Cars drive our society, figuratively and literally.
In 2019, there were 276 million registered vehicles in the United States, 274 of which were privately owned. This figure is led by 158 million trucks and 100 million cars. Less than 9% of American households do not own a car, and an overwhelming majority of Americans commute to work by car, most driving alone. The immense number of trucks haul 70% of the total shipped goods in the United States including food and medicine. As it is currently structured, our society cannot function without the widespread, daily use of automobiles.
Obviously, this was not always the case. Before the United States and the European colonization of the Americas, indigenous nations here lived in entirely walkable communities, and maintained intercontinental trails for long distance trade and travel. Although the United States all but destroyed these societies, the routes of their trails would later become the foundations of our interstate highway networks.
Europeans were responsible for the importation of horses to North America, allowing for long distance travel and isolated personal and local usages. But without fossil fuels and industrial agriculture, horses were too resource expensive—and ironically, polluting— to support widespread commuting or individual ownership, remaining reserved mostly for long distance travel, shipping and postage delivery. Alongside the industrial revolution, steam-powered trains exploded around the world and across the United States, providing continental shipping and transportation much faster and more efficiently than horseback.
The application of trains within long distance travel was mirrored by the creation of streetcars in most US cities. Almost like a preliminary metro, these track-bound and steam-powered vehicles replaced horse drawn carriages to become one of the most advanced public transportation networks in the world at the time. Streetcar networks existed in every major metropolitan area of the United States, and they were responsible for urban expansions and creation of the first true suburbs for U.S. urban middle classes.
Throughout the 20th century though, industrialized nations began replacing various previous transportation networks with cars. In the United States, General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, and Chrysler emerged hegemonic in automotive production, domestically and abroad for a time.
Alongside the explosion of car manufacturing in the United States, our network of streetcars would be almost entirely removed. The private companies holding these cars decommissioned them or converted them to bus lines in a period from 1938 to 1950. While there are theories that General Motors in particular broke antitrust laws in conspiracy to shut down streetcars and increase the demand for automobiles, in any case it was both the size and consolidation of the automobile industry as well as the streetcars’ fundamental and initial privatization that allowed them to be so extensively discontinued.
The restructuring of America’s transportation system can’t be understood without the parallel restructuring of our housing and industry throughout the 20th century. The Housing Act of 1949, or the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, gave US cities unprecedented powers to institute land redevelopment, reserving hundreds of millions of dollars for new public housing, and unprecedented loans and grants for legal acquisition and clearing of areas deemed “slums” which would be sold to private owners in accordance with new redevelopment plans. Spoiler alert: the areas termed “slums” were home to low income black communities.
In 1954, the landmark supreme court case Berman V. Parker and an amendment of the Housing Act of 1949 each further empowered cities to clear land and promote redevelopment. Nationally, cities destroyed historic urban housing, frequently without just compensation or relocation of the affected and often marginalized communities.
This “urban renewal” was undertaken in tandem with the creation of the interstate highway system, which has since formed the backbone of US automobile commuter infrastructure. The 1956 National Interstate and Defense Highways Act authorized the formalization and expansion of the interstate system through the middle of many cities using eminent domain, rezoning and bulldozers. In Hartford Connecticut for example, this meant the establishment of interstates 91 and 84 which respectively bisect Hartford from north-to-south and east-to-west. In this city and many others, the historic working class of the city was displaced and today the interstate highway system serves as a cultural and physical barrier to city residents while linking suburban, white, commuting middle and upper classes to incomes within urban commercial centers.
This destructive creation of our interstate system along with strategies like redlining, racial covenants and the exclusion of black veterans from federal housing loans, combined to restrict the average U.S. family’s access to public services, safety and wealth maintenance since the 1950’s to white communities outside of major cities. These new communities were inherently reliant on cars to commute to urban and industrial centers for employment. In this way, the creation of a car-dominant society in the United States was foundationally interlinked with anti-black racism and segregation.
The result of this violent history is a society dominated by suburbs, highways, and car infrastructure instead of walkable urban environments. Cities are split by interstates and have little public transportation, and suburbs are very low-density and unwalkable, making owning a car necessary to live almost anywhere, thus reinforcing economic and racial segregation. In most locations we’ve created a truly ugly and alienating built environment which is simultaneously discriminatory and needlessly hierarchical.
Geographies of ugliness, alienation and inaccessibility are hardly the worst consequences of reliance on cars though. Transportation is the single greatest source of carbon emissions in the United States, and this category is dominated by emissions from cars. In a country with one of the highest current carbon emissions per capita and the highest total historical carbon emissions of any nation on Earth, ditching cars is essential for the United States to avert global climate catastrophe. This isn’t even mentioning the massive threat to public safety that cars already pose, needlessly killing thousands and injuring millions every year.
Public transportation is just far more cost-effective for society. Within standardized, publicly owned and shared public transportation such as buses, metro stations and trains, the same vehicle can carry dozens of times as many passengers using far less infrastructure, fuel, money and pollution, while creating only a fraction of the traffic, health and safety costs as cars. Through spending less on transportation, society will free great resources for addressing war, inequality, public health crises and climate change.
Cars aren’t inherently good or bad. In the United States, they are currently foundational to a highly individualistic consumer society with insufficient public services that is also grossly classist, wasteful and environmentally irresponsible. But they do have important emergency functions in walkable societies with strong public transport. We shouldn’t be focused on criticism of specific technologies or infrastructures but rather their use in social contexts.
For the health and wellbeing of everyone the United States needs to stop maintaining and subsidizing car infrastructure, car dependent housing and the manufacture of more cars. But more importantly, and perhaps in order for us to complete this first task, this country needs to seriously study and reckon with a history of settler-colonialism, segregation and domination of private industrial concerns in public policy that have all combined to create our car-dominated society today.