Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It by Daniel Knowles

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Posted 2023-06-13

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

In Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About It, Daniel Knowles takes us on a rollicking ride, relating stories of the crush of cars on highways, the destruction of cities and economies, and the astonishing 140 years during which automobiles transformed the world in their own image. Knowles' enthusiasm and immersion in his topic erases any pretense of journalistic objectivity, but his book works well to raise awareness of his title metaphor--Carmageddon--the historic and ongoing process of pervasive automobile dominance--and its powerful hold on the entire world.

Knowles takes us from the snarled traffic on the Jane Byrne Interchange outside his home in Chicago to the the "insane" Katy Freeway in Houston. He relates his terrifying automobile rides in traffic in Mumbai, where he was assigned a driver, to Nairobi, where he worked for three years as a correspondent, and many stops in between--Japan, England, India, Africa, and more. He relates the poignant tragedy of lives and liberty lost in cities around the world--from Detroit to Birmingham (UK)--as cities changed from places where people could walk, bike, take buses, or ride trains routinely and efficiently to reach many destinations to landscapes where car-oriented development stretched apart and severed productive areas of cities from each other. He describes how the remaining scraps of urban fabrics that served walking or public transit were pulverized in a uniform effort to serve the prime directive of automobile-dominance of not just transportation, but housing, individual lives, local commerce, national economies, and ultimately our freedom and humanity.

Through an examination of history, living conditions, economics, and experts in a variety of fields, he reveals this Carmageddon as so pervasive that most people do not recognize it. He states: "..we have been making our world revolve around our wheels" (p. 4). This book opens the eyes of readers who may not have questioned this dominance.

For veteran followers of the topic of the history of the automotive transformation of the world, Knowles treads familiar ground:

Knowles takes us on an engaging journey, and he makes his preferences for urbanism known: "I unapologetically think that big, densely populated cities are the best places for most people to live, both for them and for the planet." (p. 230). However, Knowles' main conclusion on page 230 is a reasoned plea, hard won by the insight of his book: "The problem is not cars themselves. It is privileging cars over any other form of transport, so that they are not a luxury or an occasional necessity, but rather something that we are forced to rely on, day-to-day."

I enjoyed reading about the author's experiences in cities as a correspondent. I also appreciated that he brought out some ideas with a fresh viewpoint and emphasis:

In the end, this book serves as a wake-up call for people who might not otherwise have paid attention to the author's concept of Carmageddon. He concludes: "As I hope this book has illustrated, cars get in the way of our freedom to move around easily at least as much as they help it, by creating cities where everything is farther away, including opportunity." (p. 230).

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com