Photo by Margot Hartford: Author Tim Falconer behind the wheel of a Mustang.
Author Tim Falconer went from being a car hater to a car lover.
Well, sort of.
Falconer was in town last week to promote his latest book, Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With the Automobile. In Drive, Falconer chronicles his trip from Toronto to L.A. and back in his old 1991 Nissan Maxima, a journey of some 14,992 km through 17 states and five provinces. Along the way he stops to talk to many folks — gear heads, urban planners, traffic controllers, and stakeholders in the auto industry — as he attempts to uncover just how cars have shaped modern society.
In the first chapter Falconer lays out the details: he wasn’t much of a fan of automobiles, and he didn’t get his license to drive until later in life. So why the book?
“The idea was originally my publisher’s,” Falconer says during a telephone interview. “And the editor I was working for suggested I’d be good for it.”
Ironically, for almost a year and a half Falconer had been keeping a file on traffic stories.
Turns out Falconer became interested in traffic and its patterns after he’d been stuck in a jam while commuting to Montreal to attend a conference. He started clipping stories about traffic and how it flows — or doesn’t flow.
“For example, a huge truck accident would close the 401,” he says. “And I’d clip a story about how much money was lost (because traffic was tied up), and how important the free flow of movement was to our economy.”
Falconer says he didn’t want to write a book that was completely negative about cars. He wanted to figure out why the car was so important, and then take a look at some of the downsides such as urban sprawl, air pollution and traffic congestion.
And to research the book Falconer knew a road trip was in order. Initially, he suggested a road trip from Toronto to Vancouver, and his publisher thought an American road trip would be better. Another idea was for Falconer to fly to L.A., and then drive different iconic cars across America. He would have, for example, driven a Toyota Prius in San Francisco, a pick up truck in Texas, and a Cadillac in Detroit. But he says that plan would have been too difficult to arrange.
“So I just drove my own car to L.A.” he says. “The centre of car culture.”
Whenever possible Falconer slowed down and drove roads less traveled, cruising the so-called ‘Blue Highways’ or secondary roads that connect small town-America that interstates have bypassed.
Speaking of driving a good portion of old Route 66, a famous highway that originates in Chicago and terminates in L.A., Falconer says; “It was so much fun to drive it and it was really interesting to see the mentality behind building that kind of road versus an interstate — roads like Route 66 were built to be a part of the journey, and not just a conveyor belt to get you somewhere. We’re always in such a rush, and we should make the journey part of the fun.”
Falconer discusses ways to lessen our dependence on vehicles; including increasing taxes to help fund mass transit systems and building communities and streets that encourage pedestrian traffic. He also looks at London’s congestion taxes, and takes an in-depth look at parking problems.
He says, “If you live in a walkable community you have the option to walk or bike, and when you need to, you drive.”
When Falconer got back home he was told his old Maxima had traveled its last journey. He prefers to walk whenever practicable, and doesn’t drive often. Falconer says he might put 2,500 km on a vehicle in nine months. But rather than join an auto-sharing club or just give up vehicle ownership, Falconer bought a brand new Mazda3.
“I went into the project ambivalent and torn (about cars), and I came out sort of torn, but even deeper,” he says. “I might like cars more, but I’m also more aware of the problems.”
Drive: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With the Automobile by Tim Falconer, ISBN-13: 978-0-670-06569-1, 340 pages, $35, a Viking Hardcover from Penguin Group (Canada).
First published in the Calgary Herald Driving.ca section, June 6, 2008.
Photo courtesy Tim Falconer: The infamous Cadillac Ranch in Texas.