How did the car become an essential component of American culture ?

Published by Raphaël K. on

gray asphalt road during daytime

This work should be considered with a grain of salt. While it is based on trustworthy sources, it is not as reliable as the work from researchers. Do not hesitate to read your self the sources available below.

The United States of America is with no doubt the car country. One might even think that the car was invented in the USA. A common misbelief is that Henry Ford created it. While that is not true – a French men Nicolas Joseph Cugnot did it in 1769 and a replica of its automobile can be found in the Art et Métiers Museum in Paris – it is true that he revolutionized it. At the turn of the twentieth century, the automobile was about to completely change the face of the USA for the best and for the worst.

The automobile is now part of the American culture. The famous Chevrolet, pickup trucks and the highway 66 are infamous symbols of America. Nothing screams more American than one of those vehicle on a highway in the middle of the desert. Part of the answer to why there is such a car culture is the link to the core American value of freedom. Indeed, the car is for many, the tool that allows you, when you turn 18-yearsold to fly with its own wings. It is the tool that allows you to go wherever you want. The first car is an important moment in the life of someone. It is indispensable for any free man, for any American. This revels that the car culture is instead more of a car dependency. 

Like any symbol, the automobile culture is the fruit of the history of the country. The symbols of the American car culture discussed earlier are not loved just for what they are. They are the result of the complicated history of the automobile in the United States of America.

Car dependency

Having a car is with no doubt indispensable in the US. In 2010, Americans drove for 85 percent of their daily travels, compared to 50 to 65 percent for Europeans. Longer travel lengths only account for a portion of the difference. On both sides of the Atlantic, around 30% of daily trips are less than a 2 km. However, Americans drove about 70% of the time for those trips, whereas Europeans rode their bicycles, walked, or took public transportation 70% of the time. This goes to show that America is truly the car-country.

Such differences cannot be explained simply by saying that Americans like driving more than others. There are very few “car-people”, “bike-people” or “transit-people”. For the majority of us, we just want to get from where we are to the facilities we need. In the US the answer to the question “How should I go?” is more often than not “Let’s drive there”. The car is central to the lives of people in the US.

Building the car country

Car dependency did not pop from nowhere. The freedom provided by the car is so important because the US was rebuilt during the twentieth century in a way that make it indispensable. It is those infrastructure changes that still shape the country today. They created the special car culture that one can find in the US.

At the turn of the century, the United States was a very different country. After the Civil War in 1865, the main focus of infrastructure projects were railways. They were faster and more convenient than carriages and allowed for the transport of freight. Moreover, developing those railways necessitated enormous fundings. This development was mostly carried out by private companies competing to be the first one to build a transcontinental line. Consequently huge amounts of founding where directed to this new infrastructure. Through the 1880s and 1890s, as a results the roads were in very poor state.

Cities had grown and new settlements appeared alongside the railways tracks. With those new neighborhoods, new streets came to be. The problems encountered in rural and urban areas were of different kind. In urban area, the development of street-cars and sewer pipes had brought major controversies over who should be in charge of the pavement. Rural area where fighting to even get pavement. Many farmer were against any change in terms of road administration.

By the end of the century, it was clear that changes had to be made. Reformers had been calling for them in terms administration and financing of the streets. Road were becoming more than just paths. They were public utilities and public spaces. Streets were not controlled by residents anymore. The private car was not yet to be seen but this set up the changes that came later.

The private car boom; staring Henry Ford  

As we have seen, the roads were in very rough shape in the 1900s. Carriages, cyclists and streetcars had to share the same space that was in a state of disrepair. In the next twenty years the number of cars in the street will rise from 0 to 8 million.

Many of those new vehicles were coming out of Ford factories. The Ford Model T revolutionized car ownership. The Model T made owning a car accessible for millions of Americans. The principle of assembly line production introduced in 1913 allowed high efficiency for building the vehicles and as a result, a low retail price. Moreover, the design of the Model T was robust and modular which allowed for a broad audience to be attracted by it. By 1918, half of the cars in the US were Model T’s.

Ford also introduced a five-dollar workday, increasing the wages of its employees. This meant that even them could buy what they were building.

Fichier:1908 Ford Model T.jpg — Wikipédia
Source :

Henry Ford is a central figure of American culture. He contributed massively to the creation of an American identity. He popularized consumerism, mass production and the private car. These are all values that are still associated to the US today. One could even compare him to a founding father.

In 1916, Congress passed the Federal Aid Road Act. It is the first piece of legislature that starts to regulate the roads and improve there quality. It marked the beginning of the rebirth of America’s road system. The upgraded road were welcomed. Finally, they were seen as efficient, a scientific scrutiny and most importantly a reliable way to overcome the elements. Cars at the time had little to no suspension. The brand new tarmac greatly improved the driving experience.

The functioning of cities had finally been sorted out. With this the first city planners came to existence. They started to look into transportation, housing and zoning. Cities started to alter the repartition of activities on their territories using zoning. The objective was to reduce traffic. Zoning became popular after New York launched their zoning plan in 1916.

Creating the car country

The 1920s opened a new era. The improvements to the existing road network were not sufficient anymore. Indeed, with the increased comfort provided by the new pavement, more and more people bought cars. By 1940, 27 million automobiles were running in the country. Motorists were delighted to be able to ride further, increasing again their accessible range. However, with this also came the problem of traffic.

The growth in drivers was so big that engineers could not anticipate the necessary upgrades anymore and when they did, the infrastructure was already at capacity when it opened. Rather than removing traffic jams, the upgrades were moving the bottle necks.

In an effort to try to eliminate this problem, congress passed in 1921 the Federal Highway Act. This marked the beginning of the famous federal highway system that some even go as far as calling it a “wonder”. The automobile was not luxury anymore. A highway had to be built less 10 miles (16km) from any American.

This era marked the beginning of the vicious circle of the automobile. The more road there is, the more cars they is and the more traffic there is. As a result more roads are built and the cycle repeats. The increased speed and the number of cars also caused an increase in the externalities. The number of road casualties doubled in 20 years to 34 thousand deaths in 1940.

The changing landscape

With the development of the road system the cities started to change. In the late nineteenth century new cities had grown further from the center of the metropolis. This was thanks to the development of streetcars. That way the working class could commute into the city to join the factories. With car becoming wide spread, being close to a train station was not important for those who commuted anymore. The suburbs started to sprawl on large areas.

In those areas, new urbanistic rules were put in place. In order to reduce congestion, only single family homes were allowed in massive zones. Those houses are now part of the American culture. The objective was to keep busy streets away from families. No other kind of activities are allowed to keep the neighborhood quiet. At the start of the 1950s, many habitants of cities were attracted by those new houses. There are three main reason for that. First, the will to own their own home. The middle class was thriving at that time. Buying a house was an accomplishment. They were also more than happy to leave cities as insecurity was high. Most importantly, the Civil Rights movement scared many white Americans. The white neighborhoods allowed them to escape from the changes happening in cities.

The population in city centers started to fall as a result. This only increased the financial crisis that they were going through due to the expensive investment on the road network. Moreover, with the wealthy population leaving the centers, only the poorest remained. This increased further racial segregation.

Master Builder : Robert Moses

In this section, I would like to spend some time to talk about an important figure of the 1950s. Robert Moses was an architect and urbanist. He was a very influential figure of the era. Many called him the “Master Builder”. He was responsible for the scheme of expressways in New York. As part of the New Deal in 1935, Robert Moses managed to secure 180 to 200 million dollars of funding to build its expressways.

Among his achievements there are many bridges including the Triborough Bridge in New York. Its construction employed thousands of workers from the region. As a result, Robert Moses was highly regarded. He brought infrastructure and jobs to those who needed.

As Robert Moses was highly regarded for its accomplishments, many cities wanted to take inspiration from him and hired planner to do a similar job. However, his projects are also heavily criticized. Indeed, in those African-American neighborhoods were disproportionally affected by destructions. Highways were built though those black neighborhoods destroying communities. City planners across the country copied his racist behaviors.

The Federal Aid highway Act of 1956 further cemented the methods put in place by Moses and replicated them in the entire country to further expand the highway system. In many cities, black communities were considered slums, while they were in reality well-kept working middle class houses.

Some contest the racist intensions of Robert Moses today, one thing is true for sure : his projects and there legacy have disproportionately impacted minorities. This is often neglected, but this is also part of the American car culture. Racism and segregation and the construction of those road that made the car indispensable are indissociable.

Future of the car culture

Nowadays, urbanists, planners and engineers are calling for a change in how we think about transportation. As we have seen, the US has built themselves to make way for the car during the twentieth century. This led to the car culture that we know today. Throughout the examples of policies that we have seen, what remained constant was the will to always increase the mobility of Americans. This was made by improvement to the road network, by zoning etc. However, we can think differently. Indeed, what is important to us is to have access to the services we need. The zoning scheme put in place to improve traffic flow prevent families to have their necessities within a walking distance to their homes, and the road infrastructure put in place tears apart communities. A well-made plan should instead focus on providing the necessities as closely as possible.

I would argue that rethinking the way we built our cities in the last decades would be a very good thing for the American culture. We have forgotten about it but, the United States used to have historic city centers too. During the era that we have studied, many city centers were demolished because they were left abandoned due to sprawling. However some cities are trying to bring them back to life. For example Carmel, Indiana, has done an outstanding job by recreating the historic city center.

Silva Cells Rejuvenate Carmel, Indiana's Monon Boulevard & Midtown Plaza |  Case Study | DeepRoot
Creating connections between people should be the main objective of a culture. However, the implementation of the car infrastructure in the US – but also in other countries inspired by it – has done the opposite. It is high time to fix the failures of the past and give back livable neighborhoods to all Americans. Being fond of cars should be a right, not an obligation.

In conclusion, I urge you to read Beyond Mobility if you want to have a better idea of how the US could change their mindset regarding transportation.


Christopher W. Wells. (2014). Car Country: An Environmental History. University of Washington Press.

Historical study of the development of the car in the US

Jeongsuk Joo. (2009). The Root and Development of Suburbanization in America in the 1950s. International Area Review, Volume: 12 issue: 1, 65-79. doi:

Research on the story of Suburbanization in the US. It is closely linked to political and racial issues.

Robert Cervero, E. G. (2017). Beyond Mobility. Island Press.

How can we think of mobility differently ? It focuses on how to move away from the car centric transport of the US. Written by three American transport researchers.  

Ralph Buehler. (2014, february 4). 9 Reasons the U.S. Ended Up So Much More Car-Dependent Than Europe. Bloomberg. Retrieved from

Another view on the development of car centric country that is the US and a comparison to Europe.

 Interstate Displacement – The Legacy of Robert Moses – Extra History

The History Behind Car (In)Dependence in the US vs World

How the interstate system came to be ?

Article on how the interstate system came into existence.

Categories: Dossiers


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