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section heading icon       highways

This page considers the automobile, bicycle and highways as points of reference for understanding the internet.

It covers -

There is a supplementary note on the auto industry, highlighting general studies and works on particular manufacturers.

subsection heading icon     introduction

Recurrent characterisation, in the US and elsewhere, of the net as the "information superhighway" indicates that highway networks represent both a potent symbol and a metaphor for making sense of infrastructure and online activity.

They are also networks that people in advanced economies often take for granted, a far cry from the 1754 newspaper advertisement that

However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually arrive in London four days after leaving Manchester.

James Flink's The Automobile Age (Cambridge: MIT Press 1993), Ruth Brandon's Automobile: How The Car Changed Life (London: Macmillan 2002) and The Automobile Revolution: The Impact of an Industry (Chapel Hill: Uni of North Carolina Press 1982) by James Laux & Jean-Pierre Bardou are outstanding studies of the world made by cars.

subsection heading icon     social history

There is another perspective in David Halberstam's superb The Fifties (New York: Villard 1994), Glenn Yago's The Decline of Transit: Urban Transportation in German & US Cities, 1900-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1984), Peter Ling's America & the Automobile: Technology, Reform & Social Change (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 1989), Wolfgang Sachs' For Love of the Automobile: Looking Back into the history of our desires (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1992) and Stephen Goddard's Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road & Rail in the American Century (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 1996).

David Kruger's The Electric Car & the Burden of History (New Brunswick: Rutgers Uni Press 2000) is a cogent exploration of a technology that didn't last the distance.

John Rae's The Road & Car in American Life (Cambridge: MIT Press 1971) and The Automobile & American Culture (Ann Arbor: Uni of Michigan Press 1983) edited by David Lewis & Laurence Goldstein are landmark studies. For the UK see in particular LJ Setright's crusty Drive On! A Social History of the Motor Car (London: Granta 2003) and Peter Thorold's The Motoring Age: The Automobile and Britain 1896-1939 (London: Profile 2003). Grame Davison's Car Wars: How The Car Won Our Hearts & Conquered Our Cities (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin 2004) is strongly recommended. It is complemented by Paul Sutter's Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (Seattle: Uni of Washington Press 2002) and Jane Kay's Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back (New York: Crown 1997).

For the USSR see Cars for Comrades: The Life of the Soviet Automobile (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 2008) by Lewis Siegelbaum. Volumes in the 'Road & American Culture' series (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press) edited by John Jakle are also suggestive. These include Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (1999), The Motel in America (1996) and The Gas Station in America (1994). Margaret Walsh's Making Connections: The Long-Distance Bus Industry in the USA (Aldershot: Ashgate 2000) is of value.

subsection heading icon     infrastructure and economy

In 2003 it was claimed that motor vehicles are responsible for around 50% of global oil consumption, with manufacture absorbing 47% of annual rubber production, 15% of steel and 25% of glass - some 10% of GDP in rich countries but only 0.6% of US stockmarket capitalisation and 1.6% of that in the EU. Road construction and maintenance in some states, notably Japan, was equally significant.

The 1998 paper by Ishaq Nadiri & Theofanis Mamuneas on Contribution of Highway Capital to Output & Productivity Growth in the US is suggestive.

Development of US highway system since 1924 is described here and in works such as Tom Lewis' Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Transforming American Life (New York: Viking 1997), Dan McNichol's The Roads That Built America (New York: Barnes & Noble Books 2003), Mark Rose's Interstate Express Highway Politics 1941-1989 (Knoxville: Uni of Tennessee Press 1990), Clay McShane's Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City (New York: Columbia Uni Press 1997), Scott Bottles' Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1987) and Bruce Seely's Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (Philadelphia: Temple Uni Press 1987). Cant about autobahnen is questioned in Dan Silverman's Hitler's Economy: Nazi Work Creation Programs, 1933-1936 (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1998).

James Rubenstein's Making and Selling Cars: Innovation & Change in the U.S. Automotive Industry (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 2001) is of particular value. Michele Hoyman's Power Steering: Global Automakers & the Transformation of Rural Communities (Lawrence: Uni Press of Kansas 1997) explores competition to host car manufacturers and component suppliers, offering a perspective on writings by Richard Florida and other 'lure the creatives' (with decaf latte and opera or otherwise) pundits.

subsection heading icon     the bicycle

In 2004 it is easy to forget that the bicycle initially had greater social ramifications than the motor car, liberating women and youth at a time when cars were reserved for a privileged few.

Studies include Jim Fitzpatrick's The Bicycle and the Bush: Man & Machine in Rural Australia (Melbourne: Oxford Uni Press 1980) on Australia, David Herlihy's Bicycle: The History (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2004), Pryor Dodge's The Bicycle (Paris: Flammarion 1996), Frederick Alderson's Bicycling: A History (New York: Praeger 1972), Glen Norcliffe's Ride to Modernity: The Bicycle in Canada, 1869-1900 (Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 2001), John Woodforde's The Story of the Bicycle (London: Routledge 1980), Robert Smith's A Social History of the Bicycle (New York: American Heritage Press 1972) and Amir Esfehani's The Bicycle's Long Way to China: The Appropriation of Cycling as a Foreign Cultural Technique (1860-1940) here. There is a characteristically insightful discussion in Eugen Weber's France, Fin de Siecle (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1986).

subsection heading icon     Australia

As of 2000 the total length of roads open for general traffic in Australia at June 2000 was 805,835 kilometres (of which 324,723 was bitumen or concrete).The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2001 that the Australian motor vehicle fleet (as of 1999) was around 12 million vehicles, excluding motor cycles.

In 1921 there were around 99,270 registered motor vehicles and 37,580 motorcycles, increasing to 562,271 cars, 258,025 commercial vehicles and 79,237 motorcycles in 1939. By 1947-48 there were almost one million registered vehicles, excluding motorcycles. The estimated average was one vehicle per 45 persons in 1921, rising to one vehicle per 11 persons in 1930 and one vehicle per 7.8 persons in 1947-48. As of 1999 the average had risen to one vehicle per 1.6 persons. In 1947-48 cars comprised 61% of Australian vehicles, with light commercial vehicles/trucks accounting for 35%. By 1999 those figures had changed to 81% and 18% respectively.

For the Australian industry see Wheels and Deals: The Automobile Industry in Twentieth Century Australia (Aldershot: Ashgate 2001) by Robert Conlon & John Perkins, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melbourne: Lansdowne 1964) by Laurence Hartnett, Volkswagen in Australia: The Forgotten Story (Heathmont: AF 2004) by Rod & Lloyd Davies and Davison's Car Wars: How The Car Won Our Hearts & Conquered Our Cities (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin 2004).

A perspective on the auto is provided by Cobb & Co Heritage Trail: Bathurst to Bourke by Diane de St Hilaire Simmonds, noting that at its peak the Cobb & Co stage-coach company in Australia travelled 44,800 kilometres per week, with 30,000 horses.

section marker     imagination

There have been surprisingly few studies of the highway and the car in film and the literary imagination, although in considering the net it would be interesting to explore images of the 'open road' and of cars as an embodiment of independence, potency or merely consumer fetishism.

That examination might encompass

  • the ambivalence evident in works such as JG Ballard's Crash, Peter Weir's The Cars That Ate Paris and Stephen King's Christine
  • highways as liberation and experience, from The Wind in the Willows and the Grapes of Wrath to Thelma & Louise and Easy Rider
  • the highway as an urban cancer or embodiment of modernity and postmodernity, eg from Jane Jacobs' Death & Life of American Cities to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Sean O'Connell's The Car in British Society: Class, Gender and Motoring, 1896-1939 (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 1998), Owen Gutfreund's Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape (New York: Oxford Uni Press 2004), Richard Whiting's The View from Cowley: The Impact of Industrialization upon Oxford, 1918-1939 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1983) or Baudrillard's Simulacra & Simulation
  • highways as an embodiment of national identity - eg mega-projects such as Trans-Amazon Highway (the Brazilian version of China's Three Gorges Dam) - and precursors of white elephants such as Malaysia's Multimedia SuperCorridor (MSC)
  • and as an excuse for the 'road novel', 'road movie' and 'road memoir' such as Robert Sullivan's Cross Country: Fifteen Years and Ninety Thousand Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill an Elephant (New York: Bloomsbury 2006), Larry McMurtry's The Late Child (New York: Simon & Schuster 1995), Jack London's The Road (1907) and Jack Kerouac's On The Road (New York: Viking 1957)

Academic studies of particular genres include David Laderman's Driving Visions: Exploring the Road Movie (Austin: Uni of Texas Press 2002) and David Jeremiah's Representations of British Motoring (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 2007).

section marker    
law of the road

As with other communications developments the evolution of law regarding highways, automobiles and bicycles has been evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

It has primarily concerned -

  • regulation of behaviour on the road, eg restrictions on speed and driving while intoxicated
  • regulation of what/who gets onto the road, eg supervision of vehicle manufacturers, restrictions on the carriage of dangerous goods, licensing of drivers
  • road construction and maintenance, including compulsory purchase for highway development and regimes restricting billboards
  • corollaries such as use of driver licencing as a de facto national identity card

Perspectives are provided by Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (New York: Random 1974), Nicholas Papayanis's Horse-Drawn Cabs and Omnibuses in Paris: The Idea of Circulation and the Business of Public Transit (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Uni Press 1996), Graham Hodges' Taxi! A Social History of the New York City Cabdriver (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Uni Press 2007), Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Cambridge: MIT Press 2008), Biju Mathew's Taxi! Class and Capitalism in New York City (New York: New Press 2005) and Sally Clarke's Trust and Power: Consumers, the Modern Corporation, and the Making of the United States Automobile Market (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2007).

Tim Blanning's The Pursuit of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 (New York: Viking 2007) notes that improved roads and hence vastly increased traffic in early modern Europe had an unanticipated consequence - highwaymen - with the 18th century 'gentlemen of the road' becoming figures of romance on the basis that improved roads provided them with more people who could be required to 'stand and deliver'.

section marker     highways as a paradigm for the net

Glib characterisations about information super-highways (or goat tracks) aside, are highways a useful paradigm for understanding the net?

Proponents of the paradigm point to -

  • the differentiation between the infrastructure (concrete and tar, fibre and switches) and the application layer (the traffic - and rules for traffic - made possible by that infrastructure)
  • the role of government in providing or licensing construction and operation of that infrastructure
  • the autonomy enjoyed by users of the infrastructure and the diversity of uses (from taking the family dog for a picnic, to delivering a bride to the synagogue or widgets to the factory or cash to the ATM)
  • questions about the meaningfulness of characterisations of 'community' - can we usefully talk about a community of drivers (and passengers) and a community of internet users
  • the interaction of civil and criminal law, including speed limits, seatbelt provisions, vehicle certification, restrictions on the carriage of dangerous goods and punishment for drink driving or other offences
  • the significance of standards in shaping infrastructure and patterns of use
  • disagreement about divides and the shape of access, with for example rollout of infrastructure to locations where traffic is unlikely to justify investment and questions about economic exclusion
  • highways and the net as embodiments of national pride and anxiety
  • disorders such as road rage, web rage, drive by shootings and the "great Australian ugliness" in the form of billboards (or spam)
  • punditry about time, with for example claims that the "average US citizen" spends 70 minutes per day in a vehicle (somewhat less than the time spent in front of a screen).

section marker     landscapes and architecture

Simon Henley's The Architecture of Parking (London: Thames & Hudson 2008), Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930-1970 (New York: Berghahn 2007) by Thomas
Zeller and Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2008) by Brian Ladd.

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version of November 2008
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