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The Automobile

July 2024
3min read

The legislation that came in with the New Freedom undoubtedly paved the way for unending change, and the mass production and labor saving processes devised in places like Detroit did the same; yet it may be that the greatest single instrument of change was the automobile—not the business of making and selling it but the car itself—the bewildering device that gave unlimited freedom of movement and then bound that movement up in a constantly constricting circle, compelling its user to modify almost every aspect of the place where he lives, the place where he works, and his method of getting back and forth between the two.

One would not be much too fanciful to argue that the most momentous problem of the present day is the traffic problem. The trouble with it is that it seems to be basically insoluble, simply because every step taken to reach a solution only makes the problem worse. The automobile has changed both the city and the country, and there are times when it seems to be altogether beyond control; we began by adapting it to our use, and now we are adapting ourselves to its demands. What the end of it all may finally be is beyond human computation.

Some of the aspects of this problem are examined by Mitchell Gordon in an irascible and disturbing book, Sick Cities: Psychology and Pathology of American Urban Life . Mr. Gordon holds that our cities are desperately ill, and he feels that the automobile is responsible for much of the illness. He does not profess to see a real cure anywhere, but he does present an arresting study of what the motor car is doing to us— of “all the sprawl and congestion that vehicle brings with it wherever it goes.”

Sick Cities: Psychology and Pathology of American Urban Life, by Mitchell Gordon. Macmillan Company. 366 pp. $6.50.

He argues his case thus: By enabling millions of people to live just about anywhere they choose, instead of remaining close to rapid-transit stations, the automobile has scattered urban populations all over the map. Doing this, it has virtually killed off public transit systems, and it has created a traffic jam of nationwide proportions. More and more cars are hauling fewer and fewer people per trip, and in many cities downtown traffic moves more slowly now than it did in the horse-and-buggy days. When supersonic air transports are in service, it will actually be possible for a traveller to go from Los Angeles to New York more quickly than he can get to and from the airports at each end of the line.

Mr. Gordon presents some figures which are both outlandish and solid.

The auto’s appetite for space is horrendous. The 41,000-mile interstate highway system born with the passage of congressional legislation in 1956 will occupy more land than the entire state of Rhode Island when it is completed in 1972. … Two-thirds of Los Angeles’ entire downtown area is already given over to the automobile—approximately 33 percent of it to parking lots and garages and the rest to roads and highways. Each one of the city’s interchanges, linking one freeway to another, consumes approximately 80 acres of real estate; every mile of freeway, 24. By 1980 the city is expected to have 34 square miles of land devoted to its freeway system—about the size of the entire city of Miami.

The business is expensive—to put a three-mile stretch of freeway through Cleveland it was necessary to remove an estimated $20 million worth of assessed property from the city’s tax rolls—and spending money does not seem to help much. In Los Angeles (all of these studies of the dire nature of the traffic problem seem to use that city as the horrible example), Mr. Gordon remarks, $900 million has already been invested in more than 300 miles of freeways and expressways, but municipal highway officials believe that by 1980 they will need more than 1,500 miles of those arteries, for a total investment of more than $5 billion. One official recently remarked that even after all of this is done, traffic conditions by 1980 may well be worse than they are today.

“Statistics tell this poignant tale,” says Mr. Gordon. “In the decade from 1947 to 1957, the nation as a whole constructed 53,000 miles of highway lanes while Detroit was stamping out enough automobiles to cover 200,000 miles of highway lanes bumper-to-bumper.” He quotes the warning of Urban Land Institute President Boyd Barnard: “The expected increase of automobiles in the next decade will mean bumper-tobumper traffic not only on all our present roads, turnpikes and expressways, but all those that are in the planning stage as well.” Mr. Barnard, apparently, feels that the automobile “has created problems which appear almost insolvable.”

Traffic congestion, of course, is not by any means all of the story. The real difficulty, as Mr. Gordon sees it, is what he calls “urban sprawl.” The urban area reaches farther and farther into the country, the city decays at its center, problems of schooling, policing, water supply, sanitation, and municipal finance increase more rapidly than they can be handled—and, in short, our cities, where more and more of us live, are being blighted. The author cites the Census Bureau as authority for the statement that more Americans today live in substandard housing than live on farms, and one out of every six dwellings in the nation is either dilapidated or substandard.

Various remedies have been proposed, to be suremore adequate city planning, comprehensive “urban renewal” programs, and some consolidation of the multiplicity of governmental organization which shares responsibility for such matters. But Mr. Gordon seems to be a pessimist, and he goes on to remark bleakly:

We can leave our cities pretty much as they are and avoid radical remedies which would drastically remake them. More people in more automobiles, with more time and money to spend keeping them in motion, will speed up the conquest of urban space on earth and, notwithstanding the huge sums that will be poured into new concrete carpeting, compound congestion at critical places. Urban acreage will continue to be ravaged by blight despite vast renewal efforts. Recreational facilities will be harder to reach but more crowded. And, as the sprawling metropolis spreads its jurisdictional patchquilt of governments across the urban landscape, protection from crime, the schooling of underprivileged youth, the disposal of refuse, and a myriad of other local services will be more and more difficult to adequately finance and effectively provide.

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