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

Henry Ford stands next to the Model T. Despite early successes of transportation modes such as railways, streetcars and subways, mass production of automobiles lowered prices, and more roads led many Americans to buy cars. See more ­classic car pictures.
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Surprising­ly, the modern automobile didn't get its start in the United States, where we think of cars as ubiquitous, but rather in Germany. Historians generally agree that the first working car, made by German engineer Gottlieb Daimler and named after his daughter, Mercedes, appeared in 1884. At nearly the same time, another German, Karl Benz, designed his own, similar version of the car.

But before long, automobile technology spread rapidly to other countries, including America, and by the 1930s, the Germans were looking at American road systems to develop the famous Autobahn superhighway.

The car is essentially synonymous with modern American life, and if you look around many cities and suburbs in the United States, you'll see why the connection is so strong. Office buildings, residential areas and shopping malls are all built with the car in mind. The emergence of the automobile as a consumer commodity even changed the greater landscape of the United States. Suburbs grew out of cities and expanded metropolitan areas, and personal transportation made it easier for Americans to commute longer distances. Without the car, there'd be no point in erecting giant billboards on the side of the road, and the idea of fast food probably wouldn't even exist.

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­Today, we rely on cars more than ever. For an idea of how important they are in America, one-third of all the land in the city of Los Angeles, Calif., a place notorious for its excessive traffic, is paved for automobile travel. The automobile is a relatively recent phenomenon -- it's only been around for a little mor­e than a century -- and yet it's managed to make a large impact on U.S. culture.

How did the car become so important in American life? Why not trains, subway systems or other forms of public transportation? To find out why automobiles rule the road -- and why the roads were built at all -- read on.

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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The Obsession with the Automobile

A photo of President Eisenhower signing the Interstate Highway Act hangs under the seat of House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).
A photo of President Eisenhower signing the Interstate Highway Act hangs under the seat of House Transportation and Infrastructure chairman Don Young (R-Alaska).
Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Despite the initial negative images people had of automobiles, between 1900 and 1915, the number of cars in America jumped from just 8,000 to more than 2 million. The man given the most credit for this rapid increase in automobiles is Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Ford coined the term "assembly line," and by applying mass production principles to the process of building automobiles, the Ford Motor Company was able to build 14 million Model T's between 1913 and 1927

[source: Hofstra University].

This huge increase in production, along with lowered prices, a big surge of investments in automobiles and the demise of many forms of railway transportation led to a greater demand for cars and oil. A group called National City Lines, made up of several companies -- including General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil of California and Phillips Petroleum -- formed in the 1920s to buy up streetcar systems around the country and convert them to bus lines, making auto travel mandatory. What the group did not only stifled public transportation, it was also illegal. Although National City Lines was found guilty of conspiracy to monopolize public transit, they were only fined $5,000.

Motorists drive on I-495 in Cabin John, Maryland during Memorial Day weekend 2008. How did American life come to look like this?
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

By 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act and created more than 42,500 miles of highway across the nation while spending less than one percent on public transportation. Soon, the U.S. government would be spending 75 percent of its transportation funding on building and repairing roads; less than one percent would be dedicated to mass transit for urban locations.

Today, with the rising price of oil driving the cost of gasoline up past four and even five dollars a gallon, many people are seeking out alternative means of transportation. People who've moved out to the suburbs to avoid urban living, for example, are now considering moving closer to their jobs in the city in order to save money at the pump. The average suburban household now spends more than $3,000 a year, twice the amount families were spending in 2003 [source: New York Times]. The auto industry has also suffered setbacks as car sales are reaching a 10-year low, dropping 18 percent in June 2008 [source: New York Times]. All of these factors may give public transportation a healthy boost: On June 27, 2008, the House of Representatives voted to provide $1.7 billion toward public transit to help deal with rising fuel prices, control fares and expand services [source: Los Angeles Times].

For more information about cars and their impact on our lives, read the next page.

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Sources

  • Boyd, Lydia and Lynn Pritcher. "Brief history of the U.S. passenger rail industry." Duke University Libraries. Jan. 25, 2008. (June 20, 2008)
  • Bryson, Bill. "Made in America." London: Black Swan. 1994.
  • Goodman, Peter. "Rethinking the country life as energy costs rise." New York Times. June 25, 2008. (June 23, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/25/business/25exurbs.html?partner=rssnyt
  • Rodrigue, Jean-Paul. "Historical geography of transportation." The Geography of Transport Systems. Dept. of Economics and Geography: Hofstra University. 1998-2008. (July 1, 2008) http://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch2en/conc2en/ch2c1_2en_2ed.html
  • Simon, Richard. "House approves more funding for thriving public transit." Los Angeles Times. June 27, 2008. (July 2, 2008) http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-transit27-2008jun27,0,5938674.story
  • Vlasic, Bill. "Car sales at 10-year low." New York Times. July 2, 2008. (July 2, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/business/02auto.html?ref=business