For decades, Americans have been in love with the automobile — or so the saying goes. This single idea has been a central premise of transportation policy, pop culture and national history for the last half-century. It animates how we think about designing the world around us, and how we talk about dissidents in our midst who dislike cars.
“This ‘love affair’ thesis is like the ultimate story,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, who warns that we need to revisit how we came to believe this line before we embrace its logical conclusion in a future full of driverless cars. “It’s one of the biggest public relations coups of all time. It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
This “love affair” was coined, in fact, during a 1961 episode of a weekly hour-long television program called the DuPont Show of the Week (sponsored, incidentally, by DuPont, which owned a 23 percent stake in General Motors at the time). The program, titled “Merrily We Roll Along,” was promoted by DuPont as “the story of America’s love affair with the automobile.”
In it, Groucho Marx recounted that history to millions of Americans with a curious metaphor — the driver as the man, the car as the new girl in town (“Lizzie” was her name). Their “burning love affair” led to marriage, an extended honeymoon, and, inevitably, a few challenges.
“We don’t always know how to get along with her, but you certainly can’t get along without her,” Marx concluded. “And if that isn’t marriage, I don’t know what is.”
The show aired at a time when cars were facing steep criticism, as plans for the new interstate system threatened to destroy or disrupt neighborhoods in many U.S. cities. Highways were on their way to remaking Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Interstate 95 would ultimately raze entire black neighborhoods in Miami. In Washington, a grassroots group called the Emergency Committee on the Transportation Crisis was protesting “white men’s roads thru black men’s homes.”
In New York, urbanist hero Jane Jacobs had gone to battle against a proposed road through Washington Square in Greenwich Village that would have replaced a public park with a thoroughfare for speeding cars.
The “love affair” story, Norton says, was a response to all this protest, and it successfully helped seed two ideas that have been entrenched ever since: that we’re bound to cars by something stronger than need, and that people who challenge that bond are just turning up their noses at their fellow Americans.
“The most important thing [the show] said is that you can’t criticize love with logic, “ Norton says. “Love is blind, love will find a way, love will do whatever it takes.”
In the half century since then, we have largely rebuilt American communities to accommodate this love, retrofitting cities to make space for cars, bulldozing old buildings so that we can park them, constructing new communities where it’s not possible to get around without them.
“When that’s criticized, the reply typically is ‘well look, it’s a free country, people voted with their pocketbooks to buy cars, they like the suburbs,” Norton says. “I think that’s a reasonable position to take. I’m troubled at how seldom people have stopped to question it, though. It is a story with a history.”
The version of this story Groucho Marx spun evolved into a set of assumptions — Americans prefer cars to other forms of transportation, we’d rather have plentiful parking than bustling sidewalks, our roads should be reserved primarily for cars and not pedestrians — that we’ve now inherited as we begin to envision a future where driverless cars might make us dependent on automobiles in new ways. Those assumptions have become so deeply embedded, Norton says, that we’ve forgotten to question them.
“That makes stories,” he adds, “the most powerful social tool in the world.”
History that's been lost
This isn’t to say that there aren’t people who love their cars. The phenomenon of sports cars, weekend cars and collector cars is real. So, too, is the allure for many people of road trips, scenic highways or weekend drives through the country. Rather, the story Norton disputes, which he has written about in the book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” is the history that says that we’ve built car-dependent cities and suburbs because that’s what Americans wanted, the story that says all our surface parking lots and spaghetti interchanges are a pure product of American preferences.
“When I actually looked into the history record, documents from the time, I found just the opposite,” Norton says. “What Americans in cities wanted in the ‘20s was to get the cars out.”
Media at the time recount pedestrians ranting against the automobile as an intrusion and an undemocratic bully. Newspapers contained cartoons portraying rich drivers in luxury cars running over working-class kids. Three-quarters of traffic fatalities at the time were pedestrians.
In 1923, 42,000 people in Cincinnati signed a petition to put an ordinance on the ballot that would have forced all cars in town to include a speed governing device to prevent them from traveling faster than 25 miles an hour.
“All of that history,” Norton says, “has been lost.”
So, too, has the history of how the auto industry responded. In the mid 1920s, Norton says, the industry began a concerted effort to fundamentally recast the problem: Cars weren’t intruding on a public domain long freely used by pedestrians; pedestrians were wandering into roads that should be reserved for cars.
The auto industry effectively codified this idea in the crime of “jaywalking,” which remains with us today. The industry then offered to analyze local crash data for newspapers, which began in the mid 1920s to run stories increasingly blaming pedestrians for their plight. A traffic court magistrate writing in the New York Times in 1924 lamented that it was suddenly the fashion to blame “jaywalkers” for 70 to 90 percent of accidents, creating a “smoke screen” to conceal the harm of cars and to override the legal rights of pedestrians.
“As it stands,” the magistrate, W. Bruce Cobb wrote, “the motorist has won his contest for the use of the streets over the foot passengers, despite the present efforts of police, courts and motor vehicle authorities to regulate him and his kind. The motorist has inspired fear and the sort of respect that brute force inspires.”
What cars gained through sheer force — the right of way in public space — the auto industry reinforced with a model municipal traffic ordinance. The code, drafted by a committee chaired by a Cadillac salesman, further formalized the basic governing assumption, which remains with us in cities across the country today, that streets are for cars, not people.
A future of driverless cars
The world that principle envisioned became reality. The highways that were proposed in the 1950s took concrete form. The idea that people wanted to drive cars became the necessity that they had to, and many of the things we came to prize — spacious homes, personal freedom, cheap real estate — grew dependent on and inseparable from them.
Today, even when we grumble about the misery of commuting in traffic, the culprit, invariably, isn't the car itself — it's the insufficient infrastructure that can't quite contain it. It's the highways that need widening, the roads that demand higher speed limits, the traffic lights that could use synchronizing.
Now, about 86 percent of Americans get to work every day in a private car – a statistic that’s often interpreted to mean that the vast majority of us chose to travel that way.
This conclusion conflates preferences with constrained options. “I actually drive most of the way to work,” Norton admits. “I do it because the choices stink.” To extract from today’s ubiquitous parking garages, drive-through restaurants and busy roads a preference for cars ignores all the ways that public policy, industry influence and economic incentives have shaped our travel behavior.
“If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed,” Norton says.
We make the same mistake, he says, with the history we tell of the car. And this popular story of that past makes it hard for us to envision alternative futures before us.
If you believe that cars are the best way to get everywhere — to the neighborhood grocer, to a job downtown, to a weekend vacation — then the prospect of driverless cars would only improve that picture. Now we can do work while we’re driving to work! Now we can plan meals on the way to buying them! If you decide where to shop or dine based on the ease of parking, driverless cars can solve that problem, too. Soon cars will do all of our parking for us – or entirely eliminate the need!
This picture, though, doubles down on all the ideas we’ve inherited about cars, without considering that perhaps we may want some other future: one where “foot travelers” regain some of their lost rights to the public way, or where we create subway systems so appealing people who can afford BMWs prefer them. Maybe in this future driverless cars serve a specific purpose, not every purpose, and we’re cautious about how we remake our cities to make way for them.
Norton isn’t advocating nostalgia for pre-Model T America. He’s suggesting that we reconsider the story of how we arrived today at a world where cities like New Haven and Hartford were remade in the image of parking lots:
Or where downtown Chicago no longer looks like this:
“It’s the history that gives us the assumptions that limit our choices,” he says. History reminds us the car-dominated city wasn’t the inevitable path of progress, but one path among others not taken. History also teaches us that we should be skeptical of the power of 21st century stories in the tradition of the American “love affair with cars” — like the narrative today that urban elitists who advocate for other forms of transportation are waging a "war on cars.”
Surely that phrase would be laughable to people who once feared a war on pedestrians.
“I would love it if we could send somebody from 1915 to 2015 and just ask them to comment on Springfield, Virginia, or Tysons Corner, and just say ‘could you tell us a little about what you think when you use this stuff, how impressed you are with our progress from your day?,’” Norton says. “I feel pretty confident — because I spend a lot of time reading those points of view — that person would say ‘I’m impressed by how much you’ve built, but you guys are nuts.’”