| The Motorization of American Cities
Book by David J. St. Clair; Praeger Publishers, 1986
The Changing Face of Urban Transportation
Traveling in the United States in the 1920s was an experience very different from that of today. Then an American traveling between cities, or any long distance for that matter, would most likely have taken a train or a ship. Commercial air travel was as yet unknown, and travel by automobile was still only for the adventurous. Poor roads, unreliable automobiles, and a lack of motoring services generally limited such travel to short trips about town, commuting, and country outings. To get about in cities and towns across the country in 1920, our traveler would probably have walked, or taken a streetcar, a jitney, or perhaps a taxicab. In a few of the larger cities, subways and elevated railways were also available.
In 1920 the age of mass-produced (and consumed) autos was dawning. Private cars were increasingly plying the streets of both large and small cities and towns across the country, and commuting by auto was on the increase. It didn't take a lot of autos to clog roads that had not been built for such traffic and that were already congested with wagons and streetcars. 1 Public transit, essentially streetcars, still constituted the backbone of urban transportation in all but the smallest cities and towns. Suburbs were already with us in 1920, most having developed around streetcar and interurban rail lines. Since these suburbs were still very dependent upon public transit, population densities were generally higher than the light densities that we associate with suburbia today. The auto-suburb still awaited a network of highways and expressways that would make widespread automobile commuting practical. Outside of the cities and the suburbs, the automobile held out its greatest promise to rural Americans who were still isolated on farms and in small towns across the country. Overcoming this rural isolation would take much more than the automobile, however; it would take a system of roads that would get the farmer out of the mud. The United States in 1920 did not yet have such a road network, and the farmer as well as the intercity motorist had to contend with poor and often impassable roads.
Over the next five decades, this scenario was dramatically altered. By the early 1960s, an American traveling from one city to another would probably have flown or gone by automobile. In most cases, a traveler would have been hard pressed even to arrange a convenient trip by rail or ship. Most of the interurban commuter railroads had long since expired, and the mainline railroads had steadily reduced passenger service as patronage declined. By the 1960s a trip by automobile would most likely have been made over a network of multilane, limited-access freeways and highways that by then crisscrossed not only the countryside but also the cities as well. The backbone of this network of freeways and highways was the Federal Interstate and Defense Highway System. Serious construction of this freeway network, the world's largest construction project, had begun following the passage of federal legislation in 1956. 2 On the Interstate System one could travel hundreds of miles without a stoplight or cross traffic. The mud that had isolated farm dwellers was gone, as was much (although not all) of the "mud" of urban congestion that had earlier made urban and suburban commuting by auto so very difficult. The urban freeway system could "speed" a commuter or intercity traveler around or through urban areas that had previously been accessible only through traffic-congested city streets. 3
By the 1960s, travel in the rural and small-town United States had become almost exclusively an automobile affair. Transit systems that had once served just about every small town had been early casualties of the automobile and/or the Great Depression. Transit systems in larger cities had fared better. But while they generally survived the depression, they did not escape the plague of declining patronage and financial distress. At the same time, the nature of public transit changed dramatically. Most of the old electric streetcars were gone--only a few survived in a handful of cities. 4 Once the ubiquitous mode of urban public transit, these electric streetcars had been steadily replaced by motor buses and, to a lesser extent, by electric buses and modern electric streetcars. (These will be discussed later in this chapter.) The financial distress continued to worsen, however, and by the 1950s privately owned transit companies were being replaced by public transit agencies. Transit districts were usually able to maintain only minimal, subsidized transit services.
In essence, by the 1960s a network of freeways and highways (made possible largely by federal financing) and a growing stock of private automobiles had replaced the privately owned local streetcar systems as the backbone of U.S. urban transportation. In addition, this same network of freeways and highways, along with the development of commercial airlines (again with considerable federal assistance), had replaced the privately owned passenger railroad network in this country. In terms of our getting about, we had certainly undergone a radical transformation since World War I. The consequences of these changes were not confined to the transportation field. As our transportation patterns changed, so too did our life-styles, our surroundings, our consumption patterns, and even our culture. Social commentators have long noted, praised, lamented, and argued about the impact of the automobile and freeways on U.S. culture and life-styles. However one feels about these social changes, there can be no denying their significance. Nor is there any denying the economic impact of the automobile. Since the 1920s the production and sale of automobiles, the provision of automobile services and maintenance, the construction of roads and their servicing and maintenance, and the provisioning of other auto-related services have grown dramatically. One U.S. job in six became directly dependent on the automobile.