Resource Centre - For Love of the Automobile
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
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
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
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
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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