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

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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