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  • How The Automobile Shaped American Culture | VinFast

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    12/10/2022 at 11:35

    How The Automobile Shaped American Culture

    In North America, “car culture” is something that few people talk about outside of the big cities. Europeans make sharp note of it when they visit, but to the US, the omnipresence of cars seems inevitable. They’re a symbol of the “march of progress” and our “rugged individuality.” But in reality, neither of these myths is entirely true.

    Car culture is an enigmatic and complicated issue that has deeply coloured the landscape and lifestyle of the US. There are enough moving parts to fill a book or 10. Here, we hope to use our platform for car owners to provide a primer on the subject. We want to answer what car culture is, whether the US has one (we do), how we got to this point, and what the consequences of car culture really are.

    What Is Car Culture?

    According to Lexico, the definition of car culture is as follows:

    “(Usually with negative connotations) a society or way of life characterized by excessive use of or reliance on motor vehicles.”

    The criticisms of car culture are (generally) not about people who like cars or use them to commute to work or spend a weekend camping. They’re about a culture that uses them excessively or relies upon them, especially when other, better alternatives may be available. They’re about cities that devote extreme resources to expanding parking, when putting that money toward public transit would actually make things easier and more convenient for people.

    In particular, criticisms of car culture are aimed at excessive reliance on personal vehicle use. After all, devoting road space to a car with only one or two people inside is hugely inefficient. (Carpools, bus rides, and ambulances are obvious exceptions.)

    For these reasons, the definition of car culture can be expanded to “excessive use of or reliance on personal motor vehicles, often at the expense of funding or supporting other means of transportation.

    How Did We Get Here?

    We already noted that this article tackles whether the US has a car culture, especially as the term is defined above. We do, but don’t take my word for it. The history of how we got here speaks for itself.

    Before we get started, I want to give a shout out to Jeff Sparrow, whose LitHub article The Car Culture That’s Helping Destroy the Planet Was By No Means Inevitable was a primary source for this abbreviated history. Anyone interested in a more in-depth history of the subject (approached from a different angle than ours, concerned more with climate) would do well to read it.

    Many North Americans assume the transition to a car culture focused on personal vehicles has been mostly uncontested. But as Mr Sparrow’s article suggests, this is far from the case. In fact, when personal vehicles were first introduced, they were reviled by almost everyone. Sparrow states that in the beginning of the 20th century:

    “…the car couldn’t dominate city streets in the way it does now. Roads were public places; they belonged to everyone, and everyone used them… The onus was on the traveler not to hit others. Elderly pedestrians walked where they chose; children used the street as a playground.”

    With that said, the first real cry against the car did not focus on environmentalism or inconvenience, but rage over casualties. To quote Sparrow (something we’ll be doing a lot here):

    “In 1925 alone, cars killed 21,000 Americans, most of whom were pedestrians… Across America, people demanded action. In Cincinnati, in 1923, 42,000 people signed a petition demanding that cars be prevented from traveling more than 25 miles per hour. Many experts and the media agreed.”

    It’s important to note that there was a class element to this conflict. At the time, personal motor vehicles were seen as dangerous toys for the rich. They were inefficient and ineffective. For those who really wanted to get around, public transit in the form of electric trolleys and streetcars was still extremely popular:

    “By 1902, some five billion people traveled on streetcars in the US across some 35,000 kilometers of tracks. The system was safe, efficient and pollution-free. Many people saw the expansion of streetcars as the most obvious way of moving the public around a modern city, especially since, as one contemporary newspaper put it, ‘the new problem created by the automobile . . . [is] will my child come home from school today alive and whole?’”

    The conflict around vehicle usage had an undertone of class-based violence (something that was already top-of-mind for early 1900s Americans) that can be summed up in a simple question: “Why should my life be at risk so you can play with an expensive toy?”

    Realizing the public outcry against pedestrian deaths could hobble the growth of the auto industry, manufacturers engaged in a massive PR campaign. Their first mission has been repeated in campaigns through history—they blamed the victims:

    “…the industry created the idea of the ‘jaywalker.’ In the Midwest slang of the time, a ‘jay’ was a bumpkin or a hick, a hayseed unaware of city etiquette… In the 1920s, dealers and auto clubs began using ‘jaywalker’ for pedestrians who still believed in the old right to share the road.”

    It was extremely effective and didn’t end there, as Sparrow notes:

    “The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce sought to influence media coverage of traffic accidents, which up until that point had been uniformly hostile to drivers … curating accounts of fatalities in ways that blamed pedestrians and then offering them up to newspaper editors. The shift in tone was widely noted. ‘It is now the fashion to ascribe from 70 to 90 percent of all accidents to jaywalking,’ commented a magistrate in New York City’s traffic court.”

    Public perception fell in line over time: they began to see roads as places for cars, not people. Those who were hit and killed? “They shouldn’t have been there in the first place” was the growing sentiment.

    But the creation of a car culture required more than a snazzy PR campaign. Back in the early 1900s, public funds went to public transportation. Then as the auto industry’s power grew, public funds were diverted from public transit to personal automobile appeasement. In the words of Sparrow: “As early as 1924, more than a billion dollars had been spent by all levels of the US government to make the roads more suitable for automobiles.”

    This is a key turning point. Personal vehicles could not have achieved their primacy without taxpayer money. This, too, has a largely class-based underpinning. Vehicles at the time were an expensive luxury. Public transit was used by the common folk. In 1917, most of the richest companies in the US were either auto manufacturers or related to the auto industry. Power was in the hands of those interested in the success of the automobile. Unsurprising, then, that money began to be siphoned off for road-building.

    With the expansion of the suburbs, investment in the auto industry hit a feedback loop:

    “The final triumph of the car facilitated the expansion of the suburbs, and the suburbs in turn fostered a new consumer culture… In 1965, car production in the US reached a historic peak of 11.1 million per year. One job in six was bound up with automobile construction.”

    Sparrow quotes the economist Michael Best:

    “Once the car has become the dominant mode of transport, then housing, family, work, shopping and recreation patterns are designed around it. From the 1920s onwards, as the auto industry reshaped the country, Americans cherished the vehicles that allowed them to do the things that were increasingly impossible without cars.”

    The game was over, and the car culture created by the auto industry had won.

    Where We Are Now?

    As of 2017, there were 4.18 million miles of road in the US. Our cities have basically been handed over to cars. In Los Angeles, 14% of the land is tied to parking. Meanwhile, in a 2009 NatGeo poll, the US came dead last for public transit usage, likely due to a lack of investment. One Bloomberg article also noted there are many European cities with parallels to cities in the US, but with much better public transit. The key difference? During the post-war years, they designed themselves for public transit, not automobile use.

    So, the answer to whether the US has a car culture isn’t just yes, it’s: “Yes. One that was manufactured by the auto industry and runs so deep, it may be difficult to fix.”

    What Are the Consequences of Car Culture?

    Having a culture built around personal vehicle use involves many, mostly bad consequences.

    For one, it exacerbates existing wealth inequalities. Owning a personal vehicle costs more than the initial purchase price. Public transit, on the other hand, is cheap. So, when you start building a city around the former—including placements of schools and businesses—you create a city that’s designed not for the average person, but for the wealthy.

    The effects of car culture on the environment aren’t much better. Vehicle emissions can be more dangerous than industry emissions because they are more difficult to control. And simply put, personal vehicle use emits more carbon than public transit. It requires gas (while public transit can use electricity) and fits less people on the same trip. It’s no surprise that when it comes to CO2 emissions from road transportation, the US and Canada are the top two culprits.

    Public health is another realm that suffers due to car culture. In the US, nearly 1.25 million people are killed in car accidents each year. The annual number of people killed using public transit is under a few thousand, meaning that even if you adjust for usage rates, the difference in safety is unspeakably wide. Obesity, too, correlates with this issue. OECD member nations (sometimes called the “club of mostly rich countries”) list the US and Canada as first and fourth for obesity—not to mention the health effects of the emissions.

    Finally, this car culture affects the shape of our cities, making them more convenient for cars, but less convenient for humans. As mentioned earlier, L.A. is 14% parking spots. That’s to say nothing of how much space is taken up by roads. And there’s a major difference between the space allocated to personal vehicles and the space allocated to public transit: public transit spaces can overlap with human ones. Train lines can run under or aboveground, and bus stops can sit on the sidewalk. Spaces allocated to personal vehicles, on the other hand, are usually exclusively for that purpose. The result is that building a city for cars “bloats” our cities, filling them with empty, unusable space.

    In short, car culture damages public health, the environment, economic equality, and basic convenience. So, what can we do about it?

    Making Room for Two

    Before you grab a baseball bat and jump in front of your car, ready to swing at the first person to come for it, note: we aren’t blaming you. In fact, we don’t think the solution is banning car usage. Cars are not inherently bad, especially given that our landscape is already built for them. They’re especially useful for people who have trouble using public transit for one reason or another.

    But we need to have a choice. Our world has been made hostile to pedestrians and public transit; they have become difficult options, when they don’t need to be. A Danish tourist in Canada made a similar argument not too long ago. If we can build our cities for cars and public transit, we can try to have the best of both worlds. This would require investment in public transit, some of which could come from investment that would have otherwise gone to roads. Still, the costs are worthwhile.

    For the most part, solving the problem of car culture is too big and broad for a single article. But we hope we’ve convinced you that, at a minimum, we need to make space for other options.



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