In Car Nation

part one: Cause
by Nick Sousanis


In the children's cartoon the Transformers, robotic aliens come to Earth and disguise themselves as automobiles in an attempt to blend in with what they had assumed was the dominant form of life on the planet. Not only was this story a great concept to sell toys, it also provides a disturbing metaphor of our culture. Perhaps, like the Transformers' tagline, what's really going on is "more than meets the eye."

In its brief century of existence, the automobile has been responsible for the largest transformation to date of both our physical and mental landscapes. Despite the heavy cost in terms of human fatalities and environmental degradation, our dependence on the automobile continues to expand. We are so caught up in car culture, it is difficult to see beyond it: a plane crash is a "human tragedy," while auto accidents are "traffic delays." Philosopher Lewis Mumford wrote, "For the current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism."1

The car has become synonymous with American culture. Cars are equated with independence, individuality, and like the old commercial proclaimed, "It's not just a car, it's your freedom." A case can be made, however, that it has in fact led to isolationism, dependence, inconvenience, and conformity.

The automobile's influence on our physical and mental environment is nowhere more evident than in Detroit - the Motor City. As the effects of accidents and pollution are well documented elsewhere, the focus of this essay shall look instead on less obvious, though no less consequential effects brought on by the automobile. In this first installment we shall examine the complex story that led to the car gaining its prominent position in our culture. In the second half we shall explore the automobile's profound impact on our way of life.

Toy Car Grows Up

The automobile is viewed as an essential aspect of modern life - an invention that improved people's lives many times over. But did necessity beget invention or were the roles reversed? Science historian George Basalla writes that "The automobile was not developed in response to some grave international horse crisis or horse shortage. National leaders, influential thinkers, and editorial writers were not calling for the replacement of the horse, nor were ordinary citizens anxiously hoping that some inventors would soon fill a serious societal and personal need for motor transportation."2 Although the automobile began life as a toy for the wealthy, once it became apparent that profits could be made off of it, it was marketed as a necessity for modern living.

A Tangled Web

The automobile industry made its first coordinated advance in the 1930s developing a strategy to eliminate other transit competition. Attorney Bradford Snell charged in his 1974 Senate testimony that, "General Motors Corporation, along with its coconspirators, had purposefully sought to destroy electric public transportation systems by forcing an inferior technology on them - that is, the motor bus."3 General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Truck colluded to form front companies like National City Lines. National City bought out existing city transit systems, cut services, and converted some of the routes to buses provided by General Motors. When the systems started underperforming, they cut more services, raised rates, and continued in this manner until people's options were but one - the car. In his book, "Motorization of American Cities," David J. St Clair refers to this as a "'conversion - for - destruction' thesis, since the conversion to allegedly inferior motor buses was promoted in order to destroy one of the automobile's competitors."4 General Motors argued that the people preferred the bus and car, and the other means just couldn't compete. Is it possible that GM's motive for entering the bus market was simply to diversify their income sources?

Not likely. The rail lines took up a valuable piece of property in the middle of the streets, real estate that could be used to fill with cars. The greatest concentration of potential car buyers was in the cities. In order to reach them, auto interests needed to eliminate other transportation options and gain access to this property controlled by the rail lines. The conspirators' argued that people preferred buses and cars, and that the rail lines couldn't compete financially. These claims don't hold up. In Jim Klein and Martha Olson's documentary film, "Taken for a Ride," former transit riders testify about their enjoyment of the trolleys, the friends they made on the lines, and the sense of community that existed. In their words, "you weren't afraid to talk to someone," you could "see people every day," and it was "the best form of transportation."5 While the public was outraged with the loss of the rails, it was "impractical to replace after they were gone."6

Despite auto manufacturer' claims, the dominance of the automobile was not inevitable. A lot of energy had to be expended to prevent alternatives from surviving. According to the City Planning Commission in Detroit in 1946, "Your Department of Street Railways has never viewed a brighter future than that which lies immediately ahead of us."7 It is doubtful that this was mere hyperbole, as at that time the Detroit Department of Street Railways reached what would be the peak of its ridership and money earned by percentage of population. Transportation expert Karl Greimel recalls that, "by the late 1960s, he had seen 17 mass transportation plans for Detroit dating back to 1912."8 Obviously none of these ever materialized beyond some planner's designs, and the city has suffered greatly for it.

Interstate Highway Act

The Federal Interstate Highway Act of 1956 was the second significant development to ensure the automobile's dominance. At a cost of $50 billion, this was the largest public works program ever enacted. In the previous decade, individual parties were building highways, but no national system of planning or financial support had been put in place.9 As its entire name reflects, "National System of Interstate and Defense Highways," the intended purpose of the Interstates was to unite the nation and to aid in the defense of the nation in case of evacuation of the cities. The military wished to keep the highways out of the cities, stating that fallen tall buildings could permanently shut down highways in cities, whereas outside the city, less rubble need be cleared to keep the roads moving. The auto industry came out against this idea. They were "clearly opposed to keeping the Interstate System out of urban areas or to emphasizing circumferential routes."10 The auto companies wanted the highways to slice right through the downtowns of all the major cities. In the end, the defense department proved no match against the juggernaut of the industry that had created the "Arsenal of Democracy" during World War II and the highway came to the city.

This in effect meant that taxpayers' money went not so much to provide for their transportation needs, but to sell more automobiles. By creating still more road space on which cars could be driven, the need to buy them could then be reinforced. According to David J. St. Clair in his book "The Motorization of American Cities", auto interests declared that the Interstate Highway System had to be upgraded and expanded, "because it holds the key to the future of traffic expansion in the United States."11 By cutting roads through cities, the auto industry could finally reach all the potential customers that they had yet to corner.

In their book, "Access for All", Schaeffer and Sclar state a further reason for auto interests to demand highways entering the cities. They claim that "by the 1940s, all roads had been drained and graveled and all highways paved."12 They continue to say that no further roads were needed to improve the system, only basic repair and improvements. The conclusion at the time was: "If need be, road expenditure could be decreased for other more urgent public needs."13 This meant a potential loss of money to auto interests. The auto companies wanted the space, the customers and the money, and with their lobbying wheels in motion they would not be stopped.

The auto industry spared no effort to ensure the Interstates were built according to their desires. They accomplished their goals both by strong lobbying groups and working their people into influential government posts. The automobile industry formed and ran such lobbying groups as the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA), the Automobile Safety Foundation (ASF), the National Highway Users Conference (NHUC), and others. The groups organized highway campaigns, testified on the value of interstates before Congress, all with the rationale that while more roads certainly helped their business, the roads were essential to the growth of the nation. "Legislators were asked to approve freeways to meet increased traffic, but the estimates of increased travel were often themselves based upon the availability of these same urban freeways."14 While this may seem like a powerful force on its own, the industry also went one step further, to have what David St. Clair describes as "Personnel Interlocks" in key governmental positions. As early as World War I, top industry leaders were given chairman positions in defense, highway, and motor transport positions. This continued through World War II. These men gave orders under national defense authority for the automobile manufacturers to expand rapidly to keep up with war supply needs. Men like Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. of GM and National City Lines executive I.B. Babcock received influential appointments. In 1953, just three years before the signing of the Interstate Act, C.E. Wilson (then president of GM) was appointed Secretary of Defense. In that same year, Francis Du Pont, who along with his family owned controlling interest in GM, was named director of the Bureau of Public Roads.15 The confluence of all of these factors helped shape the Interstate Act that Eisenhower was to sign in just the manner industry wanted.

The auto companies wanted the space, the customers, and the money, and with intensive lobbying efforts and well-placed insiders, they got it all. The rhetoric of uniting a nation, protecting our population, and catering to our wanderlust came down to this, according to "Open Road" author Phil Patton: "The Interstates were created not so much to bind the nation together as to keep things flowing."16 That is traffic flow led to a greater flow of car sales and the money flowed into the pockets of the auto industry.

Throw Away Society

Once the obstacles of getting everyone to own a car were out of the way, automakers then needed to focus their attention on getting people to buy new cars more frequently. Money isn't being made if things aren't being bought and sold. Alfred P. Sloan, then chairman of GM, introduced the concept of "planned obsolescence" in the 1920's.17 In order to increase slumping sales, GM would reinvent their car models each year with new styles and discontinue manufacturing parts for the previous models. Effectively this forced people to replace their automobile more frequently. This strategy saw its peak in the 1950s and 60s as only around 50 percent of cars remained on the road after nine years of use as compared to the previous decades' figure of over 80 percent.18 Planned obsolescence spread as a marketing technique to most American industries. In their book "Derelict Landscapes," John A. Jakle and David Wilson wrote, "Ours is a society of debased products, from throwaway cameras to throwaway automobiles. The automobile industry has led the way. … American industry has stopped stressing durability and quality."19 As a society this has led to the devaluing of craftsmanship and the growth of mass consumption.

So the car grew to dominance - not out of necessity or individual preference, but to perpetuate the manufacturing of new cars. Who benefited from the growth of the car and the interstates? Is this what the country really wanted? While it is likely people had preferences for the private car (especially after the alternatives were thinned out), David St. Clair attempts to clarify that preference. He makes a point of separating transit methods into different purposes. "I may strongly prefer an automobile for pleasure drives on weekends, yet be totally frustrated with "racing" down the freeways at work at five miles per hour."20 The possibility that the people would have preferred a mixed system is an option car manufacturers never allowed to happen. As late as 1945, Detroit City Planning Commissions drafted up plans for creating a mixed system of rails and freeways. Despite expert recommendations, it never saw fruition. At a time when our rail system was the best in the world, people were not demanding more and better highways. St. Clair cites, "a poll taken after 1956 [that] found that only 2 percent of the people polled knew what the interstate was."21 These decisions were not made by the public, but by men like General Motor's executive C.E. Wilson, who once proclaimed, "What's good for General Motors is good for America."

Perhaps the advantages associated with the automobile would inevitably have come to a dominant transportation means on its own. It's also possible that people could have decided on a transportation system that worked to serve people first, bringing together the best of all the potential options. This was not to be, however, and we are stuck with the consequences of living in car nation.

Next time we shall take up the subject of how automobile culture has had a profound effect on every aspect of our lives. (Click Here For Part Two.)

1Lewis Mumford, The Highway and the City (London: Secker and Warburg, 1964), 176.
2 George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6-7.
3 David J. St.Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 16.
4 David J. St.Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 16.
5 Jim Klein and Martha Olson, "Taken for a Ride" (Documentary film, PBS), 1996.
6 Jim Klein and Martha Olson, "Taken for a Ride" (Documentary film, PBS), 1996.
7 Detroit City Planning Commission. Urban Transportation and the Detroit Bus System. (1972),1.
8 Jennifer Bott, "Detroit Pays for its Noticeable Lack of Mass Transit." Detroit Free Press, December 10, 1998.
9 Edward Weiner, Urban Transportation in the United States: An Historical Overview. Web: Travel Model Improvement Program, 1997. Chapter 3.Transit Cooperative Research Program, Consequences of the Development of the Interstate Highway System for Transit. Federal Transit Administration, 1997.
10 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 152.
11 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 159.
12 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 95.
13 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 95.
14 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 130.
15 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 139-141.
16 Phil Patton, Open Road (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 95.
17 James J. Flink, The Car Culture, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1975), 174.
18 James J. Flink, The Car Culture, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1975), 196-7.
19 John A. Jakle and David Wilson, Derelict Lanscapes, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1992), 21.
20 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 83.
21 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 25.

© 2002