The road more traveled

"Autophobia" is one of those concepts that carries a useful double meaning. As Brian Ladd defines it early in this brisk analysis of cars and car culture, it's "an obscure psychiatric diagnosis of 'fear of oneself.' " But, if bent just a little, it can also mean fear of the most successful machine of the modern age.

Ladd quickly points out that "[f]ear, or hatred of automobiles" is "quite a different thing" from fear of oneself, but he doesn't hesitate to press home his main claim: "Yet the automobile has become such a central tool (and toy) of modern life that it might make sense to claim that fear of cars is tantamount to fear of being human in the automobile age."

Cars have been with us now for more than a century, and they've evoked a wide range of contradictory reactions. Some critics saw them in their infancy as infernal contraptions rattling along roads formerly reserved for horses. Supporters invested them with the romance of freedom and the thrill of speed. On both sides, cars have rarely failed to evoke an emotional response, and it's this uneasy affection and reluctant disgust that Ladd takes as his subject. His method is academic, but his approach is balanced and accessible: He wants his readers to understand exactly why highway engineering matters, or to revel in considering what novelists and poets have thought about automobiles over the decades.

Luckily, there's no shortage of opinion on cars. Everyone -- French postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard, late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, high priestess of urban planning Jane Jacobs -- has had something to say about them. You can turn the pages and watch the learning pile up, like a multi-vehicle collision on the brainiac expressway at rush hour. Even Hitler was an auto enthusiast, albeit one who used automobiles to further his anti-Semitic agenda (he maintained a toxic belief that they were the playthings of rich Jews).

As Ladd guides us through a century's worth of ideas and attitudes about cars, he spins a tale of endless conflict. The upshot is that we've never been sure of how we feel about "going mobile," as the Who's Pete Townshend put it in a 1971 song about finding a "home on wheels." Nearly limitless personal mobility has enabled human beings to free themselves from the dull routines of rural communities -- but also undermined the reassuring virtues of togetherness. It has connected cities along vast highways and autobahns but also threatened the compact neighborhoods that make big cities livable.

In fact, the city-country tension is at the heart of humanity's fraught embrace of the car. The metropolitan sensibility has, for the most part, looked askance at the automobile: "A skeptical take on the automobile, the paramount symbol of mass consumption, became the token of a dissenting intellectual elite that would . . . become increasingly associated with that supposedly out-of-touch bastion of car-free America, the island of Manhattan." After World War II, U.S. cities, which had previously developed according to the needs of streetcars and shoe leather, were modified to be fully automotive. New York, Boston and Chicago were the great prewar metropolises; after the 1950s, Los Angeles defined how highly mobile Americans wanted to live. Cars now determined the layout of cities, and in the hands of planners like New York's Robert Moses, threatened their pre-automotive character.

But rural residents were also troubled by the arrival of mass mobility. Of course, cars meant liberation for people who lived in remote locations. They were free to drive off the farm -- especially after Henry Ford introduced the affordable Model T -- but they trembled at the thought of the cities' impoverished bandits invading their idylls. In America and Europe, enemies of the automobile saw mass mobility as an assault on nature, and their arguments presaged the environmentalist Greens who would later blame cars for blighting the countryside and accelerating global warming.

Despite all that, cars are still with us, and probably will be for many years to come. Ladd responsibly concludes that the automobile must offer something attractive to have stuck around this long and prospered as the defining invention of the Machine Age. "Neither the flickering of memory nor lamentation for a lost world accounts for the way most people greeted the automobile. Hundreds of millions have chosen to obsess over, sacrifice for, and spend a good deal of time in their cars," he writes. "A good portion of common sense and decency advises us simply to respect their choices. . . . The abhorrence of cars is inseparable from their appeal."

In the end, Ladd throws up his hands and concedes that cars have dispensed as many delights as horrors. And he expects the debate over the automobile's role in society to continue, into the brave new era of "sustainable mobility," electric vehicles, alternative fuels and intelligent superhighways. "It makes sense if we believe that our increasingly car-centered lives are indeed the lives we want. It makes sense if we can agree that the dark side of automobility is a price worth paying for its blessings. But we have never agreed about these matters, and we never will."

DeBord is a writer in Los Angeles.