In the first installment, (click
here for part one) we examined how the automobile went from being
a novelty to the primary means of transportation in this country.
In this second part we shall explore the automobile's influence upon
Gaining a better understanding of what a city is helps inform a discussion
on the problems facing Detroit. "Access is what cities
are all about. Man invented cities as an economic and social tool
to create easy accessibility through collocation."22
A city is a place for people to interact and break down barriers between
one another. It acts as a center for ideas and goods to be exchanged.
Transportation serves as the lifeblood of a city, bringing people
and goods in and out of its heart thus maintaining its vitality. "Just
as an improperly functioning blood-circulation system affects the
health of every part of the body, so an improperly functioning transportation
system over time affects all aspects of society."23
While "Detroit began its civic life as a transportation hub,"24
first by water and later by rail lines, it has since become something
to be driven through with destinations interspersed off exit ramps.
With its circulation system crippled, the city's health must necessarily
Paradox of Convenience
success of the automobile creates a paradox: The convenience of the
car leads to inconvenience of the journey. With increased transportation
convenience, the need to locate potential destinations near one another
decreases. Decentralization leads to increased trip distances and
times, which in turn results in greater inconvenience for drivers.
"With motor vehicles and freeways, transportation has become
so plentiful and so universal that the transportation arteries no
longer give a structuring to the urban environment."25
In an unplanned community, the location of the grocery store has no
particular reason to be nearby the bank or for that matter a person's
place of employment. What could have been a short walk or ride to
all of one's needs becomes a crisscross of travel to and from disparate
destinations. David St. Clair cites an Automobile Manufacturers Association
study that states outright that new urban freeways would "increase
trip length in urban areas by 10 to 15 percent."26
The automobile offers the illusion of freedom to come and go as we
please. But when something goes wrong with our cars, we are stuck.
French labor theoretician Andre Gorz states, "The apparent independence
of the automobile owner was only concealing the actual radical dependency."27
There is no alternative. The only solution is to maintain a backup,
but how many people can afford to have an extra vehicle to keep available
should the need arise?
We sacrifice a great deal of our free time to automobile travel.
Schaeffer and Sclar describe a daylong traffic jam that occurred in
Boston. They ask how this could happen to people there who "had
more mobility than any previous generation could imagine, yet they
could not move."28 The
arterial lines can only handle so much congestion, as the parking
spaces can only handle so many vehicles; once the jam begins, nobody
moves. Andre Gorz, referring to Ivan Illich, illustrates this paradox
nicely. "It is true, Illich points out, that in non-industrialized
countries travel uses only 3 to 8% of people's free time (which comes
to about two to six hours a week). Thus a person on foot covers as
many miles in an hour devoted to travel as a person in a car, but
devotes 5 to 10 times less time in travel. Moral: The more widespread
fast vehicles are within a society, the more time - beyond a certain
point - people will spend and lose on travel. It's a mathematical
Increased reliance on the car leads to isolation between people.
On foot or mass transit it is difficult to avoid interactions with
others, but while driving, such accidental interactions are clearly
undesirable. We enter public spaces walled off by steel and glass.
The automobile keeps us segregated from the neighborhoods we drive
through as well as the other drivers we pass by on our way to and
from our destinations. We no longer need to "rub shoulders"
with the masses and form bonds with other people. Our ability to understand
one another and our environment comes through interaction - something
not possible behind the wheel of a car.
The prevalence of automobile usage here certainly contributes to
the fact that of metro areas with major African American populations
Detroit is the most segregated.30
Whites traveling through black neighborhoods are likely to form opinions
on what they see through their windows, and vice versa. Neither party,
though, ever interacts in any meaningful way. Thomas J. Sugrue in
his book, "The Origins of the Urban Crisis," comments
on whites driving through black neighborhoods in the 1950's and 1960's:
"The sight of underemployed African American men hanging out
on street corners on the city's northern boundary had an important
and unintended effect that reinforced patterns of racial discrimination
and ensured the persistence of a racially segmented labor market."
He continues, white drivers, "saw on street corners dangerous
`gangs' of men who threatened law and order by `loitering.'"31
This lack of interaction between peoples encouraged increases paranoia,
tension and misunderstandings.
One coincidence of note: 1956 saw both the official desegregation
of busing and the passing of the Interstate Highway Act. At a time
when people were finding means to come together, the actions of the
automobile industry continued to keep them apart.
Goes the Neighborhood
the invasion of the Interstates into the urban environment came the
destruction of city neighborhoods. The hardest hit were the poorest,
mostly minority communities. Highway planners "ruthlessly gashed"
through these neighborhoods, knowing they would face the least resistance.
They also had the added incentive of removing urban "blight."
According to Thomas Sugrue, "Detroit's highway planners were
careful to ensure that construction of the new high-speed expressways
would only minimally disrupt middle-class residential areas, but they
had little such concern for black neighborhoods, especially those
closest to downtown."32
And so, "Beginning in the late 1940s, the most densely populated
sections of black Detroit were devastated by highway construction."33
People were displaced with nowhere to turn. Downtrodden, yet still
thriving black communities were erased or split in two by the path
of the highway. According to the "Detroit Plan: A Program
for Blight Elimination" of 1946, officials stated the need
to remove slums surrounding the heart of downtown.34
While their initial thoughts were to replace the slum with public
housing, other Detroit mission statements stressed, "Of all the
various projects now under construction, perhaps none is of greater
importance to Detroiters than the proposed system of expressways,
wider and straighter streets, and the elimination of traffic bottlenecks."35
With the addition of federal funds into the mix, the solution was
obvious: raze the slum, pour concrete, and let traffic flow.
The ease of mobility a car provides for some is a trap to those without.
Without transportation alternatives, mobility has become a privilege
not a right in this country. Jakle and Wilson sum up the disadvantages
well: "To be without an automobile is to be deprived of access
to jobs, shopping, and even recreation."36
This puts the young, the elderly, the disabled, and those who cannot
afford a car, often minorities, at a serious disadvantage. "It
is this group of non-drivers (about 23 percent of all U.S. households
have no car available) who must pay the exorbitant fares or be immobilized
- and many are in fact immobilized because they simply can no longer
afford to ride buses."37
Children rely on the chauffeuring of their parents or are unable to
go far. Those who no longer drive themselves, according to AARP studies,
for the most part do not use public transit and rely on friends and
relatives for rides. As the lifespan of people increases, this problem
grows greater. AARP policy analyst Audrey Straight explained in an
interview in the Detroit Free Press that, "what we're
seeing is that when people depend on others to drive, the number of
trips they take drops, and that's the trouble because people are cut
off from social activity that keeps them healthy and thriving."
The article states, "The issue could be particularly troublesome
in Metro Detroit where public transportation is among the nations'
worst."38 The disabled
have always dealt with similar struggles.
For African Americans in Detroit this is a double blow. Already faced
with segregation in the market place, they have to find means to get
to jobs that no longer need be in a central locality. Buses are difficult
and expensive given the proportionate wage earnings. Many potential
employment opportunities are simply unreachable without a car, which
can't be purchased without the job. Schaeffer and Sclar note, "The
poor, especially the ones hopefully temporarily out of luck, rightly
recognize the need for a car, for otherwise they will never be able
to enter or reenter the affluent society."39
Without this ticket to ride, the disadvantaged remain disadvantaged
while the car owners keep getting opportunities.
add to the frustration felt by African Americans from segregation
and unequal opportunities, it also seems that their travel times to
work are longer than white counterparts in the city. According to
the study Commuting Constraints on Black Women: Evidence from Detroit,
Michigan "The research finding that being black is associated
with longer work-trip times may be explained by racial differences
not only in automobile availability but also in socioeconomic and
locational variables known to affect journey-to-work time."40
That is, jobs available to African Americans living in the inner city,
car or no car, require a great deal of travel time to reach. Lesser
paying jobs, coupled with increased travel times (and therefore greater
expense) add to the burden on the African American communities' attempt
to gain equality. In the name of the car, the black community has
seen their neighborhoods torn up, their access to opportunities limited,
and their people kept from being an integral part of the larger community.
The automobile has devastated Detroit, the physical entity, as well.
We have seen the loss of rail lines and the slashing of freeways through
the neighborhoods all to make way for the car. Detroit stands at the
top in a country where "some 40 percent of the land in the average
American city is given to freeways, streets, and parking lots."41
74% of the land area of the downtown is devoted to the express use
of the automobile.42 If we
ignore what this means in terms of living space and focus solely on
the financial aspects of that figure, the conclusions are staggering.
According to the "Urban Transportation and Detroit Bus System"
study, Detroit is dealt several blows with this loss of land. As "all
land in public right-of-way is non-taxable; the City cannot derive
property tax revenues from streets and expressways (as it could on
the land the expressways displaced)."43
Without this source of revenue the city is forced to raise taxes,
which becomes a burden not on the wealthy, for they have taken the
highway out to the suburbs, but by the less fortunate left behind.
Parking lots consume a great deal of real estate, but while they are
taxable, without "taxable improvements (buildings)" they
do not generate much revenue. So not only is very little money coming
in from the lots and roadways, but they take up the space for other
potential developments that would bring in income for the city. The
city loses out twice in this deal. "By 1960, Eisenhower who signed
the I H S [Interstate Highway Act] complained it was `very wasteful,'
he groused, `to have an average of just one man per $3,000 car driving
into the central area and taking all the space required to park the
car.' But by then it was too late."44
The irony of his regrets is no doubt lost on inner city residents.
- Car Mind, Car Heart
Besides the physical effects the automobile has had on the people
of Detroit, it also shows its influence in more subtle ways. Just
as we shape our environment, it turns around and shapes us. Cultural
geographer Wilbert M. Gesler writes, "Places acquire a spirit,
a personality, that insiders and outsiders alike can sense."45
For the inhabitants of Motown, this becomes a way of thinking, a way
of getting things done, all in all, a way of life. The connections
between the landscape of the city created by the car and the landscapes
of the city's inhabitants' lives may at times be harder to draw than
the physical effects, but they are no less powerful and lasting on
the people of this city.
- Drive Time
listening to music to occupy our time in our cars, the car has come
to be a part of our music. Whether the song is about a fast car, hitting
the road again, or an accident on dead man's curve, car culture has
infiltrated our music. (Without cars or trucks and man's other best
friend, the dog, country music may never have come into existence.)
Detroit developed its own sound around the automobile. Suzanne Smith
discusses the Motown sound in her book, "Dancing in the Street,"
a history of Motown. Indeed, "The Motown Record Company cannot
be understood apart from other aspects of Detroit's urban life."46
The assembly line provided both a background beat and a reason to
want to make music to break up the monotony of the labor. This beat,
coupled with automotive sounds, made their way into the music. Influenced
by his time on the auto assembly line, Berry Gordy "implemented
his idea of inserting the assembly-line process in the recording studio
as soon as he founded Motown."47
Smith asserts: "Each phase of Gordy's "create, make, sell,"
process replicated the manufacturing techniques of the auto industry."48
Along with his creation process, Gordy also designed songs that fit
car radio time. Long songs wouldn't work in the car environment. Creativity
and expression were molded to fit into the space created by car culture.
is a Place We Park Our Car
At the turn of the twentieth century, American homes were welcoming
places, with prominent front porches used to greet people. The front
yard was a site in which children could play and neighbors could converse.
Neighborhood design fostered the possibility of building a community
of people. With the dominance of the automobile, however, not only
did sitting alongside the street become less pleasant because of noise
and air pollution, the front yard physically had to shrink to widen
the road, and make room for the garage, which now came to replace
the front door as the main entrance to the house. People, who had
become increasingly more isolated when driving, now began to retreat
to the hidden confines of their fenced-in backyards. Drummond Buckley
comments, "The vernacular suburban house became a place where
the family and the car could reside as equals."49
Not only has the physical design of our homes changed, but the automobile
has also influenced the way we relate to our community.
People who meet on the street may be quite civil to one another,
moving to the tune of "we're in the same boat brother."
However, behind the wheel of their vehicles they act under the influence
of so-called "road rage" acting as if it's "every man
for himself." Social behaviorist Raymond Novaco offers an explanation
for this schizophrenic transformation. He writes that "aggressive
behavior is restrained by inhibitory controls within the individual
and society. Personal and social control mechanisms, however, are
weakened by various factors that operate in the context of driving."50
Who among us has never yelled obscenities at other drivers, reacting
in a way in which we would never do in person? Our personalities can
be subsumed when we drive, and with increasing time spent in our cars,
it is entirely possible that this new personality may leak into our
car-less times as well.
As we spend more time sitting in our cars, we grow more inactive
and our health suffers. People drive from their front door to the
door of everything. Walking is kept to a minimum. It should come as
no surprise that Michigan lays claim to the 3rd highest rate of obesity
in the United States. Food consumption often takes place while sitting
in a car. The food was purchased still sitting in that car waiting
for the "fast" food to be "assembly line" produced.
"The benefits of walking are well-documented: The more you do
it, the healthier you become, and the more people strolling through
neighborhoods, the tighter-knit the community."51
Besides spending so much time in our vehicles, if we desired to walk,
Detroit is decidedly pedestrian unfriendly. The urban environment
is devoted to the car, people come in a distant second. In a column
equating obesity with suburbia, Neal Peirce writes, "America's
post-World War II streets and community layouts weren't designed for
people: they were designed for automobiles."52
According to author Eduardo Galeano, "Human rights pale besides
the rights of machines."53
Safety and security are derived behind the wheel as we fatten and
conform to the space of the car with each passing day.
is Futile, You Will Be Assimilated (Becoming the Borg)
Detroiters are increasingly isolated from others due to lengthy commutes
and the fact that a large percentage of the population works in the
auto industry. James Hillman cites psychologist Bernd Jagger as observing
the faces of people in cities dependent on the car as "uniform"
and "bland." People are not planning on interacting with
others, and thus have "not an interpersonal face, but an isolated
The auto manufacturing process has affected Detroit citizens in particular.
James J. Flink discusses the "monotonous boredom of repetitive
labor" and "dehumanizing" nature of working on the
automobile plant assembly line.55
Flink also points out that Henry Ford intended this when developing
the assembly line. In Ford's words, "They want to be led. They
want to have everything done for them and have no responsibility."
He also believed that the average worker "wants a job in which
he does not have to think."56
In this context, people behave like bees, worker drones, buzzing
about all under orders for the collective. This is reminiscent of
the Star Trek villains the Borg. The Borg are a species of
humanoid-machine entities all connected with a single consciousness.
They act without thought of the individual, but only for the good
of the collective. They are oblivious to biological entities around
them, in much the same way car-human symbiotes seemed unconcerned
for pedestrians. To the auto industry we have become tools to increase
the flow of their products and tools to manufacture more products.
We are replaceable in the factories and have been reduced to statistics
on the roadways. Our survival is dependent on the automobile, just
as that dependence further isolates us from our fellow humans. On
Star Trek the Borg's attempts to assimilate other cultures
is always viewed with hostility. In reality, we've succumbed to our
own creations, and unwittingly given up much of our freedom and individuality.
is Necessary; Resistance is Possible
As the center of the automobile's unchecked growth across the planet,
Detroit and its people have been particularly hard hit by the downside
of car culture. I'd like to close this essay on a more personal note
about how the automobile affected people's lives. My grandmother never
drove and depended on public transportation her entire life. She was
a cheery, outgoing person, who loved to have the opportunity to talk
with new people and share stories with them. The trolley and later
the bus gave her ample opportunities to have the sort of interactions
she enjoyed so much. Over the course of her life, the decline of transit
options made such experiences more and more difficult for her to have.
She left me this handwritten quotation from Karl Meninger's 1938 book,
Man Against Himself. "It is a considerable question if all
the mechanical inventions for increasing the speed of communication
and transportation have added anything to human happiness; it is certain
that these very inventions have decreased our opportunities for friendship
and friendly intercourse."57
Certainly some will argue about all the benefits cars have brought
us. While there is undeniable truth to such arguments, it seems we
are so ensconced in car culture, that it is difficult to imagine life
under a different paradigm. It is my hope that by shedding some light
on where we are and how we got to this place, that we might alter
our perspective, as if looking at this place for the first time with
fresh eyes. And from that transformed vantage point, be better able
to think about who it is we want to be.
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