In Car Nation

part two: Effects
by Nick Sousanis


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 our lives.

Definition of Cities

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 suffer.

The Paradox of Convenience

The 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?

Lost Time

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 fact."29

Isolation Chambers

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.

There Goes the Neighborhood

With 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.


To 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 Lost Land

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.

Mindset - 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.

Motown - Drive Time

Besides 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.

Home 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.

Road Rage

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.

Fattening Us Up

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.

Resistance is Futile, You Will Be Assimilated (Becoming the Borg)

Metro 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 face."54

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.

Resistance 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.

Links for further resources:


22 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 5.
23 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 6.
24 John Parr, "Boundary Crossers" (University of Maryland: The James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership.), Ch. 2.
25 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 56.
26 David J. St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities (New York: Praeger, 1986), 129.
27 Andre Gorz, "The Social Ideology of the Motor Car," <>.
28 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 61.
29 Andre Gorz, "The Social Ideology of the Motor Car," <>.
30 David Rusk, "Changing the Rules of the Game for Metropolitan America," Elmer B. Staats Lecture (Albuquerque, New Mexico: National Academy of Public Administration), June 2, 2000.
31 Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 120-1.
32 Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 47.
33 Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 47.
34 Detroit Housing Commision, "The Detroit Plan: A Program for Blight Elimination," in Detroit: A Chronological and Documentary History, 1701-196, edited by Robert I. Vexler (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana, 1977), 132.
35 Detroit Postwar Improvement Committee of 1944, "Your Detroit, A Finer City in Which to Live and Work…," ibid.
36 John A. Jakle and David Wilson, Derelict Lanscapes, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1992), 182.
37 Detroit City Planning Commission. Urban Transportation and the Detroit Bus System. (1972),13.
38 Matt Helms, "The Next Time Bomb," Detroit Free Press, (January 8, 2000.)
39 K.H. Schaeffer and Elliot Sclar, Access For All (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1975), 112.
40 Ibipo Johnston-Anumonwo, Commuting Constraints on Black Women: Evidence from Detroit, Michigan.
41 John A. Jakle and David Wilson, Derelict Lanscapes, (Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1992), 130.
42 Detroit City Planning Commission. Urban Transportation and the Detroit Bus System. (1972), 16. See accompanying Figure 1.
43 Detroit City Planning Commission. Urban Transportation and the Detroit Bus System. (1972), 37.
44 Michael Beschloss, "Hail to the Chief Tech-Heads." The Standard: (October 13, 2000.)
45 Wilbert M. Gesler, The Cultural Geography of Health Care, (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 164.
46 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Streets, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 116.
47 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Streets, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 14.
48 Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Streets, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 118.
49 Martin Wachs and Margaret Crawford, eds., The Car and the City, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 140.
50 Martin Wachs and Margaret Crawford, eds. The Car and the City (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 234.
51 Brian Harmon, "Metro Detroit Tackles Pedestrian Safety," (Detroit News, October 12, 1998.)
52 Neal Peirce, "Obesity and Sprawl: The Connection Tightens" The Washington Post, April 22, 2001.
53 Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down, "The Sacred Car," (New York: Metropolitan books, 1998), 231.
54 James Hillman, "The Wonder of Wander," Utne Reader, (March/April, 1989), 93.
55 James J. Flink, The Car Culture, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1975), 206-7.
56 James J. Flink, The Car Culture, (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1975), 80.
57 Karl Meninger, Man Against Himself, 384.

© 2002