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Why did cars become the dominant form of transportation in the United States?

        Auto | Auto Basics

Early Travel in America
A husband and wife walk on railroad tracks as each holds a hand of their young daughter. Trains made long distance travel much faster and more comfortable and were the preferred way to get around before cars were introduced.
A husband and wife walk on railroad tracks as each holds a hand of their young daughter. Trains made long distance travel much faster and more comfortable and were the preferred way to get around before cars were introduced.
Vintage Images/Getty Images

Long before Americans ever saw the first car touch U.S. soil, travel was an unforgivably uncomfortable endeavor. It's difficult to look out of your window and think of a time when there weren't any roads in North America, but that's exactly how it was. Up until the late 19th century, before the introduction of the automobile, there were very few major highways or roads on which to travel, and most people went by either horse-driven coach or railway.

Coaches were bumpy and uncomfortable, mainly because the use of springs for shock absorption wasn't common. Because of this people rarely traveled outside of their hometowns, if ever. By far, U.S. railroads were the most popular way to get around. Since it was much faster and slightly more comfortable, railroad travel essentially put an end to the coach, and from 1830 to the early 20th century, Americans would refer to "roads" when speaking of trains. At its peak in 1920, the rail industry was carting around 1.2 billion people [source: Duke University Libraries]. Streetcars and subway systems also emerged during the turn of the century, dramatically changing city lifestyles by offering people the chance to travel around and explore. Urban railway transportation also increased city populations and provided a welcome alternative to horse-driven carriages, which crowded the streets and produced far too much manure.

Up until this point, steam had been the primary power source for self propelled vehicles, and there really wasn't much interest in gasoline. In fact, gasoline was seen simply as an undesirable by-product of the oil-refining process. People drilling for oil had more interest in extracting kerosene, used for illumination. Even several decades after its invention, the car was looked upon as a frivolous toy. Not only were they expensive, but there weren't any roads on which to drive them. Among the many names originally given to the car, "stink chariot" stands out, presumably referring to the unpleasant smell of exhaust.

If cars caused everything from indifference to disgust, then how did they become so popular? Read the next page to discover how the Ford Model T changed everything.

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