Why We Are 50th

How Henry Ford Killed America

Admittedly, the title of this is clickbait - sort of. My position is this:

The United States of America, while only comprising of 4% of world population, accounts for 33% of personal vehicles owned and 50% miles driven worldwide. It’s my opinion that the American love affair with the personal autonomy afforded by the automobile has created a more diluted society through urban sprawl. This social dilution has enabled both natural and intentional segregation based on class. The result is a country comprised of various pockets of low and high density that are inequitable in education, diversity, and affluence.

I would like this topic to grow organically though conversation, so I will withhold certain points and references that would reinforce my claims in these opening statements. However, I will share more should interest and healthy debate ensue. To recap and make my opening position clear, I have offered a list of opening points to consider:

  1. The US has grown in the last 70 years, from a planning perspective, in patterns modeled purely around the automobile. While other developed countries rely heavily on private automobiles, private ownership of vehicles and annual miles traveled per citizen are highly disproportionate to other comparable countries. This fact has allowed the country to decentralize to a level that has created far more isolated social centers than most developed countries.

  2. Vehicle ownership has lead to a more classist society. While vehicles are much more affordable to the common person these days, they do represent a hurdle, or barrier, to access for lower income citizens. The way in which the country has developed, with an automotive focus, has neglected those that cannot rely on automobiles for access. Also, the automobile has allowed more affluent citizens the opportunity to commute from suburbs to employment centers. This has decentralized where earned dollars are ultimately being spent. So, urban cores went into decline, leaving behind the impoverished that cannot afford a vehicle or manicured suburban living. As inner city tax dollars diminished, so did city services, public transportation, and infrastructure updates to serve the less affluent left in city centers.

  3. The two points above have resulted in segregation of classes. While manufacturing jobs were still around for the middle class, the evacuation of the urban core for the suburbs and rural areas included blue collar workers that could afford the luxury of an automobile and a new suburban home, albeit one in an area lacking the amenities of the more affluent suburbs. As policies have changed and blue collar middle class jobs have evaporated, those once middle class laborers have fallen into poverty in areas that now lack essential societal pillars. Middle class suburbs have failed and have literally left groups of people in the middle of nowhere with no jobs, poor education, and little chance to escape.

I can acknowledge the near complete reliance on automobiles, the resulting industry and lobbying efforts that cemented their #1 position in transportation, and the resulting effects on infrastructure/city planning and design. However when it comes to segregation and classism etc I can’t see it playing a major role, or at least a big enough role that I can see the merit in digging into it.

“White flight” seems to be the parallel of your point 2 and it is evident the problems it caused and it is evident that automobiles enabled it. However, I don’t see the automobiles and quality public transit differentiating themselves in their ability to do it. The fact that automobiles won out handily here and we can demonstrate the effects of that victory does not mean similar effects wouldn’t have happened with another victor. If the cost of transportation itself had been reduced then the price to “segregate” would have market adjusted, eg shifted to houses or land itself. I don’t have anything to back this up so maybe this point is ripe to be destroyed.

I think you can look to Europe and see public transit that is a priority and less suburbia, but you also see less access to housing and land ownership in general. It’s hard to draw a parallel due to the huge amount of variables but I think it’s fair to say that the automobile opened up the a vast amount of land and home ownership opportunities to people that wouldn’t have had them otherwise.

As far as suburbia losing jobs, then wealth, then infrastructure, I think that would happen regardless of where they were. It’s a systemic issue that’s playing out everywhere as jobs are pushed overseas or rendered obsolete. I’m sure the difficulty of moving adds a bit, but I haven’t seen a systemic issue with people being unable to uproot for opportunities. Looking at southern WV, you might say “I’m going to move all these people to Texas, where there’s an actual economy, so they can get out of the rut.” That may work to some degree, but the fact is for a lot of people they’ll just be thrown into another no win situation where unskilled, uneducated, people can not work themselves up the socioeconomic ladder. Whether you start them out with a car or public transit the result would be the same.

Another point to the automobiles favor in the discussion of middle class jobs is the amount of industry surrounding the automobile itself. I suspect this is a reason public transit, amtrak, etc are continually undermined with little concern for what is the objectively better solution. Like reforming healthcare, there are just too damn many people tangled up in it to make it a political winner to change.

Previously I had a somewhat certain outlook that I think likely mirrored your endgame in the “phasing out” of automobiles. Mixed use Development, people walking, more transit rail, high speed rail, etc. Now with driverless cars, electric cars, ride share, telework, etc, my confidence is shaken in the merits to transitioning back to denser urbanization and mass transit.

To acknowledge that the automobile had a heavy hand in urban and regional planning in shaping America, while also dismissing it as having any merit in digging into, is illogical. The shaping of the country that occurred during the construction of the interstate system, which was heavily lobbied for and enabled by auto makers, ruined inner cities through displacement and systematic alienation of minority neighborhoods. It is now majority accepted that transportation planning had a significant role in class and race relations - especially between the period of 1940-1970. The intestate system alone and how the government executed eminent domain to procure the land required has had harsh criticisms in carrying the fault in degradation of minority communities - especially the urban African American community.

It’s also widely accepted by most planners that suburban development, spurred by the automobile, attracted middle class to ill equipped suburban areas with low land value, tax base, and public services. Many of those suburban communities are fringe areas comprised of widespread poverty and blight. Those points aren’t too arguable - although I don’t think that’s your main opposition.

The idea that another “winner” may have prevailed in transportation is valid. However, whether it’s a personal automobile or person hovercraft, the more important part is that the mode is “personal.” Automotive makers were among the most aggressive and notable lobbyists during the rise of the automobile. Policies were made that incentivized decentralization of communities and degraded communal modes of transportation and lifestyles.

To make my point clearer, I’ll remove the automobile. Perhaps the greater issue within is the American fallacy of personal ownership as paramount to communal lifestyles. Your argument assumes personal ownership of real property is inherently good. I won’t argue that as a capitalist principle. However, the personal ownership of land as a desire that would remove citizens from the practicality and benefits of more centralized living is one of obsession rather than necessity or gain. Moving further and further from the city center in pursuit of more affordable land is self defeating. The land won’t appreciate as quickly and the investment is a figment of the American Dream. It’s debt and not much more than that. Unless, of course, one is an affluent member of society that decides to move to an affluent suburb with other affluent aristocrats capable of building a tax base that would build an equipped community worthy of the move through gradually increased property values realized through reallocated wealth to that suburb.

To say the automobile, and the planning that followed, isn’t a significant contributor to class based shaping of the United States is to ignore the basic shapings of our cities, MSAs, and the wretched residential communities in between that should have never existed.

On the note of mixed use development and alternative modes of transportation falling out of contemporary applicability due to the idea of telecommuting - I find it disappointing. Telecommuting, like the automobile, is another personal obsession in autonomy that dismisses the value of community and social welfare. Just as the automobile, and the planning that followed, caused issues in community destruction - so will telecommuting. People are better when together. We won’t improve as a society through further separation. One can argue that telecommuting allows more folks to connect. I won’t argue that. I will only argue the quality of that connection. If one wants to live in the woods and communicate by internet alone, God help us all in saving this Country. Separation from real and accessible connection is not what we need.