This was the day General Motors came to the end of the road. I once asked a Sudanese politician to name the thing that in his eyes proved a nation was a nation. He didn’t hesitate: ‘The ability to make cars.’ Britain was a nation because it made Jaguars. Germany was a nation because of Volkswagen. America ran the world because of General Motors. Italy made Fiats and France made Peugeots, Japan made Toyotas, and even the Russians, struggling along the highway towards modernity, had the easily underestimated Lada. Was making cars once an indicator of national self-sufficiency? Is it still? Rover, Morris, Austin, Triumph, Vauxhall, Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce, Mini, Land Rover: when we hear the names of these firms, we think of the cars they made, and of cars driven by parents or grandparents, sisters or old boyfriends. But we also think of the places in Britain where the cars were built, places that map out a productive nation. Say ‘Rover’ and people will, depending on their age, think of Coventry, Solihull, Cowley or Longbridge. Say ‘Vauxhall’ and they will think of Luton; say ‘Hillman Imp’ and they think of Linwood. When people consider their own lives and how well they have done, or are doing, they may well think of the cars they have owned, the notion of aspiration having a lot to do with what you drive; and if that is the case, then the almost permanent decline of the car industry in Britain must be fairly closely entangled with our sense of who we are. The cars that are built here now are mainly built by foreign companies – Jaguar and Land Rover are owned by Tata Motors of India, BMW owns Mini and Rolls-Royce, Volkswagen owns Bentley, while the MG is owned by Nanjing Automobile Group of China – which might be one of the things that explains a degree of loose wiring in the English nationalist brain.

In any event, when it comes to cars, the country is secretly obsessed with its supposed manufacturing prowess, and it is no mistake that Middle England finds its values most strikingly represented these days by Jeremy Clarkson, the presenter of the BBC’s Top Gear. The man is pugnacious, dismissive and bigoted, but he knows a lot about the boringness of the Vauxhall Vectra and is considered by a great many to be the authentic voice of the nation. That is England today: a place where a motoring journalist who hates ‘CND lesbians’ can come at you with the moral authority of William Hazlitt. Last year a petition was handed in to Downing Street demanding that Clarkson be made prime minister: it had 49,500 signatures.

It is not easy to think of a time when the British car industry was not in a state of some kind: a state of flux, semi-coma, or just a median state of chronic neediness and economic vulnerability. It goes with the territory, as they say, but why? Watching the present face-off between the banks and the car industry is like watching two mangy cats fighting over a dead bird: portions of the British car industry have been taken under government control before now – British Leyland was part-nationalised in 1975 – and several banks have been as good as nationalised this year. Peter Mandelson recently said that the £2.3 billion in loan guarantees he unlocked for the car industry were no ‘bail-out’, being intended to promote its ‘greening’, but this was just a fancy way of getting access to £1.3 billion from the European Investment Bank. Mandelson has a good understanding of Europe, and was smart to make this move, but he caused consternation when he also said that the Bank of England was ‘in pole position’ to help the car industry. Mervyn King believes it is a matter for government, not the Bank, to come to the aid of ailing industries, and the Bank immediately began briefing against the notion that it should do more: it is not ‘commercially viable’, they said, objecting to Mandelson’s characterisation of the problem.

In recent months, car production in Britain has dropped by 59 per cent compared to the same period last year, and the Sunday Times reported in March that 105,000 cars ‘worth an estimated £1 billion are now stockpiled at the Royal Portbury docks near Bristol’. Next year’s Motor Show was cancelled for the first time since 1903. Honda has halted production at Swindon for four months. Bentley has done the same in Crewe. Nissan is cutting 1200 jobs in Sunderland; Mini have announced large-scale redundancies; Toyota has introduced a 10 per cent cut to basic pay; Jaguar Land Rover have instituted a pay freeze. Finance companies have been refusing to insure companies supplying parts to the British arms of Ford and General Motors. The British car industry may be closer to collapse than it has been at any time during its collapse-friendly modern history. Thanks to ‘scrapping schemes’, in which buyers are given a voucher for nearly €2500 towards the purchase of a new environmentally friendly car to replace their old one, domestic sales in Germany have gone up by nearly 40 per cent. The schemes are largely credited with saving the German industry, but the attempt to introduce a similar programme in the UK has until this month met mainly with sour reactions.

Many car bosses say all the scheme does is dodge the more difficult job of mending the credit system, the only move that would guarantee the future health of the industry, while a number of environmentalists complain that the scrapping scheme would be costly without achieving much of a green benefit. ‘Instead of paying people to scrap their cars, we might as well burn ten-pound notes in power stations,’ George Monbiot told the BBC. Some of the firms the incentive scheme is intended to help have been afraid the move would leave them out of pocket. Honda, Ford and Vauxhall have been reluctant to take part. But however doubtful industry experts have been, 35,000 new cars have been ordered since April under the scheme.

The motor industry makes £200 billion a year, accounting for 8 per cent of GDP. It employs close to one million people, which explains why successive governments have spent so much public money propping it up. Besides, its central belt is in the Midlands, where a large number of Labour MPs have marginal seats. Even before the recent expenses hullabaloo, many of those MPs were sitting ducks. It is safe to say that if the car industry fails the Labour government will go with it (not that it won’t go anyway). Margaret Thatcher thrived on the effects of recession by positing them as the sad but unavoidable consequence of economic resolve and modernisation. Labour can’t use that vocabulary so easily. The names Dagenham and Longbridge have a haunting effect on the public imagination; they sound like returning ghosts.

Every nation behaves in character. In France the government is insistent and the manufacturers are disputatious. But with 2.5 million people employed in the French car industry – one in ten of the country’s workforce – the government was quick to promise a rescue package of €6 billion to shore up an industry that has been having dire liquidity problems. In return, it requires that all the companies it bails out promise to keep their plants open, put a freeze on dividends and stop bonuses for executives. The car-makers weren’t pleased. ‘The state should not tell car companies how to run their business’: the words of Christian Streiff, the then president of Peugeot Citroën. As in the UK, the intention is to refresh the lines of credit the companies rely on, the ones available to customers at showrooms and dealerships.

At the same time, the credit crunch may be masking longer-term problems in the industry. France has been at over-capacity for years and would benefit from a 20 per cent reduction, especially as it is being outperformed by Germany in almost every class of vehicle. Yet the French rescue package, like the British one, is based on the principle that nothing must go. No one seems to worry that when economic stability returns, many of the industries in Europe will be stuck with car mountains to rival the butter mountains of old. In Britain, it was subsidised farming, quotas and mass production that killed agricultural tradition and put small farmers on the breadline. When the ill wind passes, it could turn out to be the same with cars. The Russian firm Avtovaz has received more than 2o billion roubles in government support but has signed an agreement with Russia’s state banks for a further 90 billion, so ensuring that the market for cars will continue to be flooded even as many more buyers show themselves unable to meet their payments.

In America, the economic slump, as we know, has torn the car industry up by the roots. The critical situation for General Motors, Chrysler and Ford is a modern drama, with car and truck sales down from figures of around 16 million in the boom years to this year’s expected total of 9.5 million. President Obama, having appointed a committee charged, as the New York Times put it, with ‘orchestrating the rescue of the giant automakers’, gave them a timetable to come up with plans for cutting their debts. ‘If it can’t be done outside of the bankruptcy process,’ Fritz Henderson, the chief executive of General Motors warned, ‘it will be done within it.’ The treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, thinking in line with his boss, wants the manufacturers to come up with a plan for their long-term survival before they get federal bail-outs. Like the boss of Peugeot Citroën, Henderson insists that the company not the government is running the company, but GM has now received more than $20 billion in federal aid, and according to the latest plan will receive at least $30 billion. (The White House told Henderson’s predecessor Rick Wagoner in no uncertain terms to resign.) Meanwhile, the administration offered $8 billion to Chrysler but insisted that the company secure its future by forming a partnership with Fiat. This duly happened. ‘It’s a partnership that will give Chrysler a chance not only to survive,’ Obama said, ‘but to thrive in a global auto industry.’ And despite sales that are down 40 per cent on last year, Ford has not so far sought government help, having instead found ways of cutting its debts by $10 billion. The measures taken by Ford, which have involved negotiations with debt holders, the United Auto Workers and the Treasury Department, are already viewed by some industrialists as representing one of the most aggressive and decisive company restructurings in American history.

Obama is walking a fine line between several competing forces. ‘On one side of Obama runs a growing populist opposition to bailing out any more big companies,’ Gerald Seib wrote in the Wall Street Journal. ‘On the other side runs an equally powerful desire to stop a generation-long haemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs … Facing this quandary, Obama has chosen to deliver a dramatic dose of tough love’ by insisting the car companies restructure within two months or face closure. ‘These companies … must ultimately stand on their own, not as wards of the state,’ Obama said. But in the US, as in the UK, there is a great disparity between the ‘tough love’ meted out to the car industry and the warm embrace given to the ailing banks and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in Detroit. Among the critics of Obama’s policies towards the auto industry is the Democratic Representative John Dingell of Michigan, the longest serving member of the House, and a long-time ally of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. ‘I’m troubled by the different treatment of auto companies … and the treatment of those good-hearted people such as AIG and all those financial companies that have money showered on them,’ he said recently. But Obama is sticking to his guns: blaming the catastrophe on ‘a failure of leadership from Washington to Detroit’, he wants to see reforms and new business plans. To his way of thinking, there is more to the crisis than the evaporation of lines of credit, even though people were previously walking out of dealerships with $30,000 cars and hardly a cent with which to begin paying for them. Obama’s eye is on something else: he sees that the Asian industry is far ahead of the American and the priority must be to close the gap.

One thing has been established: cars may not be as crucial to the survival of an economy as banks, but they matter. At the same time Pascal Lamy, the director-general of the World Trade Organisation, argues that the efforts of rich countries to support their auto industries constitute a gross form of protectionism and thus a threat to the economic wellbeing of developing countries. Initially, European leaders were openly hostile to the moves Congress made to avert the collapse of GM, Chrysler and Ford – seeing them as a potential breach of international trade rules – but since then, every European government has done the same, and arguably with less stringent conditions. ‘This is not a game for developed countries alone,’ the Economist reported in February:

The Brazilian government has instructed the state-run Banco do Brasil to make $1.7 billion available to car-makers’ financing units. It is also cutting car-purchase taxes. Russia has slapped heavy duties on imported cars for the next nine months … China has halved the sales tax on cars with engines of less than 1.6 litres and offered subsidies for trade-ins of high-emission vehicles for cleaner ones. Both measures are aimed chiefly, but not exclusively, at local firms, which make mainly smaller cars.

Today it makes very little sense to speak of a car’s nationality. The main reason the Europeans stopped criticising US attempts to save the Big Three is not that they were being forced to do the same themselves: they also realised how big a blow the collapse of those American firms would be for their own automobile and car parts industries. The chains of supply and of co-operation go in every direction from Siberia to Mexico to South Korea, and all will suffer if the American car giants go under. According to the Economist,

when China or Russia helps its car industry, it is also helping all the foreign makers that have built local factories and supply chains … The Jeep Patriot is only 66 per cent American; a BMW X5 made in South Carolina is a good deal more American than a Pontiac G8 shipped by GM from Australia. Fiat and VW factories in Brazil produce cars that account for half the country’s market

Facts such as these – and very typical ones they prove to be – create a certain level of disorientation in the minds of the British public. We are conscious of having car workers, conscious of there being very ‘British’ makes, but we have not yet grasped the supra-national fundamentals of the industry.1 We make cars but none of them could reasonably be called British. Foreigners own the companies, and the products are often destined for foreigners. Yet the news is creeping through, which is presumably why, in some pubs, the British government’s aid package for car companies is known as ‘the Indian takeaway’.

Governments are advancing billions, but the industry is so large and so various that it may collapse anyway. Several bail-outs have already failed, and it may turn out, as with farming, that it is not a question of how deep the government’s pockets are but how deranged the market is. Simply put: on an international scale, we have been producing too many cars at too high a price even for the few people who can afford them. The industry is damaged, and governments’ efforts to buoy it up may be nothing more than a desperate attempt to throw off the responsibility rather than truly influence the outcome, because no government, American, British or French, wants to be remembered as the one that oversaw the ruination of the car industry. Governments spend much of their time in office beholden to the symbolic things – terrorist attacks, for instance, or abortion rights – and it comes as a shock, as it will already have been for Obama, to realise how hard it is to rip up the old agenda. Each government will attempt to dress its subsidies up as fillips to the cause of environmental progress, but they aren’t: they are attempts to shore up the rapacity of the gas-guzzlers, a rapacity that we have long since been subject to.

Behind all this stands the culture of driving and the fact of traffic. We love driving and we hate it, we praise it and we slate it, but our relationship with cars is a lively element in our relationship with ourselves and other people. The downturn in the industry chills us, but mainly because – and we don’t feel this way about pharmaceuticals or petrochemicals – it makes us imagine we might have to stop being who we are. I speak as a fairly late convert to the life-enlarging potential of cars: for 36 years I was happy to go around the country on buses and trains, taking the Tube to any destination I ever wanted or needed to visit, to work and to cinemas, on dates and on expeditions, without ever feeling at a loss. When I took taxis it was just another form of being in the hands of others. It meant listening to speeches I found actively aggressive and paying over the odds for the privilege. Then I began taking driving lessons and the world suddenly opened up to me in a way I now depend on. The first long drive I took after I passed my test was a kind of baptism: I put down the windows and let all life’s unreasonable demarcations fly behind the car, enjoying the illusion that I now had a friend who cared for my freedom.

I could easily say I loved my car – I missed it when I went to bed at night. On that first long drive from London to Wales and thence to Inverness – which took 14 hours – I believe I discovered my autonomy. As with all illusions, I didn’t care that others found the enchantment funny: the feeling was new, and its newness is something that millions of people express rarely but understand fully. In American fiction, a great number of epiphanies – especially male epiphanies – occur while the protagonist is alone and driving his car. There are reasons for that. One may not have a direction but one has a means of getting there. One may not be in control of life but one can progress in a straight line. When your youth is over and definitions become fixed, even if they are wrong, it might turn out that the arrival of a car suddenly feels like the commuting of a sentence. It may seem to give you back your existential mojo. That is the beauty of learning to drive late and learning to drive often: it gives you a sense that life turned out to be freer than it was in your childhood, that time agrees with you, that your own sensitivities found their domain in the end, and that deep in the shell of your inexpensive car you came to know your subjectivity. Of course, one may find these things in the marriage bed or in a gentleman’s club, but those places have rules and your car is your own bed, your own club. Music? Yes. Tears? Yes. Singing? Yes. Stopping under the stars? OK, if you must. And here is Tintern Abbey. And there is Hadrian’s Wall. And should I stop in Glasgow for a drink? If you read the novels of Joan Didion, you will see there can come a time in anybody’s life, women’s as much as men’s, when they climb into their car and feel that they are driving away from an entire kingdom of dependency. The motorways don’t offer a solution: they offer a welcome straitjacket. Your car will get all the credit for bringing you home to yourself, for showing you the only person you can truly depend on is not merely yourself, but yourself-in-your-car, a somatic unity. Those who spend most of their lives being alert to the demands of others – and that’s most employees, most husbands, wives, parents, most believers – will know the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void. Virginia Woolf was almost right: all one really needs is a car of one’s own, the funds to keep it on the road and the will to encounter oneself within. Though most of those men aren’t listening to Virginia Woolf – they’re listening to Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

So far, so sad. And so far, so essential. America has dominated our sense of car culture in ways much deeper than the economic. In Britain, we did not drive typical American cars but we drove to a psychic soundtrack dictated by the American way of living. Even today, if you play a word association game with British children and you say ‘America’, a fair number of them will say ‘big cars’. (They also say ‘9/11’.) Driving was always a covert means, more explicit in the States, of discovering the outer limits of your own character in the act of transit. When I was a child, Americans were the only people we really imagined having character, and a large part of that imagining involved picturing these shiny-haired people zooming around in cars. The Americans had a trick that was not available to everybody else, a trick that proved electric in movies and pop songs and often in advertisements: people could seem charged with natural specificity even in the thick of a crowd. In some way the crowd did not become them, as it could seem to in Europe. In American movies, in Preston Sturges, in Frank Capra, the crowds whizz past in their comfortable clothes, and each person might be thinking their own thoughts, before one of them, Claudette Colbert or Jimmy Stewart, steps out. And if they seem wildly capable of being themselves, that capability is crowned by the ease with which they move themselves around, sovereign in their cars.

This can all be observed in America’s foundations, and the writer Cotten Seiler locates it in the national literature.2 The rise of automobility is part of the rise of individualism, he argues, channelled through the pioneer spirit as well as through Emerson’s notion of the ‘natural individual’. Emerson puts the matter boldly in ‘Self-Reliance’, which might be understood as a foundation text for the dreamy driver. ‘The great man,’ he writes, ‘is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’ From here it is but the turn of a wheel before we reach Walt Whitman and his songs to the open road. Seiler’s argument is strong and elegant because it raises a point of wonder: how did a people, so rash and so blunt in many ways, manage to live out their desires in broad daylight to the extent that they did and still do? How did they manage to be so frank? Early on, Seiler looks to the historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay of 1893, ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’. The essay, Seiler writes,

attributed the nation’s democratic characteristics to its vastness and purported emptiness, and the consequent high degree of mobility of its people. Even as Turner sounded the elegy for the frontier, he looked to mobility for the continuation of American exceptionalism. ‘He would be a rash prophet indeed,’ he wrote, ‘who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.’ Commentators before and after Turner have also found in mobility – especially its volitional form, travel – the genius of modernity and the signature of the sovereign self.

The love of cars (and the hatred of them) often comes with a local accent. As Brian Ladd points out in Autophobia, ‘automobiles represent the more abstract threat of modern technology in Hermann Hesse’s cantankerous novel Steppenwolf, in which “the struggle between humans and machines” takes the form of a fantasy scene of snipers shooting at passing cars: a preview of later video games, perhaps, except that the latter invariably take the motorists’ side.’3 Not merely take their side, I would say to the helpful Brian Ladd, but turn their self-awareness into a form of psychosis.

Among the great liberal freedoms, driving was for many years not the one that most gripped the British. Orwell would have made a case for beer, Lawrence for sex, Waugh for social adventuring, but in any event, the British reached for some better form of togetherness, better pubs and better sex and a better standing among one’s peers, which is not individualism as the Americans appear to have embodied it. In my own youth, a teenager with a car was a rare exception, and it usually meant the boy or girl had found a job which involved driving. It was always a story about permission or control that lay within the purview of somebody else. In America, individualism itself was over time accommodated to the corporate age, an effort captured very naturally in Herbert Hoover’s 1922 treatise, American Individualism. In no time at all Emerson’s ‘natural individual’ has become one of 20th-century America’s ‘sovereign consumers’, the people who would for ever after be the target of the world’s most strenuously native advertising efforts. The car is America’s desirable object par excellence, a feast for advertisers, partly because selling cars is like selling citizens a part of themselves. In the AMC series Mad Men the central character, Donald Draper, is a senior creative at Sterling Cooper, a top-flight Madison Avenue advertising firm in the early 1960s. What was his grounding for this station? He was a car salesman in a former life, with the stress on former life, and a different man altogether. Like the characters in On the Road, you feel that Draper is an individualist for whom cars, those chariots of desire, symbolise the entire possibility of becoming somebody.

In a world like this, the individualist, the ‘sovereign consumer’, the person who just wants to be on his own, may seek his social community in a world of congested narcissists. His home is traffic. This is the place where he can relax or unrelax, take the weight off his feet or let off steam, fully aware of the rituals and the rules of society. Seiler argues that ‘automobility provides an individualist social imaginary.’ And once the excellent Seiler establishes that the social imaginary had better be called traffic, he quotes, to wonderful effect, a passage of Raymond Williams from The Country and the City:

Traffic is not only a technique; it is a form of consciousness and a form of social relations … It is impossible to read the early descriptions of crowded metropolitan streets – the people as isolated atoms, flowing this way and that; a common stream of separated identities and directions – without seeing, past them, this mode of relationship embodied in the modern car: private, enclosed, an individual vehicle in a pressing and merely aggregated common flow; certain underlying conventions of external control but within them the passing of rapid signals of warning, avoidance, concession, irritation, as we pursue our ultimately separate ways but in a common mode.

Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic examines that common mode with uncommon dedication.4 He appears to have gone to the edge of every major freeway, climbed into every traffic bunker, visited the offices of every major transport academic and sociologist, to produce a comprehensive and stylish account of what driving is and who we are when we are doing it. Driving may make us feel more alive, but it is also one of the most reliable ways of becoming dead, and Vanderbilt anatomises the play of satisfactions and risks that makes the experience of the motoring life such a profound thing. For the first time we see that little combo of self and machine turned into a laboratory of human ambition and performance, as he shows us the DriveCam, a set of cameras positioned to keep an eye on drivers in the sanctum of their private selfhood, the lorry cab, the driver’s seat. And what does it reveal? Well, for a start, it reveals a man in charge of a tanker full of petrol who is asleep for eight full seconds. Count them. Eight full seconds. And from such evidence and many siftings of information, Vanderbilt asks whether some crashes are ‘“more unintentional than others”? Did they “just happen” or were there things that could have been done to prevent them, or at least greatly reduce the chances of their happening?’

Vanderbilt understands that something odd goes on when a person is driving, that something alters his sense of himself and of the world outside the car. (‘Humans separate themselves not only across space but into drivers and pedestrians, and tend to act as if they are no longer the same species.’) Even with the camera placed on them – no big deal for kids who, having grown up with reality TV, imagine reality as a sort of performance anyhow – the young drivers Vanderbilt writes about are full of their status as car-drivers. The DriveCam gives us glimpses of something that had never been seen on film, ‘the inner life of the driver’. And yet paying attention to oneself is not the same as paying attention. Driving is an ‘over-learned’ activity, an activity whose routines are so familiar that one might frequently tune out altogether. On that long first drive to Inverness, there were moments when I suddenly found myself ‘awake at the wheel’, as they call it: unable to remember the last 20 miles or so and suddenly experiencing what I can only call a metaphysical shock as I realised that I had driven those long distances and made all those decisions without being conscious of any of them.

At the heart of Vanderbilt’s concerns is the basic question of human co-operation: how have we tamed the will to power that defines us at the wheel and become the give-and-take merchants who make up the happy chain of progression? A comparison with ants as usual finds us wanting. Iain Couzin, a zoological research fellow at the Collective Animal Behaviour Laboratory at Oxford, is consulted:

Interested in the idea that ants may have evolved ‘rules to optimise the flow of traffic’, Couzin, along with a colleague, made a detailed video recording of a section of army ant trail in Panama. The video shows that the ants have quite clearly created a three-lane highway, with a well-defined set of rules: ants leaving the nest use the outer two lanes, while ants returning get sole possession of the centre lane … A constant game of chicken ensues, with the outbound ants holding their ground against the returning ants until the last possible moment, then swiftly turning away from the oncoming traffic. There is the occasional collision, but Couzin says the three-lane structure helps minimise the subsequent delay. And ants are loath to waste time. Once finished with the evening commute, home by dusk, the entire colony moves, in the safety of darkness, to a new site, and the next morning the ants repeat the cycle. ‘These species have evolved for thousands of years under these highly dense traffic circumstances,’ says Couzin. ‘They really are the pinnacle of traffic organisation in the actual world.’

A good example of how much less well we do it – but how hard we try, and how like ourselves we are as we fail – is provided by Vanderbilt’s report of the traffic nightmare that occurred around the 2006 Oscars ceremony. Los Angeles is, of course, a whole other part of the jungle, but the attempt to make sense of traffic flow in that city opens up a picture of logistical terror far beyond the average person’s experience as they go about picking the children up from school or collecting a pizza. How do traffic bosses ensure that 800 limousines get to the corner of Hollywood and Highland at exactly the right time? If they fail, and there will be a concatenation of failures before they succeed, an international audience of millions will lose their faith in Hollywood. So:

‘The limos are starting to back up, almost at Santa Monica,’ someone cries through the static.

As Patel furiously taps on his keyboard, lengthening cycle times here, cancelling a left-turn phase there, it becomes hard to resist the idea that being a traffic engineer is a little like playing God. One man pushing one button affects not just one group of people but literally the whole city, as the impact ripples through the system. It is chaos theory, LA style: A long red light in Santa Monica triggers a backup in Watts …

Some three hundred municipal engineers, on a sick-out, are picketing on the same streets on which the limos are trying to get to the Oscars … Some of the calls Patel receives are from engineers wondering why the limos have been held up, and some of the calls are from picketing engineers seeking updates about which intersections they should cross on foot …

  Patel is both trying to get the limos to their destination and coaching the picketers on how best to interrupt that progress.

No ant-logic there, then. Rather a perfect model of deeply confused co-operation. All the same, I’m sure the ant-world does not have the wonderful human capacity for irony. In 2006, the movie that won Best Picture was Crash, the film by Paul Haggis about racial and social tensions in Los Angeles against the backdrop of a life-threatening bout of traffic thrombosis.

Congestion, says one of Vanderbilt’s well-deployed experts, Alan Pisarski, is ‘people with the economic means to act on their social and economic interests getting in the way of other people with the means to act on theirs.’ Maybe co-operation is just another way of referring to the stuff you have to put up with in order to have clearance to live the life you want to live.

People will give up smoking in restaurants, they will agree to recycle their bottles, but the great majority won’t give up driving, however heavily it is taxed. Drivers don’t see what they do as a luxury: they see it as an essential tool for managing the world. But managing the world or being in the world in a manageable way usually runs counter to what used to be called the common good. In Calcutta a few years ago, on one of those almost comically chaotic roads, I observed a minor collision between a taxicab and a pedestrian. Immediately, a crowd of observers was in place: a court, you could say, adjudicating between the personal ethics of the driver and the common rights of the walker. The giant car manufacturers of India and China are making some of the world’s most famous cars in places such as Castle Bromwich, Solihull, and Longbridge, while the roads of India and China teem with drivers who are just beginning to know themselves.

28 May

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Vol. 31 No. 13 · 9 July 2009

After reading Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on the car, I went back to Ivan Illich (LRB, 11 June). In Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Energy and Equity (1974), Illich explores the way that high-speed transportation for the few (the car driver) disadvantages transportation for the many (pedestrians, bus users, children, the poor). But more important, in view of O’Hagan’s remarks about the apparent freedom the car gives its owner, is Illich’s reminder of the time-cost of car ownership. Once you factor in the time spent earning the money to purchase and run the car, not to mention washing and admiring it (and watching car adverts), Illich calculated that over a year ‘the model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.’ I am sure the first two figures are much higher today, but not the average speed which, as Illich pointed out, is much the same as it is in countries deprived of a transportation industry. More significant for us today is Illich’s concluding note that ‘what distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.’

Chris Weeks
Beaworthy, Devon

When I asked for a car as a teenager, my mother shrieked ‘A bedroom on wheels?’ as she thought about the privacy it offered for intimacy with girls, of whom she disapproved. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay contains much valuable information, yet atop an underlying tone as romantic as a song by Chuck Berry in the 1950s, the Beach Boys in the 1960s, or Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s. In 2009, time spent in the car is the most unpleasant part of most people’s day.

We live in the northernmost of a string of Michigan cities (the emblematic Detroit, then Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Bay City) that were reliant on the automobile industry for their 20th-century prosperity, following the 19th-century booms in lumber and shipbuilding that established them. Now the closing of General Motors factories and the many industrial companies that supplied them has caused a breach in the social contract which some try to heal with irrational Republican Party adherence and stern biblical churches – and purchase of mammoth SUVs and oversized pickup trucks.

My twenties were spent in San Francisco, which at the time had well-funded bus, streetcar, suburban train and subway systems. Who would want to worry about parking, traffic or car theft in a city with so much else to see and do? Finding ourselves now, in mid-life, in a land of long, snowy winters, my wife and I are glad we have our cars but wish we only used them for shopping or travel at weekends. In Bay City buses stop running at 5 p.m., while university and community college classes run until 10. I almost didn’t take the university teaching job offered me when I learned public transport here was so miserly. Cars were responsible for America’s first billionaire (Henry Ford) and a century of prosperity in my state, and car-workers’ unions were responsible for any justice in that wealth’s distribution. But I hope that car use diminishes. Here and everywhere. Especially by me.

Mike Mosher
Bay City, Michigan

Vol. 31 No. 12 · 25 June 2009

‘Britain was a nation,’ Andrew O’Hagan writes, ‘because it made Jaguars. Germany was a nation because of Volkswagen. America ran the world because of General Motors. Italy made Fiats and France made Peugeots’ (LRB, 11 June). What O’Hagan doesn’t do is distinguish between internal and external notions of the ‘nationhood’ he refers to. The British or the French or the Italians might have had their identity/self-perception tied up with the brands of car they made, but this wasn’t the way they were viewed by the majority of outsiders. The Peugeot and Volkswagen brands were hugely popular in Nigeria in the 1980s because they had assembly plants in the country, and were thus (comparatively) cheap to own and maintain. The Mercedes Benz was expensive, and a fuel-guzzler, and therefore a perfect candidate for status symbol. Times have obviously changed and when the Asians came with their trendy, fuel-efficient brands, switching loyalties was instinctive.

Tolu Ogunlesi
Birmingham University

Reading Andrew O’Hagan’s piece was an uncanny experience for me: perhaps a manifestation of what he calls the ‘returning ghosts’ of the automobile industry. Recently I’ve been writing a dissertation on Raymond Williams’s novel Second Generation (1964). The novel describes the fight against job losses at the Cowley works in Oxford. It clearly anticipates the themes of Television: Technology and Cultural Form, and The Country and the City, showing how cars are just one component of a pervasive system of ‘privatised mobility’.

Ben Pritchett

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