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The History of American Transportation in the 20th Century
The main theme in the story of transportation in 20th-century America has been the triumph of gasoline-powered motor vehicles, and especially the private automobile. The automobile achieved dominance remarkably swiftly—in a single generation—and has then extended that dominance. Today, there are over 185 million passenger cars and light trucks on the road. These vehicles consume 85 percent of all the energy used for transporting people (Davis et al. 1989).
The Rise of the Automobile
At the turn of the century, automobiles were still oddities. Cars were perceived as recreational vehicles, and their owners had to fit into a road system dominated by pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and bicycles. In Vermont, for example, motorists were required to hire "a person of mature age" to walk an eighth of a mile in front of their car carrying a red flag (Leuchtenburg 1958). As late as 1909, when American automakers produced 124,000 cars, two million horse-drawn carriages were manufactured (Rae 1984, Lynd and Lynd 1929).
In fact, during the first decade of the new century, a different transportation innovation, the interurban street railway, was spreading faster than motor vehicles and played a (temporarily) larger role in reshaping the American transportation system. Street railways, or trolleys, were introduced into American cities in the 1850s and were initially pulled by horses. After Richmond, Virginia, built the first electric streetcar system in 1887, electric trolleys quickly displaced the horse-drawn vehicles. In addition to carrying commuters from downtown locations to nearby suburbs, trolleys began to link more distant communities, and an entire interurban street railway network grew. From 2,107 miles of track in 1900, the electric interurban railways reached a peak of 15,580 miles in 1916 (Flink 1988). Trolleys enabled workers to live farther from their jobs and allowed more frequent passenger travel between communities in a region. For freight and long-distance travel, steam-powered railroads and boats remained the main carriers.
The automobile did not initially displace either trolleys or trains, but it was an immediate threat to horses. Cars were not only faster and more efficient than horses, they were also cheaper to operate. They were especially attractive to farmers and others in rural areas, where train service was irregular and distances were great. Consequently, before World War I, proportionately more farmers than city dwellers purchased cars.
Urbanites nevertheless saw advantage in using motor vehicles for the main tasks assigned to horses—the shipment of goods within the city and private transportation for the well-to-do. Although the car may threaten public health at the end of the 20th century, at the beginning it was seen as a clear environmental improvement over the horse. "In New York City alone at the turn of the century," historian James Flink points out, "horses deposited on the streets every day an estimated 2.5 million pounds of manure and 60,000 gallons of urine, accounting for about two- thirds of the filth that littered the city's streets. Excreta from horses in the form of dried dust irritated nasal passages and lungs, then became a syrupy mass to wade through and track into the home whenever it rained" (Flink 1988).
Automobile ownership spread much faster in the United States than elsewhere. As early as 1913, when Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line, American car manufacturers were producing almost half a million cars a year, 80 percent of world production. During the next decade and a half, yearly car production increased tenfold (Rae 1984). Just before the 1929 stock-market crash, over 26 million motor vehicles were registered in the United States. This meant that there was one car for every five Americans, and more than half of the nation's families owned a car. In contrast, there was only one car for every 43 people in Great Britain and one car for every 325 people in Italy (Leuchtenburg 1958). Thus in only three decades the car had become a ubiquitous symbol of American prosperity. The automobile industry had become America's premier industry. It had taken on a structure and shape that would last for decades, with 80 percent of car sales dominated by the three largest makers—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (Flink 1988).
Why did so many Americans buy cars so quickly compared with Europeans? The population was more scattered and density was lower, so many Americans did not have access to satisfactory public transit. For them, the automobile filled a need for faster and more convenient travel. Because average incomes were higher and wealth was distributed more equally than in Europe, more people could afford cars to fill this need (Cochran 1972).
But the rapid spread of an automobile-dominated culture cannot be explained entirely by such rational, practical, economic factors. More intangible considerations involving consumer preferences, advertising, and political attitudes also played a role. For example, the automobile was not necessarily incompatible with a well-developed urban mass- transit system. Yet as the trolley system and the car-based culture grew in the first decades of the new century, they both required extensive public assistance, but only motor vehicles received it.
Motor-vehicle manufacturers needed government help, since they produced a product that required the use of government-owned facilities—the roads. In 1909, less than 10 percent of the roads were surfaced. But then the nation went on a road-building and road- paving binge as citizens pressured the government for roads so they could make good use of the new technology of motor vehicles. By 1930, a system of interconnected concrete roads spanned the continent (Flink 1988).
Road building was such a monumental task that all levels of government got involved. Although local governments continued to play the largest role, accounting for 53 percent of highway funds in 1927, the states and federal government also participated (Leuchtenburg 1958). With the 1916 Federal Aid Road Act, the national government committed itself to improving post roads. Later, the Federal Highway Act of 1921 provided matching grants to the states to help with the establishment of a nationwide system of highways.
Although the initial road-building efforts were financed primarily from general government revenues, enthusiasm for the automobile was so great that motorists willingly accepted a significant user fee, the gasoline tax. Between 1919 and 1929, every state passed such a tax, most often of three or four cents a gallon. As historian John Burnham notes, the public's seeming willingness to "pay their own way" encouraged government officials to accelerate road-improvement efforts: "Never before in the history of taxation has a major tax been so generally accepted in so short a period" (1961).
The Decline of Mass Transit
In contrast, streetcars and other mass-transit systems languished. Up to 1918, urban transit ridership was growing faster than the urban population, but most mass-transit systems were unpopular (Yago 1984). Streetcars and subways were run as private corporations, so company profits were inevitably a higher priority than public service. Many streetcar companies used their rail lines to promote their own suburban real-estate ventures and avoided building lines to other growing communities. Some streetcar companies used political pressure, economic favors, and bribery to gain influence over local elected officials and thereby improve their own financial position at the public's expense (Bottles 1987).
Much of the public consequently distrusted the mass-transit companies and considered them corrupt. When the companies began to experience financial difficulties after 1914 and argued that they could not expand their service to remain competitive, most citizens were not anxious to help. Transit companies' responses to rapidly changing consumer demand were generally tardy, hesitant, and uncoordinated (Foster 1982). Much of the public thus welcomed the automobile as an alternative to relying on poorly managed mass-transit systems. One-third of the transit companies went bankrupt between 1916 and 1923, leaving many fewer miles of track and a declining level of service (Yago 1984).
Even if the transit companies had been more popular, they would have had a hard time competing. The farther one commuted, the greater the car's time advantage. In Kansas City in 1930, cars and trolleys moved at the same slow pace through downtown's rush-hour traffic. However, at two miles from the city center, cars had gained a five-minute advantage, which expanded to 15 minutes at seven miles. Along secondary trolley lines, the time differential was even greater (Interrante 1983). And even where it was cheaper and faster to use public transportation, mass transit had a hard time winning back car owners. Once people had put out the large sum of money it took to purchase an automobile, they felt committed to using it.
Although the Great Depression and World War II delayed the spread of car ownership to the more than 40 percent of American families without them in 1930, the automobile's central economic and cultural role was already set. For those working-class people who owned cars, as well as those who did not, a car was the great symbol of advancement that stood for a large share of "the American dream." Even when families experienced sharply declining incomes during the Great Depression, they sacrificed many things so they could hang on tenaciously to their cars (Lynd and Lynd 1937).
Once the car had captured such a central place in the economy and the culture, it was almost inevitable that motor vehicles would expand their dominance within the American transportation system. Each year, automobile companies spent millions of dollars on advertising to convince the public of the attractions of car travel. Along with its allies in the oil, trucking, and highway-construction industries, the automobile industry vigorously promoted its interests in Washington and in state capitals. WPA projects in the 1930s, for example, included a strong road-building component; 10 times as much WPA money was spent on street and highway projects as on mass transit (Foster 1982).
Other transportation options simply did not have the resources to compete for the attention of policymakers or the hearts of citizens. Even in cities where close to half the people did not own cars, most public officials were more concerned with making car travel easier than with improving mass transit. Planning commissions were dominated by commercial civic elites who were responsive to the needs of upper- and middle-class car owners rather than to mass-transit riders from the working class. They willingly allowed streetcar tracks to be ripped up, since cars were then left with more space and a smoother road, and street paving was simplified. The only cities that ended the 1930s with strong mass-transit systems were those, like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, where particular political circumstances had produced a tradition of public mass-transit subsidies starting in the 1910s (Flink 1988).
In most places, financially troubled transit companies switched from streetcars to buses, which were less expensive to operate. But the decision inadvertently hastened the decline of ridership since buses proved to be less attractive and ultimately had less presence on the urban scene than the rail-based transit system had. By World War II urban bus ridership was equal to that of streetcars, but by the mid-1950s, even though there were six times more bus riders, the number of riders for both modes of travel was declining rapidly (Flink 1988).
Interstate Highways and Motor-Vehicle Dominance
The establishment of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 not only solidified the overwhelming dominance of motor vehicles within the American transportation system but also symbolized the political power of motor-vehicle-related industries. The new legislation increased the federal share of highway funding from the 60 percent set in the 1944 Federal Aid Highway Act to 90 percent and established a specially earmarked Federal Highway Trust Fund. By ensuring that taxes on cars, gasoline, lubricants, and auto parts would go into this fund, the highway lobby guaranteed an ongoing, expanding revenue base for highways. The highway lobby had convinced government leaders that money spent on highways is a public investment, whereas that spent on public transportation is a costly subsidy (Yago 1984). Consequently, nearly all federal spending on land transportation went to highways.
After 1956, average yearly federal highway spending increased six times and was well over $5 billion by 1973. With this money, the United States built the most extensive highway system in the world (Dunn 1981).
The Interstate Highway System sped the decline of passenger railroads. It became much more convenient and cheaper for families to drive distances of several hundred miles rather than take a train. At the same time, airplanes were robbing the railroads of long-distance travelers. Even in a market where railroads should have been competitive—business trips of less than 300 miles—the railroads were squeezed out by cars and airplanes. Airplanes became the preferred mode for business travel. Trains were perceived as unreliable, inconvenient, and old-fashioned (Dunn 1981).
Railroads remained the most important carriers of freight, but the interstate highways helped their competitors in the trucking industry. Railroads already had declining profits and market share. Heavy industries like coal and steel, which depended on the rails, were either diminishing in importance or growing slowly, while service industries and producers of lightweight consumer goods who could best use trucks were growing. As industry and population moved away from older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the trains saw profitable patterns of shipping disrupted. It was no longer possible to achieve the balanced two-way movement of commodities in which agricultural products from the South and West flowed to the industrial cities of the Northeast and the same boxcars returned carrying manufactured goods. At the same time, the government regulatory system weakened the railroads' ability to compete by retaining cumbersome and costly regulations that stifled competition and dated from an era when there had been a realistic fear of the railroads' power (Dunn 1981).
The interstate highways had an especially profound impact on the shape of American cities. Motor vehicles had already prompted industry to spread out from the center city and workers to live farther from their workplaces. The urban interstate highways accentuated these trends and also made comprehensive urban transportation planning more difficult. The government's highway planners believed their task was to build a highway system rather than an integrated transportation system, so they did not coordinate their highway plans with existing or possible future mass-transit systems. Not only did this further disadvantage railroads and urban mass transit, but a tremendous opportunity was also lost to build a coordinated urban transportation system in which commuters and shippers could easily switch from one mode of transportation to another.
Government highway planners were so focused on building an efficient system of moving motor vehicles that they were blind to the full impact of their roads on the cities they were supposedly serving. They constructed highways that bisected or destroyed neighborhoods, reduced the cities' housing stock, eliminated their parks, and damaged their appearance (Flink 1988).
The Automobile under Attack
By the late 1950s, just when public approval of an automobile-based transportation system seemed absolute, critics began to mount a series of attacks. Problems caused by 60 years of automobiles were becoming more apparent. Community groups in several cities attacked specific highway plans as threats to the quality of urban life. In their first notable victory, in San Francisco, they stopped the completion of the Embarcadero freeway and in 1966 prompted the city to reject over $240 million in federal highway aid (Dunn 1981).
Other critics attacked the car itself. Los Angeles was the site of the first major dispute. Its large number of motor vehicles, combined with a mountain-ringed location, had made smog a visible and increasingly disturbing phenomenon. Some residents called for a curb on motor-vehicle emissions and helped pass the first California air-pollution law in 1960.
Excerpted from Steering a New Course by Deborah Gordon. Copyright © 1991 Union of Concerned Scientists. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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List of Tables
Table of Figures
Chapter 1. The History of American Transportation in the 20th Century
Chapter 2. Overview of the US Transportation Sector
Chapter 3. International Transportation
Chapter 4. Greenhouse Gases and Other Air Pollutants
Chapter 5. Alternative Transportation Fuels
Chapter 6. Ultra-fuel-efficient Vehicles
Chapter 7. Innovative Transportation Strategies
Chapter 8. Public-policy Options and Recommendations
Chapter 9. Summary of Recommendations
List of Acronyms