- Car Country: An Environmental History by Christopher W. Wells
Christopher Wells’s environmental history of the American adoption of the automobile was more than a decade in the making, and its notes and bibliography fill 115 pages. Deftly written and well-illustrated, Car Country rejects the notions that the automotive landscape emerged either as the byproduct of consumer desire for automobiles or as the result of conspiracies to eviscerate public transit. Each of its four sections covers two decades, starting in 1880, before automobiles, when urban and rural reformers campaigned for better roads (pp. 3–34), driven by the desire to “control nature run amok,” in the form of dirt, disease, mud, and inconvenience. Reformers, later joined by cyclists and motorists, began the physical transformation into what would become “car country” and promulgated assumptions about land use and the centralization of taxation and administration that eroded local control of city streets and highways. Part 2 (pp. 37–104) examines “the dawn of the motor age,” including the redesign of European automobiles for rough American roads, the emergence of mass production, and the Model T. It then traces how moralistic highway reformers were replaced by “engineers and administrators guided by faith in the power of science and efficiency” (p. 103). They had to balance the competing interests of farmers, who wanted short routes focused on markets, and tourists, who wanted long-distance recreational roads. In cities, property owners were increasingly marginalized by the competing interests of street traction companies, pedestrians, and motorists.
Part 3 (pp. 125–227) explains how car country emerged between 1919 and 1941. “Motor Age Geography” focuses on how new transportation policies and land-use practices reshaped both roads and institutions, centralizing rural America (for example, school consolidation and concentrating markets) while decentralizing urban areas. The landscapes that emerged demanded car ownership for citizens to function effectively. “Fueling the Boom” turns to oil wells, refineries, pipelines, and service stations and emphasizes how gasoline taxes became a permanent source of funds for road-building. “The Paths out of Town” examines how mass production increased demand for iron ore, lumber, rubber, and other raw materials. As cars became ubiquitous, Americans built one mile of road for each square mile of land. Highways meant soil erosion and fractured natural habitats, but planners focused on “constructing a car-friendly nature,” redefined as scenery, notably in parkways, many constructed by the National Park Service. Such recreational roads were not designed for speed, but for an automotive “escape into the wild.” The final section (pp. 253–88) examines the period 1940–60 when government subsidies for suburban [End Page 987] housing and interstate highways naturalized a new iteration of suburbia organized around the automobile.
Car Country marshals a wealth of information, and I learned from it. Yet, some topics are examined in perhaps excessive detail, raising the question of how broad an environmental history ought to be. Wells deals with automobiles and trucks, but not tractors or the industrialization of agriculture. Nor is the Amish rejection of internal combustion vehicles included. The book is exhaustive on the evolution of road building, but has only a paragraph on the slaughter of animals trying to cross the roads. It has a detailed section on the designs of early American automobiles, but air pollution receives only scattered treatment. It emphasizes builders, planners, and officials, but ignores world’s fairs, notably New York’s 1939 “world of tomorrow” featuring GM’s Futurama and Ford’s “road of tomorrow.” If these things belong in this environmental history, however, perhaps I ask too much in wanting to include advertising and public relations or representations of the automotive landscape in photography and painting. Car Country assesses Robert Moses but not Robert Frank, Jane Jacobs but not Jack Kerouac. John Steinbeck only makes it into a footnote. Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas would have been useful, but coverage of vernacular roadside architecture is brief (pp. 164–70), and Wells focuses on those, such as James Agee, who disliked it. Yet if Car Country is not...