Close Window

Automobile in American Life and Society

The Automobile Shapes The City
by Martin V. Melosi


Almost like a plough breaking the plains, the automobile transformed cities. “The car has reshaped the nation’s landscape,” an observer noted, “making it virtually unrecognizable from the unpaved version of the previous century.” Indeed, the transformation of American cities by motorized vehicles was a twentieth-century phenomenon, building upon the impact of transportation technology before it—especially the railroad and the streetcar—and leaving its own unique physical imprint. Some regarded this phenomenon as positive: the emergence of a private mass-transit technology effectively replacing public mass transit, and in doing so permitting settlement over a wide area and offering car owners the flexibility to “work, shop, and enjoy recreation” almost anywhere and at any time. To others, the swath cut through cities by the automobile undermined urban physical integrity, generated unending sprawl, and sabotaged the sense of community by emphasizing personal choice at the expense of the interest of the many.

Optimists and pessimists would agree, however, that the automobile was hardly a neutral force in urban physical development. To say that there had been congestion in central cities from the confluence of horses, carriages, bicycles, and streetcars for years prior to the introduction of the automobile does not mean the automobile’s impact on cities was not unique and profound; it simply reconfirms that transportation technology has always been a powerful force in making and remaking cities. But since the end of World War II especially, the car has shaped American cities and their suburbs so deeply that we can sometimes take its impact for granted.

Cars not only replaced rail service and a good deal of pedestrianism, but they strongly influenced inner-city growth in areas lacking any kind of transportation service and pushed the suburban boundaries outward “beyond the reach of the trolleys.” Rails had connected urban cores with their periphery before the automobile, but in a different way. Streetcar lines all converged downtown, radiating outward from the heart of the city. This centralizing orientation of the city ultimately was lost in most places because of the ubiquity of cars and trucks, which undermined such a familiar design.

City streets had usually followed the patterns of the streetcars and transportation routes before them, but it was only a matter of time before cars outgrew the limits of the old routes. The automobile initially had to function on a street system, according to historian John B. Rae, “that had never been designed for it and were about as poorly adapted to it as it was possible to be.” Furthermore, all other forms of transportation did not cease to exist once the automobile came on the scene. Motor vehicles—initially at least—had to share the streets and traffic patterns with trolleys, streetcars, carriages, wagons, bicycles, horses, and pedestrians, which were moving at varying speeds, took up more or less space, and served different needs.

Yet, as geographer Gabriel Dupuy has suggested, the success of the automobile in controlling streets and other urban space came down to its role as “a type of universal territorial adapter.” For one thing, the car was not simply a private form of transportation, but was largely dependent upon public support and public financing in the forms of government road construction, tax subsidies to oil and gasoline producers, favorable treatment to automobile manufacturers, and a variety of public taxing and bonding plans. In this sense, the use of cars and trucks redefined public and private responsibility for the dominant mode of transportation. Motorized vehicles also were the beneficiaries of a newly developing physical system of roads, streets, highways, and service and storage facilities, as well as a highly supportive body of consumers. In its own turn, the automobile system influenced access to numerous places for the driving community that had not been accessible before.

The “automobile system,” writ large, was not the result of serendipity, individual versus societal choices, or the product of chaotic effects on a helter-skelter landscape. Instead, the resulting system established its own rules and patterns, albeit different from the transportation systems that preceded it, but nonetheless possessing an internal order of its own. Ultimately, the automobile adapted its territory to a variety of living conditions and situations that existed in cities or reflected the interests of a driving public. As Dupuy concluded:

The acquisition of an automobile means simultaneously acquiring freedom of movement; having access, under all conditions and circumstances, to a variety of places which are frequently poorly accessed by public transport; maintaining a link with the countryside; transporting small children or the elderly; being able to go off for a week-end; leaving on vacation, carrying skis, pulling a trailer; etc. One might say that the decision to buy a car comes as a result of all these possibilities, providing a kind of insurance for unforeseen elements which might arise in the future.

Like other forms of transportation—possibly even more so—the automobile also helped to turn the landscape into real estate. Transportation always has played a central role in the location of human activities, especially dictating residence and work. Furthermore, vacant land connected by streets and roads and accessible by car often gained value and was thus commodified, which benefited landlords, bankers, realtors, contractors, and also an array of consumers. This has been a selective process, however, since room made for streets and highways, in particular, can cut into long established neighborhoods and communities even to a greater degree than recycling “undesirable” land uses.

The “Footprint” of the Automobile on the American City

Modern American cities bear a powerful physical imprint of automobiles and other motorized vehicles. It is estimated that as much as one half of a modern American city’s land area is dedicated to streets and roads, parking lots, service stations, driveways, signals and traffic signs, automobile-oriented businesses, car dealerships, and more. Equally significant, space allocated for other forms of transportation ultimately shrank or disappeared. For example, sidewalks—normally considered essential to separate pedestrians from various transportation modes—were less often constructed along many urban roads and streets in the automobile era. Walking seemed increasingly incidental in moving people from place to place. Bicycle lanes, quite common in several European cities, were late-comers or non-existent in American cities as competitive forms of transportation were squeezed out by an increasing dependence on cars.

Nothing better illustrated the growing dominance of motorized vehicles than its imprint on the land-use patterns of cities. A parking study conducted in California stated that about 59 percent of the ground area in Los Angeles’ central business district (CBD) in 1960 was devoted to streets and parking, with about 35 percent for roads, streets, alleys, and sidewalks, and 24 percent for parking lots and garages not included in buildings with other purposes. During roughly the same period, acreage devoted to streets and parking in other urban cores was similar in scale or slightly less. In Detroit (1953), streets and parking made up 49.5 percent of the central city; in Chicago (1956), 40.7 percent; in Minneapolis (1958), 48.3 percent; Nashville (1959), 39 percent; and in Dallas (1961), 41.4 percent.

Ironically, motor traffic in the central cities tended to require less street space than was necessary for other forms of transportation before the rise of the automobile. Urban freeways, for example, require less than 3 percent of the land in the areas they serve. On the other hand, as automobiles and trucks ventured into areas not served by public transit, the need for more streets necessitated more construction. Also street and parking data do not include businesses or services devoted wholly or in part to the automobile, and do not give the broadest picture of how automobiles have remade the urban landscape well beyond their eighteenth- and nineteenth-century counterparts.

In the long run, core cities were clearly affected by the automobile, its major physical changes, and the flight of the middle class to the suburbs. Accommodating to the automobile most often required adapting cores to the needs of the car, be it changing the road system or adding gas stations, repair shops, auto parts stores, car washes, and automobile dealerships. However, adaptation did not mean remaking. In most cases, an automobile infrastructure was superimposed over cities that had undergone a variety of changes through time. Nevertheless, building new roads and highways within cities or adding automobile-related services did its share of changing—and in some cases destroying—human and animal habitats. Neighborhoods were cleaved, disrupted, or even eliminated. Plants and wildlife were threatened or dislocated.

From “Walking Cities” to “Automobile Cities”

A look at the chronology of urban growth in America—with transportation as a key variable—shows how automobiles have transformed cities. Historians have mapped out a three- or four-stage transportation chronology for the American city: walking city (pre-1880), streetcar city (1880-1920), and automobile city (post-1920). One historian has divided the latter period into a “recreational vehicle” period (1920-1945) and a “freeway” period (post-1945).

The first stage—“the walking city”—was marked by highly compact cities and towns; an intermingling of residences and workplaces; a short journey to work for those employed in a variety of tasks; mixed patterns of land use; and the location of elite residences at the city centers. In this era, many cities and towns had large central squares that served as meeting places, open markets for buying and selling goods, and parade grounds for special occasions. For the most part, streets were narrow, meandering, and unpaved. Until the nineteenth century, there were few means other than walking or on horseback to traverse American cities. In 1674 there was only one carriage in New York City, and as late as 1761 only 18 in Philadelphia. In the 1830s, steam locomotives provided opportunity for commuting in major cities, but they were too large, too noisy, and too expensive to incorporate effectively into the urban landscape as a form of inner-city transportation. Late in this period, omnibuses, cablecars, and horsecars (horse-drawn streetcars on fixed track) appeared as the forerunners to the widely adopted electric streetcars that revolutionized mass transit in the United States.

During “the streetcar era,” many cities were feeling the impact of industrialization in terms of factory migration to cities and the influx of thousands of European immigrants and rural American migrants. The industrial cities were focused at the core, especially for various business ventures, commerce and trade, retailing, hotel accommodations, and cultural activities. The separation between work and residence for the middle and upper classes was much more pronounced than in the walking city, as these groups increasingly fled the central cities for the suburbs; the working classes, by contrast, remained near the core and close to industrial workplaces since they had little or no access to public transportation and had to live by the clock or lose their jobs. By the 1880s, low-fare electric streetcars replaced the slower and less reliable horsecars, offering public transportation to a growing ridership. Streetcars, however, still relied on light-rail tracks radiating out from the central business districts into the surrounding areas and newly forming suburbs. Urban development thus congregated close to the streetcar lines.

The intimacy and homogeneity of the walking city declined as the extension of efficient transit allowed the more affluent urbanites to move from the central cities to the more spacious suburbs, escaping inner-city congestion, pollution, and a rising tide of various newcomers. This tendency produced more well-defined residential subdivisions divided primarily along income lines. The smallish walking cities (probably less than a mile in diameter) made way for more expansive urban areas featuring clearer areas of residential segregation and more specialized land uses. Downtowns still had a hold on the big department stores, theaters, and office buildings, but the growing urban periphery saw dynamic population growth and its own demand for public and private services. By the 1920s, the United States could boast of metropolises with suburbs extending more than 20 miles from the core.

The most recent stage—“the automobile (and truck) city”—arose after World War I and began to erode the patterns of the streetcar city through deconcentration of business functions; the weakening of the core as a magnet for social and cultural life; and the dispersal of population into the suburbs. In some respects, the advent of the automobile continued the process of metropolitan growth promoted by the electric streetcars—hastening the decentralization of the population and pushing the suburbs further into the hinterland. Motorized vehicles alone did not produce the new urban patterns. Long distance communications (such as the telegraph and telephone), the extension of city services, and real estate development also contributed mightily to the changes taking place in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Yet the emergence of the automobile gave individuals (and road builders), not fixed tracks, a major role in what became a less clearly defined and less rigidly geometric pattern of urban growth.

Many critics viewed the changes in the automobile era as detrimental to well-planned, rationally organized communities, but others saw motorized vehicles as particularly well-suited to cities. Like the horse and buggy, the car could be privately owned and operated and not restricted to rigid transportation lines. In some places, such as in Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Jacksonville, and Atlanta, the automobile played a central role in creating low density, expansive, and some would say muddled and fragmented, urban development. In others, modifications in the “urban fabric” occurred at a snail’s pace or not at all.

Adopting the automobile, however, did not guarantee that an appropriate infrastructure would follow. Cars and trucks often had to adjust to urban environments not planned for them. Automobiles in some cities like Paris, for example, often parked on sidewalks along particularly narrow streets. In contrast, in cities that successfully adapted their infrastructure to motorized vehicles, other urban resources were lost and lifestyles were altered. In cities like Los Angeles or Houston, pedestrians have become endangered species.

Modifying the City Core

More paving of streets in cities meant roads designed expressly with a variety of vehicles in mind. Building hard-surface streets began in the late-nineteenth century to serve the needs of bicycle-, wagon-, and carriage-transportation, and into the twentieth primarily for faster and heavier motorized vehicles. Macadamized roads—built with a multilayered surface of crushed stones—could not withstand automobiles and rutted badly under their tires. Roads and streets made of concrete and asphalt were more suited to automobiles and eventually became the surfaces of choice. Automobiles not only affected roadbuilding technology, however, but the social life of cities as well. It was becoming much less safe to gather in the streets without the protection of a vehicle, to let children play their games in what passed for an early playground, or to extend a front-porch culture into a road abutted by several neighboring houses. The use of the streets as social and recreational gathering places was threatened and indeed supplanted by the requirements of increasingly rapid and mounting vehicular traffic. In newer communities, especially, pedestrian street activity was restricted to pedestrian precincts and paths and to shopping plazas and malls.

After World War II especially, the traditional city street was replaced by a number of specialized roads, including collectors, distributors, arterials, by-passes, relief roads, ring roads, highways, expressways, and motorways. The first highway to be designed exclusively for the use of cars—the Bronx River Parkway—was completed in 1906, but it was not fully opened for traffic until 1924. Possibly the exploits of Robert Moses in New York best illustrated the rise of the urban highway. Moses was responsible for almost every major highway in New York City, including the Long Island Expressway that was influential in encouraging suburban sprawl directly linked to automobile use. A well-functioning street and highway system was necessary to accommodate automobiles and other motorized vehicles traveling at a variety of speeds to a variety of locations in a variety of numbers. But once expressways and limited-access highways were added to the mix, cities were further committed to a one-dimensional transportation system with infrastructural and environmental implications.

The addition of new roadways was most often limited to big cities—over 150,000 in population—until quite recently and initially made up a small percentage of the total surface transportation network. Over time, highways capable of accommodating greater volumes of traffic required an expanded network, not only in the number of roads, but in the expansion of highways into four, six, eight or more lanes. The new roads, streets, and urban highways had an impact on city life well beyond their individual physical presence. The agglomeration of expressways, inner loops, ring roads, by-passes, and throughways created wheel-like patterns superimposed over the existing grids of many cities, shaping new growth within the core and without. “Like igneous intrusions in sedimentary rocks,” Edward Relph vividly stated, “these cut across the grain of the city with their distinctive landscape textures.” Another expert bemoaned: “Freeways have paid little respect to urban design values. In fact, it can be fairly said that in the design of freeways no attention at all has been paid to their impact on the image of the city. Views have been obliterated, important landmarks have been isolated, great waterfronts have been cut off, all by freeways within the cities whom they supposedly serve.” He added, “the confrontation between the freeway and the city involves an encounter between motion and static mass.” Others, however, give priority to practical matters—ease of mobility for example—over urban aesthetics and argued that the need for quick and efficient transportation supersedes appearance. While attempting to reduce congestion on local roads and improving access to the core districts, however, new urban street and highway systems have helped to make cities different places than they once had been, places where the needs of automobiles often supersede the needs of almost everything else.

Some have blamed not only the transformation but the destruction of core cities on automobiles. This is an extreme position that does not take into consideration the impact of various social, economic, technical, and political variables that all contributed to decaying cores and thriving suburban and peripheral development in American metropolises. Even the best known critic of the demise of American city cores, Jane Jacobs, has noted, “Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building.” The policies imbedded in “urban renewal” of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, incorporated highway building into plans for urban redevelopment and slum clearance, but the needs to improve mobility did not initiate urban renewal nor justify it.

To suggest that the automobile had an insignificant role in urban decay and the suburban explosion is also naïve and ahistorical. Constructing a highway or freeway through an existing neighborhood, by its very act disrupted, degraded, and in some cases destroyed a community. Property values plummeted, but more significantly people were displaced and their neighborhood attachments undermined. One person’s blight and slum clearance was another’s life ripped asunder.

The expansion of the nation’s road system after World War II with federal highway construction as a major force not only led to a sweeping interstate highway network, but left a major imprint on cities. In 1947, Congress authorized a national highway network of 37,000 miles, of which 3,000 miles of roads were to be built in or near 182 major cities. This began a process that would help to redefine downtown areas as commercial centers accessible to suburban communities. By the time of the enactment of the key piece of legislation to extend the interstate system—the Interstate Highway Act of 1956—there already were 376 miles of freeways in the twenty-five largest cities and at least 100 more miles under construction. While the 1956 act was primarily intended to improve intercity travel and did not mention its broad impacts on urban areas, its supporters hoped it would ease downtown congestion. Its impact on cities was much greater than that, however. Within about a decade, $15 billion of the $27 billion spent on highway construction went to urban roadways. Rather than relieving congestion, the new highways increased traffic going downtown and further loaded downtown streets. For their part, the beltways surrounding major cities drew development to them and away from city cores. The impact of the urban interstates and beltways—such as the Capital Beltway around Washington, D.C.—was to clear low-income properties in line with the general goals and objectives of the urban renewal project, but in so doing viable neighborhoods were divided, the residential function of city centers was weakened, urban housing stock was reduced, and the situation was made worse for the poor and the disadvantaged.

Traffic and Congestion

Despite the continual expansion of the street and road system in core cities—or because of it—traffic congestion is the most striking physical impact of rising motor vehicle use in the twentieth century. It is a manifestation of how cities are utilized and the degree to which the urban environment is capable of absorbing or rationalizing the process of people moving. Automobiles did not invent traffic jams, but they intensified them with the introduction of mass-produced automobiles packed into spaces not prepared to accept the new transit mode. Older towns and cities in the pre-car era faced severe traffic congestion, and in response those in the new field of city planning proposed making streets wider, sidewalks narrower, and blocks longer. The broadened roads encouraged more traffic but made pedestrians less safe, and new construction created more barriers in neighborhoods or fragmented them. As one observer noted, “As a technology the auto did not create contemporary traffic problems any more than use of the horse did in nineteenth-century cities. Rather it is the overuse of the auto and the accommodation of social space to it—as a homogenous system of mobility—that is the problem.”

Initially, cars, trucks, and buses mixed with other forms of transportation, including horses, wagons, and streetcars, all of which took up different amounts of space and traveled at different speeds. Even in more recent times, all vehicles are not alike, and the merging of several types of motorized conveyances in a variety of weather conditions, facing untold road conditions and construction, and in some cases having to contend with pedestrians, makes traffic congestion a chronic problem.

Prior to World War I, New York was experiencing traffic jams twice each day during an early form of “rush hour,” forcing some people to consider returning to the subways instead of driving to work. More than 49,000 motorized vehicles daily entered Chicago’s Loop. More cars and more car trips to and from home and work made traffic a popular point of discussion in local newspapers and in the streets themselves. In some cases, motorists were quick to blame foreign-born teamsters and other drivers of commercial vehicles for the traffic problems in this period. Beginning in 1921, for example, the Detroit police forced truck drivers to take a special test to prove their driving skills.

Concern over automobile congestion has been longstanding and persistent. In the wake of the traffic snarls appearing as early as the 1910s, traffic studies carried out in the 1930s through 1950 suggested that motorized vehicle travel (along with congestion and accidents) tended to be concentrated on limited stretches of main roads and streets leading to major destinations. Traffic volume, therefore, rose primarily near cities, reaching a peak in downtown areas of six times the volume of traffic in suburbs. The typical urban grid system of streets only worsened the traffic pressure on the central cities, as did the tendency for the street and road systems to bring traffic to the center of town.

Viewed as the principal urban transportation problem by the mid-twentieth century, traffic congestion emerged as the foremost justification for large-scale highway construction in American urban areas after World War II. Planners, however, sometimes seemed oblivious to the fact that building urban expressways in order to reduce congestion and increase traffic speeds could encourage additional automobile usage, not less. A variety of negative side effects—increased pollution, increased gasoline and oil use, and potential safety problems—was the result, quite the inverse of the stated goals of greater highway construction. Planners have looked to newer technical solutions to congestion in recent years, as well as to new road and street designs. For example, officials in Los Angeles and New York employed sensors, computers, and robot video cameras to reduce rush-hour congestion. Others hope that telecommuting—workers spending part of their time at home conducting business by computers and fax machines—will reduce the traffic crunch.

Getting automobiles into the “flow” of traffic is a long-standing problem exacerbated by the simple fact that motorized vehicles tended to occupy greater street area per person than common carriers. A Boston report in the early 1920s estimated that one person in a filled five-passenger car was using 17 times as much street space as one person in a streetcar at capacity. In recent times, congestion problems in core cities and across metropolitan areas have worsened rather than eased. Motor-vehicle use in the United States doubled from one to two trillion miles between 1970 and 1990. Between 1960 and 1990, traffic increased by a factor of five in the Seattle area. In Washington, D.C., traffic almost tripled from 1973 to 1994. In California, vehicle use doubled between 1970 and 1990, growing more than four times faster than population. A 1990 study stated that the average California driver spent 84 hours a year stuck in traffic congestion. This suggests that as much as the introduction of automobiles into cities would come to modify urban space, accommodating them in motion has been a challenging and frustrating problem.


Even cars at rest—in parking mode if you will—created problems for cities that few other forms of transportation faced. It is ironic that a technology designed to provide individuals with greater flexibility in meeting their transportation needs remains unused much of its life. “An adequate highway system—one affording completely free movement of vehicles—would still not solve our transportation problem,” noted one expert in 1950. “This is because the objective of every motor vehicle is a terminal. The average motor vehicle, for instance, is in motion about 500 hours a year; it is parked the remaining 8,260 hours.” More than forty years later, other experts expressed a similar sentiment: “If one were to set out the most inefficient means of transport, the auto might be the outcome. Consider, for example, the facts that the average auto is parked and unused for about 90 percent of its lifetime and that even when it is used, it is nearly empty.”

The space required to accommodate automobiles when not in use is substantial. A 1981 transit study hypothesized that if an automobile is in use for every two people, then each automobile in a city might need two off-street parking spaces (neither one in a garage) of 250 square feet per space. This would mean that for every 10,000 people, fifty acres would be required for parking alone, which adds 15 to 25 percent to urban land requirements or street space. In addition, cities most dependent on automobiles, that is, cities with high automobile ownership rates as opposed to cities simply with high commuter rates, will require a greater number of parking spaces.

Inner-city traffic also raised problems over parking. In the early part of the twentieth century, parking reduced downtown street area by one third to one half. Furthermore, as the number of cars increased, parking at the curb met only a small percentage of the total parking requirements for the city. Efforts were made, and continue to be made, to ban or limit curb parking and to increase off-street parking to relieve congestion and to house vehicles during the busiest times of the day. As early as 1922, New York and Philadelphia banned parking on their major streets, with other cities following their lead. Also in the 1920s, “No Parking” areas were designated by distinctive painted lines and curbs. More effective was the introduction of the parking meter in Oklahoma City in 1935, with almost 3,000 towns and cities utilizing them by 1950. In recent years, central city parking in the United States has been generally more available than in European and Asian cities, but the problem has not disappeared. It is compounded by the fact that not only motorists, but merchants, property owners, commercial fleets, taxis, and mass transportation all have needs and responsibilities for adequate parking.

In some cases, parking is a kind of “hidden cost” of automobile use paid by government, businesses, and individuals. Cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, and Pittsburgh already were floating bond issues in the 1950s to finance large parking garages. Local building codes and zoning ordinances in most modern cities required developers to provide off-street spaces for every housing or office unit they built. These costs are inevitably passed along to the consumer. This represents a change of heart for cities such as New York, which in 1954 rejected a measure to require most new office buildings to provide off-street parking for 100 to 300 cars on the ground that it would not only increase building costs, but also attract many more cars to the city. However, this response raises the quandary—still being debated—of whether to use incentives or disincentives to deal with downtown automobile congestion. In wealthier Asian cities, for example, there are only 80 car spaces per 1,000 jobs, as opposed to 468 spaces per 1,000 jobs in the United States. These Asian cities have made it clear that they intend to discourage motor traffic as best they can.

Traffic Control

Concerns over congestion led not only to massive highway construction, but also to the development of traffic control, both human and mechanical. Traffic signs and lights became an indelible part of the automobile infrastructure of cities—along with the presence of traffic police—and were graphic reminders of the need to effectively separate pedestrians from vehicles (and vehicles from vehicles). Even with various systems of traffic control in place in the early twentieth century, street and highway safety was chronically threatened. By the 1920s, accidents were frequent and many people were killed or injured every year on the roads and highways. In 1924, there were 23,600 deaths due to auto accidents, 700,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion in property damage. Between 1960 and 1972 alone motor-vehicle fatalities increased from 38,137 to 55,278. In 1989, motor-vehicle accidents ranked fifth among all causes of death in the United States. While automobile safety improved with the introduction of seat belts and airbags, traffic calming devices like speed bumps, and reduced speeds on certain roads and highways, the National Safety Council estimated that by the mid-1990s traffic fatalities cost $176.5 billion annually to the nation, with the cost of dealing with damages and injuries in nonfatal accidents raising the sum even higher.

At the turn of the twentieth century there were few rules for driving in American cities. The first law regulating the speed of automobiles was passed in Connecticut in 1901—12 miles per hour overall and 8 miles per hour in cities. When motor vehicles began to merge with existing traffic and shared the roads with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, and streetcars there was little distinction between local and through traffic or the speed of the respective individuals or vehicles. Traffic controls of some type began to appear after the introduction of Ford’s mass-produced Model T and the incessant growth of the automobile population in cities. As historian Clay McShane noted, traffic lights, signs, and painted pavements not only commanded a new physical presence in cities, but “impose[d] a strong social control over the most fundamental of human behaviors, whether to move or to be still.”

Most immediately, traffic controls focused on the behaviors of motorists, pedestrians, and the police. Traffic control innovation occurred in the United States due to the rising traffic problem. Sending several police to busy corners proved too costly and too labor intensive, so early efforts at traffic control utilized railroad practices in the form of semaphore signals and midintersection towers manned by police. Neither worked very effectively. The first permanent installation of a red and green traffic control light—again based on railroad practices—occurred in Cleveland in 1914; in 1917 traffic lights in Detroit added a yellow caution light. The first red stop sign—or “boulevard stop”—was used in Detroit in 1914 and worked better than right-of-way ordinances passed by some cities. Adapting to the new signs proved difficult for drivers used to having their own way on the road, and some drivers resisted their introduction or simply disobeyed them. From these beginnings came a wide range of technologies—such as electronic coordinated signal networks for whole cities—that influenced driving behavior, street use, traffic patterns, and the form of the surface transportation system itself. As long as motorized vehicles and other forms of transportation were an integral part of city life, they posed risks as well as benefits.

Filling Stations and Other Services

The stamp of the automobile on the city was not restricted to the vehicles, streets and roads, parking spaces, and traffic signs and lights. Like horses that needed hay and stables, like trains that needed water, coal, and terminals, automobiles needed gas and oil, replacement parts, tires and batteries, and garages. Most important of all they needed filling stations and service stations. In the early days of the automobile, travel required careful planning. Initially, gasoline had to be obtained at “bulk depots” located outside of the cities. Fuel was provided in cans or other containers, but ultimately wholesalers transported gasoline in horsedrawn tank trucks to commercial customers in towns for sale to motorists. In 1905 the Automobile Gasoline Company in St. Louis employed a gravity-fed tank for fueling cars and opened the first “gas station.” Petroleum giant Standard Oil opened its first station in Seattle in 1907.

As automobile sales increased, the demand for fuel led to a more systematic way of delivering it, and in 1914 Standard Oil of California opened a chain of 34 homogeneous stations along the West Coast. Major oil companies moved quickly to secure their own gas dealers, made possible by technical advances in gasoline pumps. Soon pumps were being installed not only at the new service stations, but in front of hardware stores, feed companies, livery stables, and a variety of other retailers. Curbside pumping was less common in the countryside. The early service stations along the roadside might be converted barns, stables, warehouses, or poorly constructed shacks and shanties. Downtown garages, curbside gas stations, and automobile showrooms, however, often conformed to the “Main Street” building style. Although curbside pumping was convenient, it often blocked trolley tracks and created traffic snarls and was thus gradually replaced by “drive-in” facilities that required motorists to get their vehicles off the street to obtain the services required. Such an arrangement was novel, rarely required of buildings and structures before that time. Accommodation to the automobile, therefore, took on a new meaning.

Super service stations were important elaborations of the original filling stations. Introduced in Los Angeles prior to World War I, super service stations combined operations that had been handled separately. Before that time, a motorist went one place for gas and oil, and other places for lubrication and cleaning, for repairs, or for tires and other accessories. Combining these activities was convenient for consumers and opened up new marketing possibilities for those interested in taking advantage of the boom in automobiles. The earliest known super service station—Service Town—was built in 1914, three miles from downtown Los Angeles. Several of these stations were constructed in southern California in the early 1920s and soon spread across the country.

The concept of one-stop shopping for automobile services was particularly attractive outside the most populous city areas, where a wide variety of individual businesses were unlikely to congregate. In the 1920s other facilities geared to the automobile, such as drive-in markets and many other “drive-in” establishments, began to appear, suggesting the degree to which the car had entered the consumer market not as a toy for the rich, but as a crucial means of private transportation. Cities that had already been covered with signs selling all kinds of products were inundated with more and larger commercial signs in the automobile age to attract the attention of passengers in speeding vehicles.

A good example of an automobile-specific commercial outlet was the car wash, or auto laundry, as it was sometimes called. The first of these were not automated, but offered stationary car racks so that the undercarriages as well as sides and tops could be cleaned of dirt and grime from the road and from the operation of the vehicles themselves. As early as 1922, experiments with larger facilities were attempted. In St. Paul, Minnesota, one garage had a “wash bowl” where cars could be driven around in a flooded basin to soak the underbody and then moved to racks for further cleaning.

Automobiles and Sprawl

The automobile’s mark on the land went well beyond core cities and their immediate surroundings. While the suburbanization process began well before cars were invented, and the outward thrust of the urban population had many causes, urban sprawl is clearly a phenomenon of the automobile era. The motor vehicle, as one critic stated, “has a voracious appetite for land.” Urban sprawl in post-World War II America did not follow a clear, consistent pattern of outward development, however, but a kind of “leapfrog nature of urban growth” that scattered people, businesses, and industry over a broad landscape with substantial patches of vacant or empty land interspersed among tracts of homes, commercial strips along roadsides, and a variety of low-density uses of various types. Ultimately, metropolitan growth morphed into megalopolitan development with urbanization stretching for 200 miles from Santa Barbara to San Diego, with Houston engulfing more than 600 square miles, and with the nation’s capital part of an urban matrix extending northward to New York City and southward to Richmond. In the late 1990s, Chicago accounted for only six percent of the land area of its metropolitan region. The automobile was the perfect mode of transportation in this terrain, and if it was not responsible for causing sprawl, it certainly fed the impulse. Sprawl became synonymous with the automobile.

Cars became both forces of diffusion and cohesion, helping to change the scale and form of suburbanization well before World War II. As David Nye suggested, “The automobile was an enabling technology that permitted greater dispersion of the population.” Motor vehicles disperse populations almost randomly, and roads and highways become the essential common links between people and their homes, their jobs, and their diversions. This process was underway well before anyone recognized urban sprawl and put a name on it. In 1922, approximately 135,000 homes in sixty cities had become dependent on automobile transportation. By 1940, 13 million homes did not have access to public transportation. In 1920, the average density of urbanized areas (cities, suburbs, and towns) in the United States was 6,160 people per square mile; in 1990 that figure was only 2,589. In fact the average density of developments built since 1960 was only 1,469 people per square mile. These figures, however, vary widely from region to region. In the late 1990s, Northeast cities, which generally predate the automobile age, generally have triple the density of Midwestern cities, and six times the density of Western cities.

Expressways, Freeways, and Superhighways

Expressways accelerated movement to the urban periphery, especially with superhighways and the construction of the interstate system. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 committed the nation to a coast-to-coast toll-free system with greater dependence on automobile travel than ever before. The Highway Trust Fund was established to finance the system, drawing revenue from taxes on fuels, truck use, and tire sales that provided a seemingly inexhaustible financial source not subject to regular congressional or executive budgeting. It also undermined any federally-sponsored mass transit programs. The entire interstate network was to be completed by 1971, although it remains unfinished.

The promotion of superhighways and elevated roads, however, predates the 1956 act by several decades. Arguments for introducing urban highways and regional highways initially stressed how such arteries were conducive to economic development and social reorganization. In the same manner that an urban highway might help to revitalize a slum, the regional highways could transform unused land into productive commercial property, whisk people away from the urban cores, and offer only dreamed about housing and recreational opportunities. Such unbridled optimism now seems almost disquieting as relentless sprawl washes over the countryside. Beyond being arteries that connect disparate places, highways make vast urban expansion possible and produce wealth for some, but they also destroy plant life and habitats while creating their own mini-ecosystems. To Lewis Mumford, one of the most noted critics of the automobile, the building of a highway “has about the same result upon vegetation and human structures as the passage of a tornado or the blast of an atom bomb.” Despite Mumford’s hyperbole, road building must overcome many environmental obstacles—landslide threats, drainage problems, unstable soils and alluvial material, rough terrain, sinkholes, and hostile weather conditions—and contributes to many environmental problems—erosion, sediment deposition, water runoff, nonpoint pollution, habitat fragmentation, and habitat barriers. The new roadbeds, by changing how rainfall is dispersed, for example, can also create a ribbon of plant life along the edge of the pavement different from plants several feet away. The new plant cultures as well as the shoulders of roads and other roadside construction may provide shelter for animals, but much closer to roads than is probably safe for them. All of this suggests the monumental impact—environmental, cultural, and economic—that the staggering outward thrust of cities has produced over the years.

Roadside Businesses

With freeways came new roadside businesses that also changed the physical, cultural, and economic landscape. In the post-World War I era, one might find fringe areas on the outskirts of cities that were neither rural nor urban. Settlements along the roadside could include farmers, people who lived in the country but worked in the city, and service areas catering to automobile traffic. Modest cabins and shacks attempting to attract motorists eventually led to tourist courts, and ultimately the “motel.” Eventual uniformity of style and service advised motorists of what to expect in the way of accommodations from motels, and how much they were likely to pay. The roadside restaurant also came into being alongside the tourist court or motel. Well before chain restaurants like McDonald’s, hundreds of “Mom and Pop” eateries served quick meals and possibly full-course dinners.

Outdoor advertising, especially billboards, followed the roads into the countryside and promoted many products and services. The great numbers and garishness of billboards, along with the deterioration of residential properties adjacent to the burgeoning roadside business explosion, inspired roadside beautification efforts. For example, at the time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the City Beautiful Movement was attempting to provide architectural guidelines, promote planning, and restore some aesthetic sense to downtown development, reformers criticized unappealing roadside commercial structures and promoted construction of more scenic corridors through which cars could travel. A roadside reformer movement remerged in the 1920s and periodically was revitalized after that.

Billboards were an overt form of product advertising along the roadways. But possibly less obvious at first was how, as one architectural historian noted, “the new vehicles prompted a marriage of architecture and advertising, a blend of building and sign, far beyond any sales campaign ever envisioned downtown” in order to promote business. “In fact,” he continued, “by opening up vast expanses of roadside beyond the urban fringe to commercial exploitation, the automobile helped stimulate not only a new kind of landscape but also a commercial architectural revolution.” Steeples on restaurants could be made to look like ice cream cones, and refreshment stands could be built in the shape of dogs or ducks; characteristic styles of gas stations and motels and myriad other establishments were designed to identify the structure with its business or product. The automobile culture not only changed the landscape, but also altered the visual representation of commodities associated with it.

Suburban Communities

Historians David R. Goldfield and Blaine A. Brownell argued that "A new era of urbanization emerged after 1970, though few Americans noticed it at the time. Culminating a trend begun in 1920, the 1970 census announced that we had become a suburban nation." Core cities continued to lose population and see their economic base erode, becoming more specialized in the process. Metropolises developed multiple centers, including self-contained communities on the periphery, while non-metropolitan growth challenged traditional suburban expansion. Nationwide, Southern and Southwestern cities grew at the expense of older urban centers in the Northeast and Midwest.

The metropolitan complex was home to the majority of Americans after 1970. In 1975, 73 percent of the total United States population of 213 million lived in metropolitan counties; in 1988, 49 percent of the nation's population resided in "megalopolises" of one million or more. In 1990, of the total U.S. population of 248.7 million, 78.9 million (31.7 percent) lived in central cities; 79.4 million (31.9 percent) lived in the urban fringe; 28.8 million (11.6 percent) lived outside urbanized areas; and 61.7 million (24.8 percent) lived in rural areas. The 1990 census also indicated that California was the most urban state in the union at 93 percent, while the southern region had the largest metropolitan population (also the largest nonmetropolitan population). These patterns were part of the so-called Sunbelt movement. As historian Carl Abbott astutely observed, however, the growth of the Sunbelt was "essentially growth of sunbelt suburbs."

The well-accepted division between core city and suburban ring became more ambiguous (and even obsolete) in metropolitan areas. The old central city was only one of several activity centers. Numerous suburbs evolved into more than bedroom communities, some achieving the status of comprehensive communities with many of the amenities formerly located only at the core. Despite the anticipated return of some middle-class Americans to the central city through gentrification, population at the core continued to decline. Between 1970 and 1976, central city population dropped by 3.4 percent (to 60.7 million). In 1986, only about 30 percent of the American population lived in central cities; a disproportionate number were poor African Americans and poor Hispanics.

The central city essentially ceased to be the axis upon which the city turned in the late twentieth century. It did not disappear, but it often became the focus of a service economy dominated by banking, finance, medical, and educational institutions. As historian Jon Teaford rightly noted, the central city "had simply become one more suburb, yet another fragment of metropolitan America serving the special needs of certain classes of urban dwellers." Within the metropolis, increasing numbers of urbanites lived outside central cities and within what had conveniently been referred to as suburbs. By 1970 more than half of the metropolitan residents lived in suburban communities—including 20 to 40 percent of the poor in some areas. In 1980, the suburban portion of the 15 largest metropolitan areas ranged from 83.7 percent in Boston to 45.1 percent in Houston.

The term "suburb" became less and less useful in describing what was taking place on the urban fringe. The former bedroom communities that provided workers for the central cities were increasingly self-sufficient, attracting a bulk of the new jobs and many new business establishments, as well as cultural and recreational activities once reserved for downtown. By the 1980s, many former suburbs no longer depended on core cities. Commentators and scholars began to replace the old notion of suburbia with newer ideas—out towns, mall-towns, edge cities, and technoburbs.

From the mid-1930s onward, suburban communities themselves underwent physical changes and increasingly were planned, as Michael Berger suggested, “with the assumption that the car would be the major mode of transportation for their inhabitants.” The new highways as well as other technologies—septic tanks, longer range electrical transmission lines, and power-driven water pumps—made it practical for developers to buy up farmland for new subdivisions at great distances from metropolitan centers. Newer suburban communities also were designed for automobiles with stores, schools, churches, and recreational and cultural centers geared toward motorized transportation, not pedestrians—drive-in markets, drive-in movies, drive-in churches.

To the growing number of roadside businesses servicing the motorist was added the migration of retailers, office buildings, and industry away from the core to the periphery. Businesses migrated from central cities because of the deterioration of the cores, changes in the economic climate, the “greener pastures” that development along the urban periphery offered, and population shifts from rustbelt to sunbelt cities. In the 1930s, for example, Los Angeles’s downtown housed 75 percent of all retail trade; in the 1960s, only eighteen percent. By the end of the 1990s, two-thirds of all office space in the United States was located along the suburban fringe. The most dramatic changes took place in metropolitan areas, where suburban populations were the greatest and thus able to encourage business migration. In small cities whose population largely remained within the city limits, retail businesses often were more stable. The relocation of industry followed different patterns than retail business, and migration could be motivated by forces in addition to shifting demographic patterns or changes at the core. New industrial technologies sometime required more space—or different kinds of space—than core cities could offer. In some instances, businesses were able to purchase enough land to produce “landscrapers” instead of “skyscrapers.” Ameritech’s headquarters near O’Hare Airport outside of Chicago, for example, is more than one-half mile long. The impact of motor transport also favored decentralization of industry, since the new road systems allowed manufacturers to move freight by truck (and airplane) rather than by rail.

New shopping centers were automobile friendly, and the appearance of shopping malls with ample parking represented a clear commitment to motorized traffic by providing a concentration of shops on a scale only accessible by vehicles especially in areas where there was an absence of a commercial main street. The earliest shopping centers outside central business districts, such as the pioneering suburban shopping district in the Kansas City area, were built in the 1920s. There were, however, only eight of these centers in the whole country by the end of World War II. By 1970 the number had risen to an astonishing 4,000. Some older downtown department stores had been gigantic—Macy’s and Gimbles in New York, Marshall Field in Chicago, Foley’s in Houston—but in the newer suburban communities even grocery stores expanded impressively. The typical supermarket in the 1990s was around 60,000 square feet, with discount stores more than twice that size.

The idea of shopping malls—where more business could be conducted in one day than in the whole of a downtown area—grew up in the 1950s as a way to provide pedestrian shopping areas protected from the elements. In 1953 a shopping mall utilizing climate-control technology opened in Omaha City, Nebraska, with malls in Minneapolis (which claims it had the first true mall in 1956) and Detroit soon to follow. (Some claim that Lakewood Center near Long Beach, California, was among the earliest regional shopping malls built in the early 1950s.) In their turn, malls would go out of fashion and were replaced in some areas with mega-shopping areas incorporating several “superstores” or “big box” stores, like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Circuit City. Those retail establishments represented more than 80 percent of all new stores built in 1994. The automobile was still king even with the newer arrangements, however. The physical impact of these gigantic shopping areas was felt not only when they were thriving, but when they were abandoned as well.

Even suburban houses showed the presence of the automobile as early as the turn of the century. The driveway “became the entrance and exit ramp to domestic life,” replacing the front porch of a bygone age. In suburban houses, especially, the garage became an essential feature like the kitchen or living room. One observer called it an extension of the street or a buffer zone insulating the suburban dweller from the outside world, rather than simply a place to store a vehicle. This notion highlights the idea held by several scholars that suburban living epitomized—or overemphasized some would argue—the privatization of life.

Initially, cars might be stored in or adjacent to sheds, stables, and barns to keep them from the elements when not in use. Also, the garage often included workspace since the early cars were maintained by their owners. It was common to refer to these early garages as an “automobile house,” but the term “garage,” from the French word for “to shelter,” caught on as the standard name—and one that confirmed the automobile’s important role as a prized possession, not an animate object. After all, cars needed protection not only from the elements but from fire, theft, and vandalism. In the 1920s, the garage often was attached—or semi-attached—to the house for a number of reasons: reducing the overall cost of construction, providing easy access to the house, freeing space in the backyard, and increasing the overall size of the house. In the post-World War II era, open carports were added to some houses, especially where climate was not such a key factor in protecting cars from the cold, and in cases where homeowners saw them as adding to the modern aesthetic of their home. The advent of the multi-car family and changing styles and needs eventually reduced interest in building carports. But whether a house had a garage or a carport, the automobile was built into the design of many homes and into the culture of the families who owned them. One observer concluded, “The garage’s evolution from backyard shed to front entrance clearly reveals the impact of the car on domestic space.”

From the intimacy of the suburban home to the expansiveness of the freeway system, the automobile is an integral part of the modern American landscape. The symbiosis between the car and the city became so seamless in the twentieth century that, in many cases, people are unaware of the powerful historic forces that helped to blend car and environment. When we think about the relationship between the automobile and our surroundings, it is probably easiest to conjure up images of traffic and congestion or grave apprehension over ubiquitous smog. It is easy to forget, on the other hand, how motorized vehicles have contributed to the very shape, tone, and texture of our society.