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Car Country: An Environmental History

Car Country: An Environmental History

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Car Country: An Environmental History

695 pages
11 hours
May 15, 2013


For most people in the United States, going almost anywhere begins with reaching for the car keys. This is true, Christopher Wells argues, because the United States is Car Country a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often unsafe to navigate by those who are not sitting behind the wheel of a car.

The prevalence of car-dependent landscapes seems perfectly natural to us today, but it is, in fact, a relatively new historical development. In Car Country, Wells rejects the idea that the nation's automotive status quo can be explained as a simple byproduct of an ardent love affair with the automobile. Instead, he takes readers on a tour of the evolving American landscape, charting the ways that transportation policies and land-use practices have combined to reshape nearly every element of the built environment around the easy movement of automobiles. Wells untangles the complicated relationships between automobiles and the environment, allowing readers to see the everyday world in a completely new way. The result is a history that is essential for understanding American transportation and land-use issues today.

Watch the book trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48LTKOxxrXQ

May 15, 2013

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Car Country - Christopher W. Wells



A Car of One's Own

A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation.

—Lewis Mumford (1958)¹

Like many of my friends, I was ecstatic when the long vigil leading up to my sixteenth birthday ended, and I finally—finally!—got my driver's license. Driving opened a new world of freedom and mobility, particularly after my father bought a new car and gave me his old one: a yellow 1977 Toyota long-bed pickup truck. Despite its flashy white racing stripe, my new truck was in sad shape. Parts of the bed were rusting through, torn bits of foam protruded from gaping holes in its vinyl seats, and the passenger-side door, which was crumpled from a previous accident, could only be opened by observing a careful sequence of steps that flummoxed all but a select group of initiates. I was utterly blind to its problems: the truck was a piece of junk, but it was my piece of junk.

My truck made everything about high-school life easier. Now that I was finally free of the complicated process of arranging rides home after my various practices and after-school activities, it also became infinitely easier to get to friends' houses, to soccer games and debate tournaments, and to movies and parties. Best of all, the costs of my newfound mobility were negligible: I had only to make an occasional emergency run to the grocery store for my mother, to give my younger sister a ride when she needed one, and to use my own money to keep the truck's tank full.² My previously well-used bicycle went into storage, and for the rest of high school came out only for recreational rides with friends.

When I left home for college in the mountains of western Massachusetts, first-year students were barred from owning vehicles—a policy designed to prevent the town's picturesque streets from becoming a parking lot. Full of regret, I left my truck behind. I still vividly remember the phone call, several months later, when I asked about my truck and got silence in return. After some prodding, my parents explained that it had been totaled—the victim of a fallen tree during a storm. The insurance company proclaimed it a worthless hunk of metal, but I knew better: its loss meant forfeiting the easy mobility that I had enjoyed through my last years of high school. I spent my remaining college breaks in Atlanta hitching rides with friends or negotiating the use of one of my parents' cars.

Somewhat to my surprise, though, I seldom missed my truck at college. The campus itself was less than one square mile in extent and contained everything a student could need: dormitories, dining halls, classrooms, athletic fields, museums, a variety of shops and restaurants on main street, and a profusion of public gathering spaces that hosted a diverse mix of activities, including lectures, musical and theatrical performances, and whatever else two thousand college students living in an isolated town could dream up. When I moved off campus as a senior, two of my housemates had cars—although most of the time they sat parked outside the house, unused, until one of us needed to run to the nearest grocery store in the next town over.

After graduation, I took a job teaching high-school history in Switzerland, and like many Americans living in Europe I marveled at how easy it was to get around by foot, bus, and train. Even without a car, it was easy (and affordable, even on my small salary) to spend my free weekends traveling. By contrast, on the occasions when I had to drive a school van, driving seemed downright cumbersome. Narrow streets, low speed limits, what struck me as outrageously high gasoline prices, and exceedingly scarce parking—not to mention the boisterous teenagers I was carting around—undercut much of driving's appeal. Rather than embodying freedom and mobility, driving in Switzerland seemed more like an expensive, inconvenient, and at times even harrowing chore.

Yet almost immediately upon returning to Atlanta for the summer, the familiar yearning for a car of my own came flooding back. Even something as simple as meeting friends during their lunch breaks presented significant obstacles. Infrequent, inconveniently located bus service in my neighborhood made buses unappealing, and the nearest stop on the city's pleasant, rail-based rapid-transit system (whose tracks did not run anywhere I wanted to go) was nearly three miles away from my parents' house. Cycling, the preferred transportation of my youth, was fine in my neighborhood but felt dangerous beyond it, where a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.³ With such poor options for getting around, I felt incapacitated without a car.

Interestingly, my intense desire for a car quickly dissipated after I moved to Madison—the capital of Wisconsin and a bustling university town—to attend graduate school. Madison's main commercial street downtown, State Street, which connects the university campus on one end with the state capitol on the other, is lined with enough bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and small specialty shops to keep the university's forty-thousand-plus students happy. I rented an apartment within a short walk of my classes and the library, dropping my vague plan to buy a car upon learning that off-street parking would add 50 percent to my monthly rent. I worried about getting groceries until discovering a store—half a mile away—that offered free delivery. With most of what I needed located within a reasonable walk, I never really missed having a car.

By this point my interest in the differing transportation systems of Europe and the United States had captured my academic interest as well—but popular works on the subject seemed to raise more questions than they answered. The most prevalent explanation for the remarkable success of the automobile in the United States—the ubiquitous love-affair thesis—suggests that Americans fell in love with automobiles and, once enamored, did whatever was necessary to accommodate them. It is, at base, quite simple, one popular history of automobiles declares: Americans have a fervent, intense, enduring love affair with their cars.⁴ Most of those who adhere to this explanation see automobiles as basically good—as a technology that is ultimately liberating, enabling, empowering, and democratic, all qualities that accord well with American values. To be sure, proponents of the love-affair thesis concede that the country's dependence on automobiles has its negative side, including environmental damage, steep infrastructure costs, the frustrations of jammed traffic, and dependence on foreign oil, but these problems are simply the unfortunate trade-offs that Americans must make to ensure universal access to an otherwise useful and beneficial technology. Deep down, advocates of the love-affair thesis argue, Americans love their cars, whatever their flaws, and this more than anything else explains the country's relationship with automobiles.⁵

A second popular explanation—call it the conspiracy thesis—attributes the privileged position of automobiles in American life to powerful interests foisting automobiles on an unwary public. A cabal of automakers and various affiliated conspirators used underhanded means to deprive the country of effective public transportation, according to this argument, and powerful road builders have used their clout to secure public financing for huge construction projects at the expense of other social needs. Proponents of the conspiracy thesis sometimes grudgingly concede that cars have certain positive qualities, but on balance they see the country's car culture as a negative, damaging force. Given free choice and a level playing field, they argue, Americans would certainly choose a less automobile-dependent lifestyle.

Neither of these explanations for the dominance of cars in the United States squares particularly well with my own experience, in which my desire (and need) for a car has varied dramatically from place to place. In Atlanta, I nearly always felt confined and helpless without a car because what I wanted to do was spread out over a large area, making driving the only practical way to get around. Both in Switzerland and in two very different college towns, however, not having a car proved at worst a minor inconvenience. Because most of what I needed in a normal day was located in easy walking or bicycling distance from where I lived, having a car was more a convenience than a necessity. To put it another way, the physical arrangement of the built environment, in which housing, retail, and businesses intermingled in relatively close quarters—a condition that planners refer to as mixed-use landscapes—meant that my opportunities per square mile in all three places were much higher than in Atlanta. Significantly, the prevailing patterns of land use limited my options for conducting my everyday affairs as much or more than the quality of public transportation, which varied from excellent in Switzerland to nonexistent in western Massachusetts. How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or not I needed one.⁷ I did not want a car so much as I wanted to be able to do things quickly and easily: get groceries, get to work, see my friends.⁸ In Atlanta I needed a car; in the other places I have lived since I left home for college, having a car did not factor as much into the equation.

As I thought through these relationships, it became increasingly clear that most public discourse about the role of automobiles in American life erects a false boundary between how Americans feel about transportation technologies and why Americans drive so much more than people elsewhere in the world. In endlessly debating the merits of particular technologies—Priuses versus SUVs, buses versus light rail—we lose sight of the social and environmental context in which those technologies operate. This oversight has implications both for how we live our lives and for the environmental effects of the technologies we use. The language of the love affair, and the often moralistic approach of critics who condemn the automobile, privileges a tight focus on the relative vices and virtues of individual behaviors and technologies at the expense of coming to grips with either the genuine advantages and freedoms that cars create or the social and environmental costs of the nearly universal automobile use that car-dependent landscapes foster.

Focusing on feelings about transportation technologies rather than the conditions in which they operate can have nefarious consequences, as the case of Atlanta's transit system illustrates. The system's trains function well as machines: when installed, they were quiet, smooth, comfortable, clean, and fast and could efficiently move large numbers of people over long distances. Judged on these merits alone, they should have been a resounding success, but in the real world their success has been mixed, at best. How can we explain this? Among the residents of Atlanta I have talked to, the most popular explanation directly mirrors the logic of the love-affair thesis: I guess people here just don't like to ride trains. Pressed to elaborate, people tout the relative virtues of cars (deemed convenient, flexible, inexpensive, and fast) and the relative vices of the trains (deemed awkward, rigid, expensive, and slow).

Yet focusing on people's predilections (people here just don't like to ride trains) suggests that their attitudes are somehow timeless and innate rather than informed reactions to a changing world. In the case of Atlanta's rail-based transit, for example, nearly all of its stations until recently have connected the city's airport with four main things: giant parking lots for commuters, office space, convention-oriented facilities, and sports venues. The opportunities per square mile surrounding each rail stop, in other words, cater almost entirely to out-of-town visitors, office workers, mall-goers, and sports fans. Why should anyone else ever ride the trains? The land uses within easy walking distance of each station send strong signals about who is supposed to use the trains—large parking lots scream I am for drivers, just as rail stops surrounded by office buildings and hotels declare I am for office workers and conventioneers. As a result, the rail-based transit system is awkward, rigid, expensive, and slow for most Atlantans, although this is not because the trains are technologically deficient: it is because most of the city's residents are neither conventioneers nor employees of a company located near a rail stop. From its inception, the system's engineers did not design it to help most city residents do the things they need and want to do as part of their everyday lives.¹⁰

To understand how powerful the relationship between successful mass transit systems and land-use decisions is, compare Atlanta's system to one of any number of successful European systems. Why would the latter enjoy much heavier ridership than Atlanta's, even in cases when they employ older, slower, less comfortable technology? Following the love-affair thesis, we might conclude that Europeans have a stronger affinity for trains or, alternatively, that Europeans just do not love cars as much as Americans. Paying attention to land-use patterns, however, suggests that transit prospers in places where stops grant access to many opportunities per square mile and are within easy walking distance of housing. The relationship is not hard to grasp: if just about anyone can leave home and take a short walk to a transit stop, and if nearly every stop along the line offers a diverse mix of incentives to exit and spend time and money in nearby businesses, then people are likely to use the system heavily—even if they own cars. When transit conveniently connects housing to the innumerable opportunities of dense, mixed-use landscapes, transit seems to thrive. This appears to be particularly true when the opportunities near rail stops are not limited to major attractions like ball fields and museums but also feature businesses that cater to more mundane everyday needs, like drug stores, hardware stores, and supermarkets.¹¹

Anecdotal evidence suggests that rail systems traversing landscapes that are rich in opportunities per square mile seem to appeal as much to substantial numbers of Americans as to Europeans. For example, consider American cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, where subway and elevated train systems still attract heavy ridership. The transit stops in these places are frequently within walking distance of residential areas and offer numerous attractive opportunities within a short walk. Consider also the attitudes of even resolutely car-loving Americans who encounter robust rail-based transit systems when traveling abroad. Many are pleasantly surprised to be able to get around without a rental car and describe their experiences by saying things like, Streetcar systems would never work in the United States because Americans don't like public transportation, but the streetcars in Europe are very pleasant and convenient. In truth, streetcar systems would stand little chance of succeeding in the United States without radically different land-use patterns—but the point is that land-use patterns, not attitudes toward rail, are the best determinant of likely success or failure.

What is true of light rail is also true of cars: when we design landscapes that are easily navigated only by personal vehicles, people tend to drive everywhere they need to go. In this book, I try to move past the language of the love affair to focus on the built landscape. I do so in part because the love-affair framework so poorly explains my own changing relationships with cars and in part because thinking in terms of love and hate is conceptually limiting. However one feels about cars—whether you love them, hate them, or are filled with ambivalence—you will not find much about those emotions in the pages that follow. Instead, this book will ask you to think about landscapes: the everyday world around us, from the mundane to the magisterial, and especially the various principles that guide its physical organization. Sometimes I employ the language of ecology to describe its organization, particularly in order to explore the environmental implications of near-universal automobile use in the United States. Yet I will also have occasion to describe changes in very different terms: more often than not, the people who rearranged the American landscape in the ways I describe did not think much about the effects of their actions on nature or the environment as part of their decision-making processes, even though the environmental consequences of their decisions have been profound.

Understanding the landscape's physical arrangement is crucial to understanding why Americans drive so much. In addition to shaping the fortunes of transportation systems like light rail, land-use patterns also govern how far car-dependent Americans must drive to conduct their everyday affairs. The easiest way to illustrate this point is to examine how the physical layouts of two very different residential areas in the St. Paul metropolitan region—one urban, the other suburban—affect the transportation needs of their residents. The first of these two residential areas is a collection of subdivisions located off an interstate exit ramp roughly fourteen miles south of downtown St. Paul in Eagan, Minnesota, a suburban community of more than sixty thousand people spread out over 34.5 square miles. Its land-use patterns were established primarily in the 1970s and 1980s in direct relationship to the newly constructed interstate.¹² The layout of one of Eagan's neighborhoods, grouped around an interstate exit ramp (fig. 1), reflects the approach that suburban developers have honed to a science in the interstate era. Eagan's general land-use practices differ little from those of innumerable suburban communities around the country.

In order to understand the organization of this exit-ramp neighborhood, which covers roughly 5.5 square miles, one must first appreciate how city planners in the last four decades or so have understood different kinds of roads, which they have sorted into clear hierarchical categories based on intended use. Planners divide roads into two broad categories—high-speed highways and lower-speed roads—and then make further distinctions within each category. In the lower-speed road category, for example, planners distinguish between arterial roads, collector roads, and residential streets and rely on each to serve a different transportation purpose. Arterial roads are the most heavily traveled of the three and typically connect important central locations with one another and with the interstate. They tend to be zoned for large developments like shopping centers, strip malls, office parks, and townhouses rather than for single-family housing. In Eagan, as in most interstate-oriented suburbs, the highway's entrance and exit ramps are located on a major arterial road. By comparison, suburban collector roads have a lower capacity than arterials, and as their name implies they are designed to collect traffic from adjacent subdivisions and funnel it to arterials. The zoning regulations along collectors tend to permit only a few small commercial and community-oriented developments; they are usually easy to identify by the many subdivision entrances along their length. Residential streets, the final road type, are contained entirely within individual subdivisions—thus discouraging through traffic—and the land adjacent to them tends to be zoned exclusively for residential land uses.

By manipulating the arrangement of these different road types, planners and developers create a rational transportation system that is easy to navigate (by those with cars), ensures the relatively efficient distribution of utilities like sewers and water mains through low-density areas, keeps heavy traffic concentrated on major routes (and out of neighborhoods), and locates most everyday essentials within a short drive of residential areas. Because zoning bars commercial activities from residential areas, shopping trips typically begin at home, move through curving residential streets to a collector, follow the collector to the arterial, and take the arterial toward the businesses clustered around the interstate ramp. In well-developed suburbs like Eagan, exit-ramp commercial clusters typically boast a variety of establishments, including restaurants, grocery stores, barber shops and hair salons, real estate agencies, financial services companies, various professional offices, and perhaps even a movie theater or hardware store—enough to satisfy a typical family's everyday needs. Whenever something is not available locally, the interstate provides a direct link to the larger resources of the metropolitan region.

The second sample residential area, whose physical organization differs markedly from Eagan, is Macalester-Groveland, an urban neighborhood in St. Paul with twenty thousand residents spread over roughly 2.25 square miles, located roughly 4 miles west of downtown. As with Eagan, the key to understanding the neighborhood's spatial organization is to understand how its developers designed it in relationship to the dominant transportation system of the time. The streetcars around which the neighborhood was developed from 1910 through the 1920s have been defunct for five decades, but the land-use patterns established during the streetcar era still have a profound and continuing impact on the everyday transportation demands of the neighborhood's residents today.

A map showing the relationship between the neighborhood's commercial infrastructure and its old streetcar lines demonstrates why this is true (fig. 2). Unlike Eagan, whose developers sorted various highways and roads into an elaborate, multilevel hierarchy, Macalester-Grove-land's developers distinguished only two road types: residential streets and streetcar streets. Three east-west streetcar lines, spaced every half mile, ran through the neighborhood, putting all residents within four blocks of a streetcar stop. East-west and north-south streetcar lines gave residents access to the rest of the city as well as to downtown Minneapolis, seven miles to the northwest.

Of more lasting importance than the streetcars, however, are the small commercial nodes, located every half mile—and sometimes every quarter mile—that sprang up along their routes.¹³ In contrast to Eagan, where the interstate ramp provides the center of gravity for nearly all nonresidential activities, all three east–west streetcar lines in Macalester-Groveland attracted businesses to the regularly spaced clusters of storefronts along their length. As a result, commercial establishments spread somewhat evenly throughout the neighborhood, putting nearly all residents within six blocks or less of multiple shopping areas by the late 1920s. For those who required goods or services unavailable in the many nearby stores, streetcars provided a direct link to all of the small commercial sites along any particular route and, ultimately, to the resources of downtown St. Paul.

The very different land-use patterns established during the initial development of Eagan and Macalester-Groveland continue to shape the mobility options of their residents today. The developers of both neighborhoods carefully separated residential and commercial areas but balanced separation against easy access to everyday goods and services. In a key difference between the two areas, entrepreneurs from 1910 through the 1920s defined easy access in relationship to the slow speeds of pedestrians and streetcars. As a result, Macalester-Groveland's commercial establishments spread thickly and fairly evenly through the neighborhood along the old streetcar routes—with the result that even today, without streetcars, large numbers of stores exist within a short distance of all neighborhood homes. Because distances are short, walking and bicycling remain practical options. In Eagan, on the other hand, where planners defined easy access in relationship to cars, the distances between residences and commercial establishments are much longer. The distance a person can walk in five minutes is much shorter than one can drive in five minutes, and in Eagan (as in most post–World War II suburbs), short walks seldom give residents access to any shopping opportunities at all. In addition, since most commerce is concentrated on highly trafficked arterial roads, few cyclists feel safe making even reasonably short shopping trips unless a special, separate infrastructure is provided for them. The only quick, safe option is to drive.

All of this has implications, not only for how easily people can walk or bicycle in Eagan and Macalester-Groveland, but also for the distances that residents must travel to conduct their everyday affairs. Measured in time and convenience rather than distance, there is little appreciable difference between the commercial options in Eagan and Macalester-Groveland—in both places, most of what people need is a short trip away. Measured in distance rather than time, however, the differences have the potential to add up quickly (fig. 3).¹⁴ As figure 3 suggests, Macalester-Groveland residents typically have smaller distances to travel for these everyday needs than Eagan residents. Each neighborhood design, in other words, imposes very different minimum mobility requirements on its residents—and those designed into Eagan's landscape (as measured in mileage) are notably greater than those designed into Macalester-Groveland's. These requirements exist independent of what type of transportation residents use—but because distances tend to be shorter in Macalester-Groveland, both walking and bicycling require less effort than in Eagan and thus are more likely to be part of the mobility mix for larger numbers of residents.

Eagan represents what I call Car Country, a shorthand label for places where car dependence is woven into the basic fabric of the landscape.¹⁵ In the second half of the twentieth century, such places have become ubiquitous in the United States, and during that same period cars have become integral parts of the daily lives of most adult Americans. It is a mistake, I believe, to explain this state of affairs either as the simple product of an ardent love affair with automobiles or as the result of a conspiracy to foist cars on an unwary public. Instead, the nation's dependence on cars stems from a reality at once more prosaic and more profound: Americans drive because in most places the built environment all but requires them to do so. Landscapes in the United States that are easily navigable without personal vehicles have become rare—small islands in the vast sea of Car Country.

Despite their ubiquity, today's car-dependent landscapes are a relatively new historical development. As recently as the early twentieth century, the nation's social, political, and economic institutions were oriented entirely around foot-, rail-, and water-based transportation systems. Rural roads were decrepit—the casualty of a half century's investment in railroads at the expense of highways—and turn-of-the-century streets in big American cities were in crisis. Few resources existed to change this state of affairs. In 1900, for example, the total annual budget for the sole federal agency involved in road improvement was just $8,000, and its staff faced a strict ban on direct involvement in road construction. Most states had sizable road-building budgets, but funding sources were unreliable and almost none of the countless local officials charged with road construction and maintenance had any training in engineering. Few of the car-oriented features that are integral to the modern American landscape, from limited-access motor highways to parking lots, existed yet even as ideas. Further complicating the picture, early motor vehicles were ostentatiously expensive and notoriously unreliable, making it a laughable idea that the country's leaders would ever devote themselves to the complex and forbiddingly expensive task of remaking the nation's transportation system around cars.

Yet, in relatively short order, this is exactly what happened. Politicians at every level of government funneled unprecedented sums into developing and expanding the nation's automotive infrastructure in the first half of the twentieth century. Initially, these changes focused on accommodating the flood of automobiles pouring onto American roads and streets, as engineers wrestled to design both cars and roads that could overcome difficult environmental conditions. Then in the interwar years, after a series of significant technological and fiscal breakthroughs, powerful cars and expanding networks of smooth roads finally began to give motorists the ability to reliably overcome older environmental limits on private transportation. Only then did planners and engineers begin to make serious plans for completely car-centered landscapes that were designed not just to make driving easier but to unlock the full transportation potential of automobiles; only then did significant numbers of people begin to reorganize their everyday activities and landscapes around automobiles. After World War II, with the profitability, practicality, and political attractiveness of car-centered activities well established, governments at all levels supplemented existing car-oriented transportation policies with new rules and incentives governing land-use practices that redefined development as car-oriented development. By 1956, when Congress funded construction of the interstate highway system, nearly all of the basic patterns underpinning the creation of car-centered landscapes—as well as nearly all of the most significant environmental problems related to heavy car use—were firmly in place. With these changes, the United States became Car Country.

This transformation required two equally profound changes: first, the development of a well-funded, car-oriented transportation infrastructure; and second, a complex set of regulations, incentives, and practices regarding land uses that helped create a new, car-dependent economic geography. As a car-friendly transportation infrastructure became a normal part of the American landscape—think stop signs and centerlines, traffic lights and limited-access highways—car use became significantly easier. In addition, as car-friendly land-use practices became a normal part of the American landscape—think ample parking lots and convenient drive-through windows, vast subdivisions of single-family housing and regional malls rivaling the size of downtown—car use became more necessary. As the different sectors of the American economy dispersed more thinly across the landscape, even the most mundane of everyday tasks moved out of easy reach of most people traveling on foot or by public transportation. Car use became not just easy but—for most people and in most places—almost mandatory.

As car-dependent landscapes became the norm, they locked in the significant environmental consequences of nearly universal car use in a large, affluent nation. Born, as it was, from the desire to overcome environmental limits on personal mobility, Car Country profoundly altered how people interacted with nature. People developed new ways of thinking about and interacting with the environments in which they lived—and particularly with the roads and streets that ran through their communities—as federal, state, and local governments reshaped them based on the needs of wheeled traffic rather than the needs and desires of people living along them. More subtly, cars transformed how people understood their place in the world and their ability to move around within it, redefining local space and prompting new ideas about how to array everyday activities and enterprises across the landscape. In addition to changing people's interactions with the environment, building Car Country required tumultuous, large-scale transformations of the natural world. Dramatic increases in automobile use spurred the growth of the oil industry and its related environmental problems, for example, which became necessary and significant adjuncts to Car Country's continuing successes. The momentous industrial effort required to put the nation on wheels had profound environmental consequences, as did the equally momentous road-construction program that provided the vast networks of streets and highways that made driving so convenient. By introducing these changes, Car Country put more people than ever before within an easy drive of places where they could find ample greenery, recreational opportunities, and a sense of reconnection with the natural world. In short, Car Country refashioned, on a grand scale, both the basic patterns of interaction between people and the environment and the fundamental structure and composition of the nation's ecosystems.

Almost from the beginning, these changes inspired a legion of vociferous critics.¹⁶ By the time full-blown discontent with America's car culture and its destructive environmental effects finally percolated up into national politics in the 1960s and 1970s, however, patterns of sprawling, low-density development had already become thoroughly ingrained in the American political economy. Moreover, Car Country's critics too often focused on particular problems—factory pollution, tailpipe emissions, roadside eyesores, suburban boxes made of ticky tacky,¹⁷ the loss of public open space and pristine wilderness—without understanding the broader, interconnected forces at work that continued to roll out new car-dependent communities year after year. Environmentalists secured new regulations that limited some of low-density sprawl's more damaging environmental effects, but they failed to stop sprawl itself or the engines driving its expansion. The overwhelming tendency among critics, with a few important exceptions, has been to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns.¹⁸

Without effective critics—and with car-oriented facilities incorporated as a basic feature of the nation's political, social, and economic approach to both transportation and land-use practices—car-dependent landscapes have multiplied, older ways of moving around have steadily disappeared as practical options for most Americans, and more and more people have begun to drive longer and longer distances, whether they have wanted to or not. In Car Country, driving and sprawl have become essential, interlocking components of American lives, landscapes, and relationships with the natural world.


Before the Automobile, 1880–1905



ISAAC POTTER WAS A MAN ON A MISSION. BY 1891, HE AND A SMALL but growing group of like-minded reformers had been agitating for a decade to improve what they saw as the deplorable state of American country roads. Their efforts had run into staunch resistance from American farmers, however, who generally regarded the prosperous city dwellers who dominated the road-improvement crowd as unwelcome interlopers into rural affairs. Potter, who was trained as an engineer and whose zeal for better roads had grown by the early 1890s to an almost fevered pitch, had finally had enough. He agreed to edit a new magazine, Good Roads, which began publication in January 1892. In advance of its first issue, he sat down to pen an essay titled The Gospel of Good Roads: A Letter to the American Farmer, which, in addition to running as the lead article in the new magazine, was also widely distributed as a stand-alone pamphlet. In these years, when the voice of your complaint is loud in the land, and a thousand partisans are declaiming a thousand theories to account for the ‘decline of agriculture,’ he began, I will try to write you a letter, in which, I believe, I can make it appear that the greatest remedy for the cure of unprofitable farming lies in your own hands.¹ This greatest of remedies, of course, was better roads.

George E. Waring was also a man on a mission, though of a slightly different sort. Stepping into the grandly named position of commissioner of the Department of Street-Cleaning of New York City on January 15, 1895, he assumed leadership of a thoroughly embattled branch of municipal government. The city's newspapers had for decades offered routine reports on the city's wretched street conditions, in general, and on the failures of its street-cleaning department, in particular, especially during the winter when snow piled high on top of heavy accumulations of refuse. Describing the conditions in front of one block of tenements, the New York Times spared no condemning detail, declaring that the street from curb to curb looks like a well-patronized dumping ground. Ash heaps, kitchen refuse, decayed vegetables, and straw, chips, old crockery, cans, &c., are spread all over the street, mixed with the dirty snow.² Residents were loud in their complaints of the negligence shown by the Street-cleaning Department, another article reported.³ In March 1893, fed-up members of the City Club had launched a campaign to document the problem, collecting affidavits and taking photographs of appalling street conditions all over the city, with the aim of having the street-cleaning commissioner, Thomas Brennan, removed from office for dereliction of duty. Waring was the second reform-minded commissioner to follow Brennan, and he was determined to succeed. It is utterly hopeless, his wife told him after seeing the city's streets for the first time, imploring him to step down. You will only disgrace yourself by trying to do it. Ignoring his wife's plea, and with an enthusiasm for clean streets that matched Potter's zeal for good roads, Waring reorganized his beleaguered department, outfitted his street sweepers in bright white uniforms, and sent them forth to do battle with the city's piles of garbage.⁴

Potter and Waring were but two amid a legion of American reformers during the 1880s and 1890s aspiring to completely remake the roads and streets of the United States. These late-nineteenth-century campaigns displayed a number of key characteristics of the forces that remade the United States into Car Country over the first half of the twentieth century. In particular, they reflected a strong willingness to use government resources to completely reengineer landscapes to solve environmental problems and to advance various social and economic goals. Far from being a response to automobiles, however, these diverse reform efforts arose before automobiles appeared in the United States. The first American automaker, for example, opened its doors for business in 1895, and as late as 1900 there were a meager eight thousand automobiles nationwide—many of them frail prototypes or foreign imports. The story of Car Country thus begins with a riddle: Road and street improvements were expensive, disruptive, and broke with long-standing political traditions favoring local road and street administration. Why, then, did the push for road and street improvements begin before legions of motorists began clamoring for good roads? Why did so many people suddenly begin to care so passionately about road and street improvements in the last part of the nineteenth century?

The answers to these questions turn out to have nothing to do with automobiles and everything to do with the urbanization, industrialization, and rapid technological development that remade the United States with lightning speed in the decades after the Civil War. The forces driving the country's rise to prominence had an unruly, volatile, disorganized quality, prompting the nation to oscillate wildly between boom and bust. The desire to impose some sort of order onto this chaos—to harness the era's creative energies while mitigating its disruptive, damaging by-products—consequently drove the political agenda of an entire generation.

It was in this context, and before motor vehicles began to exert a significant presence in the United States, that reformers launched their ambitious, wide-ranging road- and street-improvement efforts. Significantly, and despite varying goals that sometimes caused different groups to work at cross-purposes, a set of core beliefs about nature and nature's proper role in the modern world drove most of the era's reformers. First, these reformers believed that the dark underbelly of the natural world—in the form of wind and rain, fire and disease, befouled air and poisoned water—presented, if left uncontrolled, a powerful obstacle to national progress. In big cities, reformers condemned filthy, crowded streets as proxies for larger threats of disease and disorder, and in rural areas they indicted muddy, rutted roads as barriers to full participation in the modern economy and modern social life. Second, both urban and rural reformers gradually began to perceive roads and streets not as part of the environment but as technologies that government agencies—staffed by experts—could use to overcome what earlier generations had always seen as fundamental environmental limits on private transportation. An opportunity existed, the era's reformers believed, to remake roads and streets in ways that would fundamentally transform travel possibilities, promote economic growth, and create a healthier, more moral, less chaotic society. The practical results of their campaigns varied widely, but together they set changes in motion that slowly but permanently transformed the relationships that Americans had with their roads and streets, with one another, and with the natural world. Unwittingly, these changes set the stage onto which the automobile would ultimately roll at the end of the nineteenth century.


During the late nineteenth century, urbanization, industrialization, and rapid population growth generated substantial chaos in American cities, creating the impression that some of the more ominous forms of nature were running amok on big-city streets. During the same period, the mechanization of farm work and the powerful new ties developing between cities and the countryside transformed rural life, fostering a belief that rural Americans—for all their advances—were somehow being left behind in the rush to modernization.

The effects of these changes on cities were particularly profound. The Industrial Revolution, with its new factory system of manufacturing, had begun to reshape the spatial arrangements of American cities beginning in the 1830s. Before the Industrial Revolution, when the craft apprentice system dominated American manufacturing, few cities had distinct areas devoted exclusively to residential use. The system had fostered close ties between home and workplace, with apprentices and sometimes even journeymen living as members of the master craftsman's household, which itself was typically located above or behind the shop. As a result, residences tended to intermix with workshops, churches, warehouses, businesses, boardinghouses, and places of entertainment, all of which coexisted in close proximity to one another. Few people commuted, in the modern sense of the word, because little, if any, physical separation existed between the home and the workplace. Those with the greatest wealth and highest social standing tended to occupy prime real estate in the city's center, but they still lived cheek by jowl with poorer neighbors who crowded into nearby alleys and courtyards. Suburbs occupied the least desirable land on the urban periphery, where noisy and otherwise undesirable enterprises like tanneries, glue factories, and slaughterhouses predominated.

In the new factory system, however, factory owners had little incentive to house their wage laborers—and even less to welcome them as members of their own households. Moreover, growing numbers of factories began to shift from the traditional reliance among craftsmen on muscle power toward utilizing coal-fired machinery in the manufacturing process—a shift that made dirty air a staple of big cities. Greater production also generated more factory wastes, creating disposal problems that were often solved by creating impromptu dump sites on vacant lots or by disposing wastes in local waterways. Factory pollution affected immediately adjacent areas most acutely, prompting those who had the means—mainly salaried managers and factory owners—to move away, making room for hourly laborers to crowd in. Distinct residential neighborhoods thus formed along class lines as homes and workplaces separated.

As the century progressed and the factory system spread, affluent urbanites took advantage of new transportation technologies, such as the steam ferry, horse-drawn streetcar, and commuter railroad, to live farther away from their workplaces than it was practical to walk. Some of the resulting residential neighborhoods extended in radial lines adjacent to horsecar routes; others, such as Philadelphia's famous Main Line suburbs, took shape in new developments that grew within walking distance of steam-railroad stations like pearls along a necklace. The resulting depopulation of the urban center and the movement of wealthy residents towards the urban edge created, as one eminent historian of the subject has put it, the most fundamental realignment of urban structure in the 4,500-year past of cities on this planet.

Cities exploded after 1870, accelerating the rate of spatial transformation. In 1869, just nine American cities had over 100,000 residents; three decades later, thirty-two did.⁹ Among the ten largest cities in the country in 1900, all had at least doubled their populations since 1870, and nine of the ten exceeded 250,000 inhabitants.¹⁰ Compared to preindustrial cities, these numbers were staggering in both total and relative terms. Whereas the urban population in 1790 comprised just 3 percent of all Americans and only fifteen cities had more than 5,000 residents, by 1900 nearly 40 percent of all Americans lived in cities and about 140 cities boasted populations of 30,000 or more.¹¹ Meanwhile, cities expanded geographically, too, especially in the 1890s after the advent of new electric trolley systems—which roughly doubled the six-miles-per-hour average speed of horsecars—greatly increased the amount of land within a half-hour commute of urban central business districts.¹² In a wave of annexations, city after city brought this newly accessible territory under municipal control, with the most prominent example occurring in 1889 when Chicago annexed a 120-square-mile territory.¹³

To many people of the era, these changes reflected an urban nature that seemed to be under near-constant assault. Many of the challenges seemed downright elemental: billowing smoke turned city air gray, rivers ran black with factory wastes, refuse piled high in the streets, and the threat of fire, punctuated at both ends of the period by major conflagrations in Chicago (1871) and San Francisco (1906), hovered constantly over the wooden-framed buildings that enabled urban America's rapid growth. Meanwhile, poor foreign immigrants, the major engine driving population growth, found housing only by packing into expanding slum districts, where tall tenement buildings lining dirty, narrow streets created dark canyons without direct sunlight, fresh air, or open space. Congested traffic packed big-city streets, contributing to the sense of overcrowding and hinting at a barely controlled chaos lurking beneath the excitement and vitality of urban America. "The tendency of congested city

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