Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Car Wars: How the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, by Graeme Davison, with Sheryl Yelland

Car Wars sounds like an overly dramatic title for a book that details the history of the car and its impact on the Melbourne landscape, but once the car goes from being a luxury item to a necessity of suburbia, then indeed war does break out.

This is the irony of the car, as presented in Car Wars. First the car was a gentleman’s toy, a pleasure only the rich could afford. Then as prices came down and more and more people could afford them, it was the car that started to create the environment. The sprawling suburbs could only come into being with everyone owning a car (and petrol being cheap).

I know when I was growing up in suburban Aspendale, in a brand new house on a street with lots of other new houses and quite a few vacant blocks, we had two cars. The walk to the station was 15 minutes and I seriously don’t think either of my parents ever, ever caught the train.

The second major change that the car wrought on the environment was the complex system of roads and freeways that became progressively more congested as time went on. When governments tried to build freeways through the inner city suburbs, they found the natives revolting.

Car Wars ends with the Kennett government and its CityLink project, a privatised tollway that caused many a headache.

Once you get to the end of the this book it becomes clear how many limits there are to the freedom the car can provide. The need to keep on creating costly and complex freeways to transport everyone from our ever expanding suburbs seems to make less sense than a cat chasing its tail.

This is a fascinating car and road biography of Melbourne, highlighting the possibility that we may have reached our road and congestion limit.

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