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Response to Review of Automobility and the City in Twentieth-Century Britain and Japan

The authors would like to thank Guy Ortolano for his incisive review of our book. It captures perfectly our core arguments about the historicity of the modern car system and its global reach. We wanted to show how automobility became ordinary, embedded in everyday life during the second half of the 20th century so that its presence in cities East and West became both ubiquitous and oddly invisible. We cease to see the paraphernalia of cars because they surround us in a worldwide system that remains largely hidden. As Guy Ortolano neatly comments in his review, automobility is ‘a system linking drivers in Birmingham to commuters in Nagoya, and both to an oil economy stretching from Dallas to Riyadh’.

This is a global history, although motor vehicles are very unevenly distributed across the world; it is also a transnational history in which cars, people, and expert knowledge have migrated across boundaries. But we chose to frame our study of Birmingham and Nagoya as comparative urban history. In one sense, as Guy Ortolano observes, the book is a tale of two (motor) cities. In adopting this frame we wanted to make the point that, although automobility is a global and transnational phenomenon, it has very particular histories in different parts of the world. In Birmingham and Nagoya the infrastructure of roads and the cultures of driving might look the same but they developed at different historical moments and were shaped by distinctive views of how cars and the built environment should interact. In Birmingham, speed and flow were fundamental to how road systems were designed, particularly the Inner Ring Road, Britain’s first urban motorway, opened in 1971. In Nagoya, by contrast, the city’s famous 100-metre-wide roads, such as Hisaya Ōdōri, were laid out with ideas of spaciousness and vista to the fore, reflecting an engineering vision very different from that of Herbert Manzoni and Birmingham’s planners. Above all, taking the city as our frame meant displacing the nation-state and with it the US-centric model of automobility, which saw North America as the locus classicus from which the car system evolved rather than being one site among many. Paradoxically, putting the city at the centre of our analysis made it easier to foreground the truly global dimensions of that history.

There are other arguments, too, in the book, about the extent to which automobility altered the morphology of the city itself and the protests which accompanied the onset of mass motorisation in the 1960s and 1970s. The celebrated opposition organised by Jane Jacobs and others in Greenwich Village to the expressway plans of Robert Moses in New York are well known but equally important were the spate of protests in Japan, linking public health first with industrial pollution (the Minimata case), then with motorway traffic in Tokyo, Nagoya, and other cities in the 1960s. Mass automobility gave rise to new forms of protest in both Japan and Britain and contributed to the groundswell of concern in both countries about the effects on the ‘environment’ that would culminate in the identification of carbon emissions with global warming in the 1980s. Significantly, both Birmingham and Nagoya have taken major steps to undo the damage caused by their incarnation as motor cities. The ‘rebalancing’ of the car and the city which we date from the mid-1970s is still unfolding; in January 2020, Birmingham City Council threatened to ban all private cars from travelling through the city, a move that would have appalled Manzoni and his immediate successors. As Guy Ortolano so aptly notes, at a point when the dominance of the car has come into question it becomes possible to illuminate what has remained so far a shadowy actor in the making of urban modernity: the extraordinary spread of the car system as a globalising historical process across the 20th century.