The best books for understanding America’s car system

Anne Lutz Fernandez Author Of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives
By Anne Lutz Fernandez

Who am I?

I’ve been interested in car culture since my anthropologist sister and I first began collaborating on a research and writing project on the topic over fifteen years ago. At that time, I had just moved from a transit-rich city to a car-dependent suburb and she had just moved from a suburb to a walkable city, which got us talking about just how much this singular object—the car—shaped our everyday lives. Carjacked was published in 2010, and since then I’ve continued to read and write about transportation, although I also write a lot about education—another obsession for another list of recommended books.  


I wrote...

Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

By Catherine A. Lutz, Anne Lutz Fernandez,

Book cover of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives

What is my book about?

Carjacked is an in-depth look at America’s obsession with the car and its complex social impact. While the automobile's contribution to climate change and gas price volatility is hard to ignore, many of the costs of our overdependence on cars are more hidden—from the surprising total families spend annually for their vehicles, to cars’ contribution to higher disease rates, to the tens of thousands killed and millions injured in crashes each year. Carjacked shows how we can develop a healthier, cheaper, and greener relationship with cars and points us toward a more sustainable transportation system.

The books I picked & why

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There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster―Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

By Jessie Singer,

Book cover of There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster―Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

Why this book?

Losing my cousin and a friend in car crashes helped lead me to study car culture, so I was drawn to this book knowing its author had a similar motivation in writing it. Each year, tens of thousands of Americans die and millions are injured as a result of vehicle crashes. Singer explores the question of how something that happens with such terrifying regularity can continue to be framed as random, unavoidable, accidental. She shows how a system that serves products over people allows for a culture of victim blaming, making harm prevention more difficult.

There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster―Who Profits and Who Pays the Price

By Jessie Singer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked There Are No Accidents as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A journalist recounts the surprising history of accidents and reveals how they've come to define all that's wrong with America.

We hear it all the time: "Sorry, it was just an accident." And we've been deeply conditioned to just accept that explanation and move on. But as Jessie Singer argues convincingly: There are no such things as accidents. The vast majority of mishaps are not random but predictable and preventable. Singer uncovers just how the term "accident" itself protects those in power and leaves the most vulnerable in harm's way, preventing investigations, pushing off debts, blaming the victims, diluting anger,…


Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

By Gretchen Sorin,

Book cover of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

Why this book?

I first learned about this book from the PBS documentary that was based on it, and it is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the complex history of the automobile in America, a history rife with contradictions. Sorin highlights how the advent of the car provided Black Americans with great freedom and opportunity (including through its role in the civil rights movement) but also came with severe risks and restrictions. I especially appreciated how the author’s family history deepened the broader, national story. 

Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights

By Gretchen Sorin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Driving While Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Driving While Black demonstrates that the car-the ultimate symbol of independence and possibility-has always held particular importance for African Americans, allowing black families to evade the dangers presented by an entrenched racist society and to enjoy, in some measure, the freedom of the open road. Melding new archival research with her family's story, Gretchen Sorin recovers a lost history, demonstrating how, when combined with black travel guides-including the famous Green Book-the automobile encouraged a new way of resisting oppression.


Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

By Tom Vanderbilt,

Book cover of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

Why this book?

I did not expect to thoroughly enjoy a book with ninety pages of footnotes on a subject that people love to complain about day in and day out. But Vanderbilt, who has a great sense of humor and unrelenting interest in human behavior, took me along easily on his quest to satisfy his many questions about drivers, driving, roads, and traffic safety. The answers to those we’ve often asked ourselves on the road (usually while cursing), are often surprising. 

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)

By Tom Vanderbilt,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Traffic as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times Notable Book

One of the Best Books of the Year
The Washington Post • The Cleveland Plain-Dealer • Rocky Mountain News

In this brilliant, lively, and eye-opening investigation, Tom Vanderbilt examines the perceptual limits and cognitive underpinnings that make us worse drivers than we think we are. He demonstrates why plans to protect pedestrians from cars often lead to more accidents. He uncovers who is more likely to honk at whom, and why. He explains why traffic jams form, outlines the unintended consequences of our quest for safety, and even identifies the most common mistake drivers…


The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear

By Lieven de Cauter,

Book cover of The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear

Why this book?

This unusual and provocative collection of essays and reflections by a Belgian philosopher contains ideas about car culture I refer to and reflect on often though I first read them over a decade ago. The author led me to understand how cars, though they can close great distances and bring families and friends together, have also contributed to an atomized society in which we move between isolated places in isolation from each other, a separation aided by fear and adding to it.

The Capsular Civilization: On the City in the Age of Fear

By Lieven de Cauter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Capsular Civilization as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Particularly since September 11, the War on Terrorism and the war in Iraq, it has been almost impossible to dissociate architecture from its social context. Add to this the massive influence of capitalism on architecture, disturbing demographic developments and associated political, social, and ecological catastrophes, and the result is a robotic snapshot of a society dominated by fear, exclusion and simulation. Lieven De Cauter, a leading theoretician on the subject of capsularisation, has worked over the past six years on the essays and articles contained in this book, and has documented and analyzed our changing societies before and after 9/11.…


The High Cost of Free Parking

By Donald Shoup,

Book cover of The High Cost of Free Parking

Why this book?

Having grown up in a home where paying for parking was considered a sin, I was intrigued by the title of this book that’s not just for urban planners. Shoup reveals the common, misguided planning decisions that helped create not just a kind of entitlement culture around parking but a dysfunctional transportation system that we all pay for in too many ways, including economic underdevelopment and higher retail prices.  

The High Cost of Free Parking

By Donald Shoup,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The High Cost of Free Parking as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the American Planning Association's most popular and influential books is finally in paperback, with a new preface from the author on how thinking about parking has changed since this book was first published. In this no-holds-barred treatise, Donald Shoup argues that free parking has contributed to auto dependence, rapid urban sprawl, extravagant energy use, and a host of other problems. Planners mandate free parking to alleviate congestion but end up distorting transportation choices, debasing urban design, damaging the economy, and degrading the environment. Ubiquitous free parking helps explain why our cities sprawl on a scale fit more for…


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