Engine of Liberation


Soon hotels were forced to evolve to satisfy the needs of motorists. Motels (the word dates to 1925) sprang up, surrounded by ample parking and with each guest’s room only a few feet from his vehicle. Restaurants soon began catering to motorists, many of them in a hurry. Unfortunately the spread of franchising in the 1960s and 1970s much diminished the regional diversity of American highway cuisine. Today a hamburger in Seattle is likely to be indistinguishable from one in Georgia, right down to the shape, size, and color of the bag the french fries come in.

THE CAR made its biggest impact on the American landscape by making possible the modern suburb.

But it was only after World War II that the automobile made its biggest impact on the American landscape by making possible the modern suburb. Suburbs were created in the first instance by the railroads. The editor Horace Greeley used to commute to New York in the summer from his farm in Chappaqua, forty miles north of the city. These suburbs were very limited, however, because once the passengers disembarked from the train, they were again reduced to the speed of a horse. (Even worse, they had to wait to be picked up at the station. A horse can’t sit in a parking lot all day long.) So a demographic map of an American city in 1900 would have looked a bit like a daddy longlegs, with a dense core of population in the city center and only thin streaks of population running outward along the railroad and trolley tracks. All the rest was deep country.

TRIVIAL PART of the American economy in 1900, by the 1920s the automobile industry was the country’s largest.

The automobile allowed a completely different pattern. Today there is often a semi-void of residential population at the heart of a large city, surrounded by rings of less and less densely settled suburbs. These suburbs, primarily dependent on the automobile to function, are where the majority of the country’s population lives, a fact that has transformed our politics. Every city that had a major-league baseball team in 1950, with the exception only of New York—ever the exception—has had a drastic loss in population within its city limits over the last four and a half decades, sometimes by as much as 50 percent as people have moved outward, thanks to the automobile.

In more recent years the automobile has had a similar effect on the retail commercial sectors of smaller cities and towns, as shopping malls and superstores such as the Home Depot and Wal-Mart have sucked commerce off Main Street and into the surrounding countryside.

BUT THE AUTOMOBILE HAS had as great an effect on the country’s “economy as on its landscape. Nineteenth-century industry was largely dedicated to making industrial products, such as steel, products not bought by individuals. But the twentieth century’s economy has been increasingly consumer-oriented. The automobile was the first great industrial consumer product and did much to generate that sector of the economy. A trivial part of the American economy in 1900, the automobile industry was by the 1920s the country’s largest, as it remains to this day. For the automobile industry is not just the manufacture of automobiles. It encompasses as well the maintenance, servicing, and fueling of cars. Their garaging and parking are major industries in large cities. More, cars must be insured. Traffic must be policed. There are now magazines devoted solely to the sound systems in cars. Auto racing is no small affair. Highway building is a major component of the construction industry. Automobiles account for a very large percent of the gross domestic product.

Indirectly, the economic effect of the automobile has been equally profound. The vast growth of the petroleum, glass, and rubber industries, among others, in this century was largely fueled by the automobile. The drastic decline in the horse population resulted in vast amounts of agricultural land being switched from forage crops to human food, greatly reducing the cost of the latter as the supply increased. The twentieth-century advertising and hotel and tourism industries were built upon the automobile.

TODAY’S near-universal use of credit cards to purchase even such minor items as meals is a product of the automobile.

So was commercial credit. The automobile remains the most expensive major consumer product, an average-price car costing a very substantial fraction of average annual income. Banks in the early twentieth century dealt mostly with business and the very affluent, not the average worker. So automobile manufacturers set up their own credit organizations (such as the General Motors Acceptance Corporation) to help finance automobile purchases.

The idea of ordinary citizens borrowing money to buy the wherewithal of a better life was radically new in the early twentieth century, when most Americans still did not even have bank accounts or own their homes. But once it was established by the automobile, it was, inevitably, soon applied to other expensive consumer products, such as household appliances. Credit has been moving outward ever since to encompass more and more of the American economy. Today’s near-universal use of credit cards to purchase even such minor items as meals is, in a very real sense, a product of the automobile.