This book is a charming and compassionate compendium of mostly anthropological research on motorways, motoring and localities. In a series of short but engaging chapters the various authors explore the fascinating mundane, and in so doing elevate mobility from the merely functional to the realm of cultural idiosyncrasy.
Many of the contributions in this edited work draw inspiration from the 'mobilities' school of thought most closely associated with the work of John Urry and colleagues. Indeed Part 1 of the book, comprising six contributions, is a celebration of the anthropological interpretation of mobility.
The contributions in Part 1 in particular are a joy to read, so poignantly do they capture the essence of everyday mobility, the neglected infrastructures, the parochial lives, and the routinized practices that too often seem unworthy of academic interest.
We are offered unique insights into the humanity that is often not apparent in the garish functionality of motels. We are taken inside the cab of a long-distance truck driver, to share his life and the experiences of the researcher who travels with him. We are reminded that the drab uniformity of the motorway is resonant with political and social meaning. At times the gaze is unflinching, but never cold and heartless. We are reminded that these featureless non-places such as motels, or these places where only a few ever go such as truck cabs, are the locus of performative practice where real life unfolds.
We see the sadness of communities by-passed by the new motorway, hopes of economic revitalisation dashed, in a testament to the ambiguity of modernity. Much of the research is set in Poland, a country on a modernisation journey towards the 'bright lights' of a neo-liberal economy. The new motorway, for example, reduces road traffic deaths on the badly-designed old road, yet also becomes the conduit for the departure of the young, the ambitious and the desperate. Older businesses wither and fade, taking employment with them – even prostitution has struggled to remain as the motorway speeds travellers on past the desolation of the old road.
There is awareness, too, of venturing into new theoretical and empirical territory for anthropology; of new realms for the intense nature of anthropological research that carries with it the need for honest reflexivity. It can be an emotionally gruelling way of working, as some of the chapters plainly reveal. It is an area that the book could have developed further, and explored the boundaries of the discipline more clearly.
Part 2 of the book has more conventional chapters about transportation and mass motorization. There are chapters that deal with the planning and managerial problems of logistics and urban congestion for example. These are good contextual accounts, but lack a bit of the energy and emotional allure of the other chapters.
But then the book returns to those bigger themes, those concerns that connect us all one way or another. There is a stimulating account of car culture in America. We are encouraged to look again at the endlessly passing landscape of the roadside, the zone that parallels roads throughout much of urban America; and yes we see similar expressions of car culture all around us.
Moreover the brief foray into the realm of the car as a means of transit is counter-balanced by an account of the car as the enduring symbol and manifestation of life in the post-modern reality. This is a book that gets beyond price and branding and the objective performance of motoring, and helps us understand the emotional comfort of the car as a cocoon wherein lies much of its enduring appeal.
It is perhaps a bleak point that we are doomed to replicate the privacy and lack of social contact of our lives even in the way we move through our societies. Perhaps in the case of Poland, where other memories of a more collective vision are still fresh, there is a stronger awareness of this loss and alienation.
It is evident, therefore, that this little book that comes in nicely 'bite sized' contributions, has something to pique the interest and imagination of anybody with a passing concern with transport, locality and mobility. It will make you look at your world with fresh eyes.
Inevitably, the contributions are uneven. Some are better, or more gripping, than others. Some chapters appear a little out of place, a little off-topic. For me the chapter on 'Three square metres' was a highlight, as was 'The "symbiosis" of a private vehicle and a private life'. But for other readers it could easily be something else. It is a book to challenge our assumptions, and to encourage us to think anew about mobility, and for that alone it should be cherished.
Equally, the quality is uneven too. At times there is a need for better proof-reading, and the use of English can be a problem. Some of the diagrams and illustrations did not reproduce so well in such a small format. Some of the references could be more recent. Still, these are quibbles that are overwhelmed by the vitality of the contributions.
Overall this is a book that manages in the most part to rise above the merely parochial and indeed the purely academic. While much, though not all, of the content is grounded in the concrete reality of Poland there is plenty of application to many other parts of the world. Indeed the ubiquity of motorisation leads us to a rather lazy generalisation of sameness, while this book serves to remind that places are different, and these differences matter.