For most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys.


The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation's automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a lively tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that new transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles.

Read the Foreword by William Cronon (PDF)


Christopher W. Wells was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where cars were a way of life. He still remembers the thrill of getting his driver's license, which unlocked new worlds of freedom and mobility. He became interested in car dependence only after living in other places, where he found, to his surprise, that cars were less necessary. He is professor of environmental history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and is the editor of Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader (2018) and co-editor (with George Vrtis), of Nature’s Crossroads: The Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota (2022).


Witness the emergence of [America’s] automobile-dependent landscape in the pages of this book, and you will never again see the world around you in quite the same way.... [A] delight to read.”

  • William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis and Changes in the Land, from the Foreword

Car Country is the most comprehensive recent synthesis of the automobile in twentieth-century America, of unusual scope and readability.”

  • Peter D. Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

“An exemplar of excellent scholarship.”

  • John Heitmann, Journal of Transport History 35 (June 2014): 133-34.

“In this lively, learned, and ambitious book Christopher Wells approaches the history of the American car culture from the perspective of the environmental historian.... Wells masters and makes use of the absolutely immense literature on the history of the car culture.... [V]ery strong environmental history ... first-rate work ... a terrific excavation of the sprawlscape that still drives our days.”

  • Virginia Scharff, Human Ecology 41 (October 2013): 793-94.

“Well researched.... Engagingly written.... [A]n excellent and needed addition to the still remarkably small literature that explores the combined histories of Americans, automobiles, and the environment.”

  • Tom McCarthy, Michigan Historical Review 40 (Spring 2014): 128-30.

“In every chapter, Wells makes familiar topics fresh.... Though a first book, Car Country is much more than a well-researched and well-written monograph. Wells skillfully synthesizes a number of huge scholarly literatures. The result is a remarkable hybrid—a wonderful overview of a subject of critical importance that also offers scholars rich new insights.”

  • Adam Rome, Pacific Historical Review 83 (November 2014): 723-24.

“Wells’s book is so full of fresh insights and new perspectives that it should rightfully find a place alongside Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier (1985) and Dolores Hayden’s Building Suburbia (2003).”

  • Gabrielle Esperdy, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 73 (June 2014): 291-94.

“[A] fresh and well-documented history.”

    -James M. Rubenstein, Journal of American History 100 (March 2014): 1268-69.

“In Car Country, Christopher W. Wells offers a compelling history of America’s signature car-dependent landscapes. The text is at once a deft synthesis of recent literature on motor vehicles, highways, urban planning, suburban development, and land use policy, and a persuasive reinterpretation of these histories through the lens of landscape ecology. Scholars in these fields will find it a provocative read. With lively anecdotes, effective imagery, and dozens of illustrations, the book also presents an accessible narrative that will help students visualize how Americans gradually and profoundly transformed their nation into a place ‘where car dependence is woven into the basic fabric of the landscape.’ ... [I]f understanding the past provides one key to envisioning a different future, then his ambitious, captivating, clear-eyed analysis of why ‘reaching for the car keys’ has become our ‘default national gesture’ is a prime place to begin.”

  • Michael R. Fein, American Historical Review 119 (February 2014): 212-13.

Car Country is an outstanding piece of scholarship.... Like much of the best environmental history, it utilizes a range of approaches, bringing together political history, the history of technology, and economic history. And like much of the best environmental history, Wells’s approach may best be described as ecological: he deftly untangles the interconnections among humans’ economic practices, institutional arrangements, and ideas, and the environments upon which these activities depend.... Wells’s book is a remarkable achievement. Anybody interested in how the automobile shaped the American environment will regard Car Country as indispensable.”

  • Theodore Strathman, Southern California Quarterly 95 (Fall 2013): 331-34.

“The central theme of Wells’ important new book is that whilst car dependency in the United States is now the norm for nearly all people and most places, this is a surprisingly recent historical development.... Car Country provides a valuable historical analysis and record of the processes and policies which enabled car dependency to emerge and become the norm in the United States in the first 60 years of the 20th century.”

  • Richard Knowles, Journal of Transport Geography 32 (October 2013): 102-3.

“Christopher Wells shows how the nation’s transportation systems shaped America’s physical environment.... Wells posits that a diverse group of Americans—government officials at every level, private drivers, real estate developers, oil companies, and car manufacturers—crafted a landscape that was built for and necessitated cars. By showing how these Americans rebuilt the country’s mobility landscape, Wells flips the traditional narrative. Rather than viewing the expansion of car culture as the driving force behind suburban growth and decentralization, Wells contends that policies and practices that promoted this growth made America into ‘car country’ and made the automobile central to the nation’s transportation network and to its landscape.”

  • Kyle Shelton, "Power, Governance, and Contested Mobilities: New Turns in United States Historiography," Mobility in History 5 (January 2014): 127-33.

“The suburbanization of the United States has been one of the most powerful social, cultural, and economic trends in the nation’s history.... Through an impressive use of primary and secondary materials along with a lucid narrative style, Christopher Wells successfully describes and analyzes the complex interactions of widespread automobile ownership and the ubiquity of suburban life.”

  • Rudi Volti, Environmental History 19 (January 2014): 141-42.

“Wells’s clear prose and deft review of the well-studied material realities (more cars, more miles, more speed) threaten to overshadow just how intelligently he blends the past four decades of automotive scholarship. Indeed, Car Country is an encouraging sign to those anxious over the balkanization of cultural, political, and social history.... Wells has produced an important and persuasive new chapter in the history of American car culture.”

  • David Blanke, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 111 (Autumn 2013): 633-35.

“In this well-written and broadly conceived work, Christopher Wells offers a new interpretation of the way automobiles have reshaped the American landscape.... [T]he book provides a lot to think about with regard to the relationship between technology and the built environment. Moreover, there is a wealth of interesting information about automobiles and road building, the kind of details that will enhance cocktail conversation and class lectures alike for years.”

  • Lawrence Lipin, Oregon Historical Quarterly 114 (Fall 2013): 386-87.

“Deftly written and well-illustrated, Car Country rejects the notions that the automotive landscape emerged either as the byproduct of consumer desire for automobiles or as the result of conspiracies to eviscerate public transit.... [I]t is excellent on the topics addressed, and it is especially fine on the forces at work in the creation of the highway system.”

  • David E. Nye, Technology and Culture 54 (October 2013): 987-88.

Car Country offers a valuable historical perspective that is directly related to many pressing contemporary issues.”

  • Owen D. Gutfreund, author of Twentieth-Century Sprawl: Highways and the Reshaping of the American Landscape

“Wells is at his best getting us to ‘think about landscapes,’ and the impact they have on people’s decisions about driving.... Wells’s study proves that Americans are not hard-wired to love cars, and that creating more compact, mixed-use developments in cities and even suburbs around good transit and safe streets for bicycling and walking can wean Americans from their environmentally destructive and unhealthy auto habit.”

“Christopher Wells’ environmental history of the automobile in America to 1960 fills an important gap concerning our knowledge of the complex relationship that evolved between the adoption of the car and changes in the land.... Wells’ monograph is a thoroughly researched and extremely well documented study. The attached bibliography is of real value to anyone interested in transportation history. I will assign this book in my car culture courses.”

“The strength of Car Country lies in its mix of concrete data and historical narrative. Wells employs numerous maps, charts, and geographic statistics along with stories ... to make his narrative appeal to general readers and diverse academic audiences. He also does well to clearly and cleverly point out the intracacies of “Car Country”…. In all, Wells provides historians with a new perspective on environmental and urban history and offers almost everyone a new way to view the landscapes they encounter on a daily basis.”

  • Daniel E. Karalus, Electronic Green Journal 1 (Fall 2013).

“The relationship between Americans and automobiles has long been wrapped in mythology about the nation’s love affair with the road. Wells demystifies this history by studying the structural basis of why Americans need to drive and centering his analysis on how road building shaped the nation’s relationship to the automobile.... Car Country is a valuable addition to our knowledge on urban development, the environmental impact of automobiles, and the evolution of the twentieth-century American landscape.”

  • Erik Loomis, Enterprise and Society 14 (December 2013): 854-56.

“Wells argues that in order to understand how automobility has become so deeply ‘locked in’ to contemporary American society, historians and geographers would do better to focus on the built landscape.... With its impressively broad scope complemented by excellent maps, well-chosen images, and an extensive bibliography, [Car Country] belongs in the library of anyone interested in transportation, infrastructure, mobility, and land-use in twentieth-century America.”

  • Ben Bradley, Journal of Historical Geography 45 (July 2014): 126-27.

“Relatively few academic geographers have focused their research and publishing directly on the automobile and its geographical implications for life in the United States. Yet nothing over the past century has had a greater effect on America’s geography than the public’s evolving dependence on the motor car, and, as well, the motor truck.... Perhaps, Christopher Wells’s opus will excite more geographers to focus on automobility as a fundamental factor underlying the American experience.”

  • John A. Jakle, AAG Review of Books 1 (October 2013): 168-69.

“In Car Country, Christopher Wells asks the reader to step away from the typical and unproductive arguments about Americans’ love affair with their cars. That debate, he argues, has ossified into two outdated and unhelpful positions.... Wells wants to turn our attention elsewhere—to the gradual accumulation of a century’s worth of decisions, values, and professional standards that made the United States a “car country,” a place of car dependence. This history is necessarily an environmental history, because all of these new behaviors and institutions created a built landscape that now allows no option but the automobile.”

  • Sarah T. Phillips, Business History Review 88 (Winter 2014): 816-18.

“America’s love affair with the automobile, like many of the relationships cited in today’s social media, is complicated.... Car Country is a detailed historical treatment of technological, economic, political, and cultural factors that have shaped four periods of our identity as the motherland of the automobile. The author points out that in each of these periods specific land-use decisions were made that favored our societal commitment to the automobile.”

  • David B. Broad, “The Automotive West in Christopher Wells's Car Country,” Journal of the West 53 (Spring 2014): 80-82.

“Did the automobile beget Car Country, or did the built environment give rise to auto dependence? Wells strives, over the course of the book, to provide an answer. Making informative and engaging pit stops along the way, Wells guides readers as he maps how Americans became increasingly dependent on their cars. Embedded in the book is a discussion about the field of environmental history itself. Yet, rather than focusing solely on the ways roads altered landscapes or cars utilized precious resources, Wells directs our attention to the large-scale processes of social and cultural change that facilitated our reliance on cars.”

  • Erika Bsumek, “The Road Taken,” Reviews in American History 43 (June 2015): 340-45.

“Environmental historians will easily recognize Wells’s contributions, especially to the subfield of envirotech, the study of interactions between nature and technology.... [N]o other work so clearly lays out the physical creation of America’s modern automobile-dependent landscape. General US historians should pay attention to Car Country. It joins a growing body of environmental history that is revising the traditional narrative of US history.”

“Written from the perspective of an environmental historian, Car Country ... examin[es] how policy has shaped the transformation of the American landscape, which made driving necessary.... Wells argues that we must understand the policies that shaped our landscapes to understand why cars are so ubiquitous in our country.”

  • John L. Renne, “The Road (Becoming) Less Traveled: The History of Highways in America,” Journal of Urban History 42 (Sep. 2016): 960-64.

“Car Country: An Environmental History by Christopher Wells is a fine book: well written, researched, and argued. Its greatest strength lies in the way that Wells positions his analysis at the intersection of the many new questions and analytical methods that have emerged from environmental history over the past few decades.... While it would be wrong to claim that the book’s ultimate contribution is in how seamlessly Wells synthesizes the diverse and deep reservoir of secondary literature, this aspect of Car Country merits special praise.... For those interested in understanding how automobiles have been problematized by scholars, and how these analyses provide new opportunities for environmental historians, Car Country is an essential first read.”

“Any good author wants to convince his/her readers of the soundness and correctness of the basic arguments. Why write a book otherwise? The very best authors want to provoke readers to think about, speculate about, and even question basic assertions as laid out for them. Car Country does that by offering a point of view and a point of reference reinforced throughout the study. We get a look at automobiles from a bird’s eye view hovering above a changing landscape.... Car Country shows environmental history in a very good light. It also elevates the discussion of a central technological and cultural feature in modern life. The chance to consider and ponder the questions raised in the book is exhilarating.”

“Wells’s analysis is convincing and his command of the primary and secondary literature admirable. While many first academic books hone in on a limited case study, Wells surveys 80 years of automobile and road history in the United States on less than 300 readable and often engaging pages. This is a virtue: The book lends itself to classroom use and I can easily envision many fruitful discussions with both undergraduates and graduate students about it.... Car Country is the kind of book that graduate students in environmental history looking for a dissertation topic can use to survey the field, encounter a useful interpretation, and identify lacunae of research beyond the scope of the book. Historians of technology will encounter an interpretation that differs in approach and result from their own.... On another level, I would hope that historians of mobility and transportation and historians of technology will hear the book’s message about the environmental dimension of automobility clearly.... For several academic disciplines, this book is an important step (or, rather, freeway drive) forward.”