- Motoring: The Highway Experience in America
This is John Jakle and Keith Sculle’s latest contribution to a series of books on roadside architecture that explore the design, history, and social influence of familiar structures from gas stations to parking lots. Published in association with the Center for American Places, Motoring promotes the Center’s goal of providing the public with an “intellectual and emotional foundation for comprehending—and caring for—the places where we live, work, and commune.” Telling the story of one of the most pervasive experiences in America, it contributes to a wider conversation about the collective decisions that built and maintained an ever-expanding system of highways and a national reliance on the automobile.
Jakle and Sculle define motoring as a concept through which “drivers, machines, and highways became integrally linked” with a set of distinctive places (p. 1). Examining how motoring transformed American geography in the twentieth century, they focus not only on politicians, automakers, and planners but also the “role of the common motorist” and how the “delights of visual landscape encounter grounded America’s infatuation with a motorized transport system” (p. 5).Why did Americans become so invested in motoring? Why did vested interests win over critics of highway development? Jakle and Sculle argue that motoring, through an intoxicating mix of speed and convenience, reconfigured the American landscape and daily life; “highway as open road became a kind of cultural imperative” that gave all Americans a sense of empowerment that outweighed the negatives of higher taxes for highway construction, the frustrations of traffic jams, and the detrimental effects of sprawl (p. 6).
Early chapters summarize the introduction of the automobile, the evolution of the modern Good Roads movement, and the creation of the highway system. There is a solid historical overview of auto ownership, road engineering and building, and federal funding for what would become a national network of interstates and freeways by the 1960s. Jakle and Sculle provide detailed discussions of the transition from named to numbered highways, Good Road associations, and federal subsidies. The final third of the book investigates other modes of motor transportation—the truck and the bus—and the rise of the convenience store. In these chapters, class analysis complicates motoring history in necessary and interesting ways as the authors discuss the perceptions and experiences of truckers and touch on economic differences by exploring who rode interstate buses in the 1950s and 1960s. The final chapter, on the transition from gas stations to convenience stores, reinforces the argument that a national preference for personal comfort and speed shaped the landscape. The book ends with the [End Page 234] reassertion that motoring is fundamentally American, rooted in a national penchant for individuality and convenience. The automobile still allows motorists a sense of power over their environment; cars will not go the way of dinosaurs, even if Americans are currently reassessing their relationship to motoring.
Overall, Motoring provides a useful synthesis of the classic literature on automotive history for a general reader. It fulfills its goal of providing historical background for one of the most pressing questions of the new millennium: How did we become so car-dependent? Yet, as a cultural historian, I would have appreciated deeper analysis of race and gender, as well as a review of more recent literature on sprawl. The authors acknowledge that more work should be done on African-American motorists, but they do not take up the study here. Examining the “common motorist” elides social differences and how racial segregation and class fundamentally shaped the experience of motoring in the United States. Critics such as Lewis Mumford appear as counter notes to the juggernaut of highway construction, but attention to these critiques of motoring seems too brief and may not help readers understand the nuances of the historical debates. Still, this is a good survey that gives readers a taste of the discussion surrounding automobility, and perhaps that is the ultimate goal of a volume intended for a nonacademic audience. Jakle and Sculle...