Book Review: “Drive” by Tim Falconer

Through the good graces of Mini Book Expo For Bloggers and Penguin Group Canada I received a review copy of “DRIVE: A Road Trip Through Our Complicated Affair With the Automobile” by Tim Falconer.

The book is an examination of our collective love affair with cars, and the impact on our cities and infrastructure, told within the framework of the author’s nine and a half week road trip from Toronto to Los Angeles and back. (Most of the book (18 chapters) is part of the “way there”, and only one chapter covers the way back.)

I was reminded of Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, though Falconer’s “sub-text” is much more obviously related to his road trip than Pirsig’s was.

As this is a non-fiction book, I wanted to see it start with an obvious “Introduction” i.e. that pre-chapter that is so often seen before “Chapter 1”.  “Drive” starts right in with Falconer (literally) in the driver’s seat, on a Friday afternoon mini-road trip to cottage country, with him, once past the worst of the traffic, cranking the tunes and stepping on the gas.  But quickly chapter 1 covers the basics of car culture, its effects on our neighbourhoods (Toronto’s Annex and the vanquished threat of the Spadina Expressway), pedestrians vs. drivers, and car as art.  I hit the end of the chapter and realized that Falconer had slipped one over on me: chapter 1 was the introduction, framed in the guise of a trip to the cottage.

Falconer lives in Toronto (which presumably is why his trip started here) and the book covers quite a few local issues, people, situations.  I enjoyed the somewhat “Toronto-centric” start to the book and the trip, but I’m not sure whether readers ouside the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) or outside Canada would enjoy it as much as I did. (Everyone hates Toronto, right?) Would non-Hogtowners enjoy Falconer’s chats with Cam Woolley of the OPP?

Once the road trip begins (with “Leaving Minivan Nation”), Falconer visits Detroit (and the car company museums), Indianapolis, St. Louis, the remainders (reminders?) of Route 66, Colorado, Las Vegas, San Francisco, and the fabulous Pacific Coast Highway before reaching Los Angeles.  Along the way he visits places, car clubs, people and points of interest, while discussing car culture, incorporating information he gathered before the trip in a seamless fashion.  The result is that the reader is drawn into the trip, and into the “conversations” along the way.

Falconer examines the impact of the car on our cities and our economies, and our love/hate relationships with our cars (is your car a work of art, or simply a transportation tool?).  He spends time with car clubs, looks for excitement in the downtowns of cities that have escaped to the suburbs, and looks at how different cities have succeeded or failed as a result of “car culture”.

I was left pondering the good and bad of the car, and with a reinforced impression of the quality and results of the past fifty or so years of professional “Urban Planning”. (Confession: I’m completely suburban, and rarely ride public transit.  I’m as guilty as anyone.)

I really enjoyed the book – it was a good read, informative and thought-provoking while still being entertaining. Recommended!

Please also read Katie Gennaro’s review of Drive.

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