Volatile gas prices, an auto industry in free fall, car-oriented subdivisions in foreclosure -- "Autophobia: Love and Hate in the Automotive Age" couldn't have come along at a better time.

Exploring more than a century of transportation culture, author Brian Ladd sees no end to the car conundrum. Private vehicles can take a person almost anywhere and the ads promise endless freedom, but there's also "the failure of drivers' experience on clogged highways to measure up to their fantasies." Can something you're completely dependent on ever be truly liberating?

To help us understand how we got here, Ladd takes us back to the early 1900s, when critics had already begun fretting about the intoxicating, aggression-inducing effects of power and speed on "otherwise kind, well-bred and considerate people" (to quote a 1913 driving manual). Ladd's own writing is highly readable, but he often hangs back to let the pro- and anti-car crowds hyperventilate in their own words: on one side, pedestrians are "unreconstructed Neanderthals" and cars are "great Gothic cathedrals," while on the other, the automobile "is destined to wipe out the world."

Ladd describes the rise of freeways and the resistance to them, and he looks at what is gained and lost by moving cars at the expense of all other modes. He notes how the auto industry blamed everything from pedestrians to road design for the huge traffic death tolls in the middle of the century. One economist he quotes compares highway fatalities to the human sacrifices made in primitive cultures -- and gives the primitive cultures the moral upper hand.

With oil supplies questionable, congestion newly gripping India and China, and few solutions to choked roads here at home, the car is in a precarious spot. But as Ladd points out, so far the car's doomsayers have been wrong every time.