Friday, April 11, 2008

Article One: How we got here

This is the first of three articles on Active Transportation. Looking at North America's automobile dependent society, today's article will examine “How We Got Here”. Following articles will look at the problems caused by automobile dependence, and an overview of why active transportation – walking and cycling – provides a sustainable way forward for the 21st century.


In his 2006 book Lives Per Gallon, Terry Tamminen asks the following hypothetical question – if you had the chance to wipe the slate clean, and redesign all the cities in the world, would you put the homes and the workplaces about 50km away from each other, connect them with concrete highways, and force people to travel in 3 ton steel containers which are fueled by one of the most precious resources on earth, and which burn it in the most environmentally damaging manner possible? (p. 165). Hopefully, we would answer his question by replying “No.” This leads to another question however, why did we design cities this way?

Before discussing the benefits of active transportation, and recommending it as a useful form of transportation for Orillia, I think it is useful to talk about how we ended up in the situation that Tamminen describes above – in cities without adequate public transportation, where people cannot travel safely on foot or bicycle, and where we are completely dependent upon automobiles. The answer, although multi-layered, eventually boils down to the fact that companies like GM and Standard Oil could make more money if you drove than if you took public transit.

Up until 1908, when Henry Ford put the Model T on the market, automobiles were exclusively toys for the fabulously rich. Playboys like William K. Vanderbilt raced at high speeds past bicycles and horse drawn carriages and stirred up a powerful mixture of emotions – outright hatred (noisy, polluting, and reckless automobile driving frequently led to motorists being stoned, shot at by farmers, and mercilessly beaten if they stopped after running over a pedestrian, leading to the “hit and run” [McCarthy, p. 9]), but more importantly, jealousy. If owning an automobile meant that you were rich, not owning one meant that you were poor. “The emotions that the speeding sportsmen aroused... sparked the automobile revolution of the 1910's and 1920's” (McCarthy, p. 30).

Between 1908, when the reliable and affordable Model T was introduced, and 1927, the number of cars on American roads jumped from 200 000 to 20 million; and 15 million of these cars, snapped up by people who wanted to prove themselves a “have” rather than a “have not”, were Model T's (McCarthy, p. 30). Jealousy provoked such a desire for car ownership that many families living barely above the poverty line gave up real necessities in order to own an automobile (Davis, p. 2).

Now, without a doubt, the automobile was a positive innovation in many ways: it allowed farmers and people in rural areas to travel to and from towns much faster, and it offered relief from situations like New York in 1900, where horses were dropping 2.5 million pounds of manure every day, along with 60 000 gallons of urine (Flink, p. 136). But the usefulness of the automobile doesn’t explain why North American cities didn’t support a healthy mixture of different transit styles – the automobile in conjunction with electric streetcars and bike lanes for example.

The pro-automobile lobby got started destroying the competition at least as early as 1910, when automobile advertisements slurred public transit with ads that asked “Why be part of the ten-cent common herd?” (McCarthy, page 152). City business leaders, who very emphatically were NOT part of the ten cent public transit herd, bought automobiles and then became powerful voices on city councils:
“City planners and politicians largely ignored the needs of the autoless for better public transportation, while undertaking a massive restructuring of cities at public expense to accomodate middle-class motorists.... the main reason why planners almost totally neglected the needs of the urban working class and the poor for better public transit is that planning commissions were dominated by commercial civic elites” (Flink, pgs. 151-152).

Public transportation suffered heavily with the rise of the automobile. Cars gave people the ability to live far from where they worked, buying houses in temporarily idyllic suburbs and escaping sometimes industrial conditions in city centers. As cities spread out, population density became thinner and thinner, and it was no longer profitable for a transit operator to run a streetcar line on routes with only a handful of regular passengers. Just as public transit was dying, cities were sprawling, giving us situations like the eastern part of the GTA, where Scarborough oozes into Pickering then Ajax then Whitby then Oshawa, all of which was once gorgeous farmland, but is now a collection of housing developments and box stores linked together with four lane mini highways.

So public transit was dying, active transportation was almost unknown, and the auto lobby kept consolidating power. In the late 1930s, GM formed an alliance with companies like Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, and Mack Trucks, to destroy public transit systems (i.e. their competition), by buying up public transit companies and replacing light rail / electric streetcar systems with GM buses. Eventually convicted (though only lightly punished) for monopolization of bus sales, Government Attorney Bradford Snell eventually summed up GM's actions this way: [GM's motor buses] ultimately contributed to the collapse of several hundred public transit systems and to the diversion of hundreds of thousands of patrons to automobiles. In sum, the effect of General Motors' diversification program was threefold: substitution of buses for passenger trains, streetcars and trolley buses; monopolization of bus production; and diversion of riders to automobiles (St. Clair, p. 16).

Throughout the 20th century, the automobile lobby and the big three sold more cars by creating demand for more cars. After the rich playboy market became saturated, they sold cars to middle class people for weekend rides to the country. When they wanted to force urban dwellers to use their car to get back and forth to work, they tore away public transit and lobbied for a pro-automobile redesign of urban environments. When they wanted to make the automobile the best choice for cross country travel, they lobbied federal governments to conduct massively expensive freeway building programs. When, in the 1950's, they had sold a car to every single family, they targeted housewives - When the male population empties out of Suburbia each workday morning – millions of housewives are left virtually prisoners in their own homes (Ford advertising copy quoted in McCarthy, p. 151) - and began selling two cars to every family.

So, back to our original question – why is North America dependant upon the automobile? Unfortunately, it is not because an interdisciplinary group of experts spent several years studying the issue, and decided that automobiles were the answer. Rather, it happened because it was good for the automobile companies, who took a sexy product and ran roughshod with it over every other transportation option that existed.

Article One: Reference List

Davis, C. (2005). On these very streets: The automobile and the urban environment in St. Louis, 1920—1930 (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri - Columbia).

Flink, J.J. (1988). The Automobile Age. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Fotsch, P.M. (1988). Stabilizing mobility: Transportation and isolation in urban America. (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, San Diego).

Gutfreund, O.D. (2004). Twentieth-century sprawl : highways and the reshaping of the American landscape. New York: Oxford University Press.

McCarthy, T. (2007). Auto mania : cars, consumers, and the environment. New Haven : Yale University Press.

Miller, G.R. (1983). Transportation and urban growth in Cincinnati, Ohio, and vicinity: 1788 – 1980. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Cincinnati).

Schlosser, E. (2001). Fast food nation: the dark side of the all-American meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

St. Clair, D.J. (1986). The Motorization of American Cities. New York: Praeger.

Tamminen, T. (2006). Lives per gallon: The true cost of our oil addiction. Washington: Island Press.