridlock: "Once a certain traffic density is surpassed, every approaching driver contributes involuntarily to a slowing of traffic; the time that the individual driver steals from all the others by slowing them down is many times greater than the time he or she might have hoped to gain by taking the car... with every additional car each minute is worth less in distance."

Compounding the traffic jam, the auto generates what Sachs calls "mobility-consuming distances." "Rather than saving time, the auto makes it possible to seek out more distant destinations; its powers of speed are cashed in not for less time on the road, but for longer routes." Ever more destinations require a car, until "the automobile has changed from an article of pleasure to an enforced article of utility. The exhilaration is past and daily life resumes."

For Love of the Automobile carries us to a crossroads. There is car culture, struggling to recover yesterday's desires from today's auto-bound obligation, by building ever more roads - equipped, however, "with processing intelligence and supertechnology to halt the squandering of natural resources and time and the fraying of nerves." And there is what Sachs calls "the new freedom," built around slower speeds, the recapturing of one's own place, and, above all, the bicycle.

Toward the end of his volume, Sachs reveals himself as a lover of bicycles, which he celebrates as a basis for "a localized democracy in which all - rich and poor, young and old - can increase their mobility many times over that of a pedestrian without, however, limiting anyone else in their own freedom of movement." He writes, "The bicycle invites one to take possession of the world near-at-hand; it stands for a post-automotive ideal; the transformation of the immediate vicinity into home."

As we banish the cars we usher out the compulsion of speed and make possible the "revitalization of the near" and attention to community life. For Love of the Automobile, a brilliant retrospective on a century of motorization, offers grounds for hope.

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 This page was last updated 31 July 2005