The Past, Present and Future of Automobiles in America: A Book Review


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Andy Singer doesn’t much care for cars, and he doesn’t want you to either. Why We Drive, distributed by Portland’s Microcosm Publishing, is his pitch for “car-free cities and car-free living.” A cartoonist by trade, Singer uses graphics, historical anecdotes, and troubling facts about the impact of autos to rally a visual assault on America’s car culture. Each page alternates between sardonically concise prose and witty illustrations, making Why We Drive the kind of book that squares well with our Internet soaked era.

whywedrive_copy0_lgFor the more cerebral among us, Singer’s book may not satisfy a need for exhaustive intellectual research. Certainly it is less a sustained analytical essay than it is a series of loosely arranged vignettes strung together by theme, humor, and indignation. The contempt for cars is palpable, even aggressive, but nonetheless entertaining. If pressed for a succinct overview of Why We Drive, I’d say this: it’s a short primer, a parade of rebuttals to pro-auto argumentation, and it struck me as the perfect prep for dinner party debates.

With a drink and some quiet time, you could read the book in a single setting (I read it in two), but I guarantee you’ll keep revisiting the illustrations, which ultimately are the true strength of the book. Simultaneously playful and blunt, they underscore a belief in the comical foolishness of the automobile. Yet although the vices of the auto are explored throughout, ultimately Singer’s book puts politicians and thoughtless capitalists, not cars themselves, on trial. He describes the nation’s highways as a web of corruption spun by political gamesmanship, inane tax and spending structures, and unchecked collusion between corporate interests and politicians. In Singer’s estimation of the problem, state legislatures have put DOTs in the driver’s seat, handed them the keys, and let them ride off into the sunset with our money and our urban future tied up and tossed into the trunk.

If you’re already a well-read advocate of pedestrian environments and alternative transit then Why We Drive might not cover any new ground. What it does do is concisely and candidly tell a story about how we got where we are today.  However, the book is at its best when it goes beyond asking why we drive and questions how we might go about driving less, or even not at all. Speeding through possibilities that range from tactical urbanism to shifts in state and federal transportation policy, Singer makes an appeal for readers to abandon an auto-centric lifestyle. He calls this conscious shift in lifestyle “orthodox environmentalism,” and he compares it to the moral conviction with which the Amish have resisted many modern technologies.

Why We Drive’s thesis that we have a choice is on one hand liberating and on the other intimidating.  It implies that in addition to career politicians and corporate big shots we’re all a little to blame. Luckily though, it also means we’re all a part of the solution too.

Why We Drive is available online via Microcosm Publishing and Amazon. The many cartoons of Andy Singer can be found on his website.


Lucas Lindsey is Co-Editor of This Big City on Tumblr.

Top image via specialoperations