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CAR COUNTRY

A N E N V I R O N M E N TA L H I S T O RY
christopher w. wells

Foreword by

william cronon

WEYERHAEUSER ENV I RONMENTAL BOOKS

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William Cronon, Editor

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Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books explore human relationships


with natural environments in all their variety and complexity. They
seek to cast new light on the ways that natural systems affect human
communities, the ways that people affect the environments of which
they are a part, and the ways that different cultural conceptions of
nature profoundly shape our sense of the world around us. A complete
list of the books in the series appears at the end of this book.

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Christopher W. Wells

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University of Washington Press


Seattle and London

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CAR COUNTRY

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AN ENV I RONMENTAL H I S TORY


Foreword by William Cronon

Car Country: An Environmental History is published


with the assistance of a grant from the Weyerhaeuser
Environmental Books Endowment, established by the
Weyerhaeuser Company Foundation, members of the
Weyerhaeuser family, and Janet and Jack Creighton.

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2012 by the University of Washington Press


Printed and bound in the United States of America
Design by Thomas Eykemans
Composed in Sorts Mill Goudy by Barry Schwartz
Display type set in Intro by Svetoslav Simov
First paperback edition 2014
181716151454321

University of Washington Press


www.washington.edu/uwpress

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All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or


transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage or retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Wells, Christopher W.
Car country : an environmental history / Christopher W. Wells.

p. cm. (Weyerhaeuser environmental books)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-295-99429-1 (paperback : alk. paper)
1. AutomobilesEnvironmental aspectsUnited StatesHistory.
2. AutomobilesSocial aspectsUnited StatesHistory.
3. Transportation, AutomotiveUnited StatesHistory.
4. Urban transportationUnited StatesHistory.
5. City planningUnited StatesHistory.
6. Land useUnited StatesHistory.
I. Title.
HE5623.W45 2012388.3420973dc232012026654
The paper used in this publication is acid-free and meets the minimum
requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences
Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48 1984.

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For Marianne

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CONTENTS

Foreword by William Crononix


Acknowledgmentsxv
Prologue: A Car of Ones Ownxix
Before the Automobile, 188019053

1 Roads and Reformers5

PART II

Dawn of the Motor Age, 1895191935

2 Automotive Pioneers37

3 Building for Traffic65

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PART I

Photo Gallery One105

Creating Car Country, 19191941123

4 Motor-Age Geography125

5 Fueling the Boom173

6 The Paths Out of Town201

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PART III

Photo Gallery Two228

PART IV

New Patterns, New Standards,


New Landscapes, 19401960251

7 Suburban Nation253

Epilogue: Reaching for the Car Keys289


Notes297
Selected Bibliography379
Index413

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FOREWORD

Far More Than Just a Machine


William Cronon

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If I were to ask my students who invented the automobile, I suspect


their most likely response would be Henry Ford. That answer would
be wrong, but wrong for the right reasons. Although there are a number of candidates for the first creator of a road vehicle powered not by
animals but by steam or electricity or petroleum, no one person can be
given credit for the transportation technology that ultimately changed
the face of the planet over the course of the twentieth century. By the
time Ford began adding gasoline engines to four-wheeled vehicles in
the 1890s, he was one of a small legion of inventors all trying to do the
same thing. He became famous in 1904 when one of his cars set a new
land speed record of more than ninety miles per hour, but that is not
why my students (and most of the rest of us) remember his name more
than anyone else associated with the early history of the automobile. It
was his invention of the wildly popular Model T in 1908 that assured
his place in history and in our memories.
Fords Model T may not have been the first automobile, but it was
the first to make a compelling case that owning and operating a car
might become a normative experience for most Americans. By embracing a robustly simple design that any reasonably competent mechanic
could maintain, by using standard interchangeable parts, and by manufacturing the vehicles by arranging workflow along an assembly line
(a technique he introduced in 1913), Ford was able to reduce his costs of
production so much that he could repeatedly cut the price of these Tin
Lizzies, successfully marketing them to middle-class customers and
even to his own workers. When his employees began quitting because
of the grueling pace required by the assembly line, Ford doubled their
wages by introducing the five-dollar workday, which had the indirect
effect of making it more possible for these working-class Americans to
purchase the cars they were building. Ford eschewed changes in style,
famously remarking that his customers could have the car in any color
they wanted as long as it was black, and this too held down costs even
though it opened the door to the changing styles and brands that by
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the 1920s would characterize one of Fords most successful competitors, General Motors. But that lay in the future. By the end of World
War I, half the cars in the United States were Model Ts.
That is why my students would not be entirely wrong if they
guessed that Henry Ford invented the automobile, for that error
hides a deeper truth. Although we tend to think of a car as a single
objectthat is, after all, the way we purchase itit actually consists
of myriad different parts, each of which has behind it a complex history of invention, development, and use. The internal combustion
engine has quite a different history than the petroleum distillates
that power it, the generator providing the sparks to ignite that fuel,
the drive shaft that conveys rotational energy to the wheels, or the
rubber with which the tires on those wheels are madeand this
list only scratches the surface of all the different pieces that must be
brought together if a car is ever to make it out of the garage and onto
the road. Fords genius was to figure out a way to assemble these parts
in the cheapest possible way, which in turn enabled him to sell more
than fifteen million Model Ts by 1927.
But the car itself is hardly the end of the story. If most of us take
utterly for granted the complex inner mechanisms beneath the hoods
of our automobiles, the same is no less true of complex features of the
highways and street systems on which we operate these vehicles and
the landscapes through which we drive. Although a passing familiarity with the history of transportation technologies quickly leads one
to conclude that the twentieth century was the age of the automobile
just as the nineteenth century had been the age of the railroad, most
of us rarely stop to think about what that actually means. In truth,
the rise in the United States of a culture in which mass ownership
of automobiles became typical constituted one of the most sweeping cultural and environmental revolutions in human history. What
Ford and his fellow automobile manufacturers helped inventwith
help from countless otherswas essentially a technological ecosystem, an intricate set of interconnected inventions, institutions, and
behaviors that by mid-century more or less defined the American
way of life.
This is the great insight that organizes Christopher W. Wellss
superb new book, Car Country: An Environmental History. Wells
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seeks in this lively, playful, and wonderfully accessible account to


introduce readers to the transformations wrought upon the national
landscape of the United States to make it fit for Americans and their
cars. He tells us the stories not just of Ford and his Model T, but of
highway engineers, street designers, real estate developers, policymakers, and all the other people and professions who created the
automobile infrastructures that became second nature to Americans
during the twentieth century. Almost nothing about Car Country
escapes Wellss eye: the gravel and asphalt with which highways are
paved, the layout of streets designed for different speeds of travel past
and through neighborhoods, the road signs and other navigational
devices that enable strangers to make their way through communities they have never visited before, the retail institutions that were
able to attract ever larger numbers of customers from ever greater
distancesand, of course, the concomitant challenge of figuring out
where all those customers could possibly park all those cars. Witness
the emergence of this automobile-dependent landscape in the pages
of this book, and you will never again see the world around you in
quite the same way.
You can read this book purely for the pleasure of discovering the
stories behind endless features of your own life and world that are
probably so familiar that you barely even notice them. I know of no
other book that explores in a single volume so many different aspects
of our automobile-dependent culture: the design of cars, the paving
of streets, the engineering of highways, the refining of gasoline, the
taxing of fuel sales at the pump, the laying out of subdivisions, the
marketing of real estate, the zoning of cities, the building of parking
lots, the lobbying of legislatures, and so on and on and on. If any of
these sound dry or technical, never fear: Chris Wells is an engaging
storyteller, and the only thing dry about this book is his sardonic wit.
Amid his many explanations of how and why Car Country works the
way it doesand he is a master explaineris a constant peppering of
anecdotes and observations that make the book a delight to read.
But Wells also has a much larger purpose in mind. He opens the
book by reflecting on his own youthful enthusiasm for the first vehicle
he ever owned, a 1975 SR5 long-bed Toyota pickup truck that symbolized freedom and adulthood and that made his teenage comings and
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goings far easier than would otherwise have been the case. Then he
went off to a small liberal arts college without a car and found to his
surprise that he rarely missed itexcept when he returned home to
Atlanta and found himself in need of a vehicle to do almost anything.
During extended travels in Europe, he again found himself missing
his car almost not at alluntil he came home to Atlanta and again
felt his mobility and lifestyle severely cramped, because neither his
bicycle nor the available mass transit options were sufficient to get him
safely to where he needed to go. With such poor options for getting
around, he remembers, I felt incapacitated without a car. Then he
went off to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, where the university and its student neighborhoods are compactly laid out on an isthmus between two lakes, and suddenly the car again became as much an
inconvenience as a benefit.
From this small autobiographical sketch, Wells draws a large and
important conclusion. Once one recognizes that the automobile is
not just a machine but a single element in a vast technical ecosystem in which every part is connected to every other and all human
behaviors and institutions are shaped by its presence or absence, one
is forced to recognize that any changes in this car-dependent landscape are almost inevitably trickier and more complicated than they
first appear. Its not just that Americans love their automobiles; its
that the landscape we have created for them makes no other options
available to us. We have no choice but to love them. John Muir once
famously said of the natural world that when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
The same is equally true of the human world, for reasons that have
as much to do with history and culture as they do with nature. It
has taken more than a century to create the complex interconnections that have made Car Country second nature to us. The scale
of our resulting dependence on the automobile is so vastranging
fractally from the largest public works project in history (the interstate highway system) all the way to what we do when we feel the
impulse to drink a well-made cup of coffeethat unwinding these
dependencies is hard even to imagine. And yet we may have no
choice in the matter, since some of the elements on which the system
dependscheap liquid fuel most of allmay prove less sustainable
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in the twenty-first century than they appeared to be in the twentieth.


Sustainable or not, the challenge of imagining our transportation
future will require a better understanding of our transportation past
than most of us now possess. To grasp the complexities and fascinations and paradoxes of Car Country, I know of no better guide than
this engaging book.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

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When I first began to work on what ultimately became this book, now
nearly a dozen years ago, I had little inkling of just how much its completion would rely on the stunning generosity, support, insight, and
assistance of others. I can never hope to repay the debts that I have
accrued, but I am more than happy to name names.
I owe particular thanks to my mentors at the University of WisconsinMadison, Bill Cronon and the late Paul Boyer, whose extraordinarily high standards for scholarship, teaching, advising, and engaging
with a scholarly community were exceeded only by the understated
grace and modesty with which they both modeled those standards.
I am more grateful than I can say for their advice, rigor, generosity,
and friendship. James Baughman, Rudy Koshar, Eric Schatzberg, and
Stanley Schultz also lent their critical eyes and ears to my research in
its early phase, improving it in ways large and small. Chuck Cohen,
Linda Gordon, Bill Reese, Anne Firor Scott, and Joel Wolfe had nothing directly to do with this project, but all are fine scholars and teachers who went out of their way to help me learn what it means to be a
historian.
At the University of Washington Press, acquiring editor Marianne
Keddington-Lang provided constant advice, encouragement, and
support through the long process of transforming my research into
a book. Together with Bill Cronon, she has helped make the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series at the University of Washington
Press into a real community of authors, not just a list of books. Were I
to have tried to dream up a better editor, I would have fallen well short
of the mark that Marianne establishes. I am indebted as well to Julie
Van Pelt, who read the final manuscript with an incredible combination of precision and artistic sensibility.
Many others have read drafts, offered advice, and helped me with
the process of transforming crude ideas into a more polished form.
Peter Norton and one anonymous reviewer read the entire manuscript
with critical eyes, offering suggestions and insights that measurably
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improved the final product. Ellen Arnold and Tom Robertson read
and critiqued most of the manuscript, much of it in prose so raw that
none but true friends would willingly subject themselves to the task.
Greg Bond, David Hertzberg, Hiroshi Kitamura, and Michael Rawson
all read and commented on the lions share of my dissertation, and Jeff
Allred, Thomas Andrews, Will Barnett, Katie Benton-Cohen, Tracey
Deutsch, Jim Feldman, Jeff Filipiak, and Alexander Shashko also read,
commented on, and improved various portions of the book. Thanks
as well to J. Brooks Flippen, Mathieu Flonneau, Libbie Freed, Jordan
Kleiman, Timothy Lecain, Tom McCarthy, Clay McShane, Martin
Melosi, Federico Paolini, Pamela Pennock, Paul Sutter, and Thomas
Zeller, and the audiences of panels at various conferences where I presented pieces of the research in this book. Thanks for their help and
insights to Brian Black, Ed Linenthal, Karen Merrill, Ty Priest, and the
anonymous readers at the Journal of American History; Pamela Laird,
John Staudenmaier, and the anonymous readers at Technology and Culture; and Claire Strom at Agricultural History. And finally, a heartfelt
thanks to the students in several iterations of the research seminar
that I have taught on the subject of this book at Macalester College,
Davidson College, and Northland College. In addition to giving me a
platform to think out loud about its subjects and issues, these students
contributed their own perceptive ideas and provided a critical audience, helping me weed out some of my less useful approaches to the
material.
Before I could write a word, I benefited from the labors of what
feels like a countless number of librarians, reference specialists, and
archivists, who helped me navigate collections and track down elusive
materials while offering the sort of moral support that keeps isolated
researchers going even when they encounter an inevitable rough patch.
At The Henry Ford, where I spent four months in the archives, thanks
to Judith Endelman, Mark Greene, Cathy Latendresse, Andy Schornick, and Linda Skolarus. I also owe a substantial debt to the staff of
the Library of Congress, who filled my steady stream of book orders
and shared their magnificent reading room, which served as my daily
office for six months. Jeffrey Stine and Roger White at the Smithsonian showed me their collections, answered my questions, and helped
make my time in Washington a pleasant experience. I would also
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like to express gratitude to the many librarians and archivists at the


National Archives II, the Bentley Historical Library, the Detroit Public
Library, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and the Minnesota
Historical Society. The interlibrary loan staffs at both the University
of WisconsinMadison and Macalester College secured a multitude
of sources ranging from the important to the obscure, without which I
simply could not have written this book. Last but not least, Terri Fishel
and her staff provided a sabbatical office in the Macalester College
library, offering a quiet place to work as well as help and collegiality
whenever I descended from the garret.
A remarkable range of people contributed to my research along the
way. Maggie Hughes helped me get organized as I pivoted from working on research to working on a book, and Ben Poupard confirmed
a hunch by tracking down important evidence in the Ford archives.
Trent Boggess, Lendol Calder, Bob Casey, and David Louter generously shared their knowledge and materials at key points in the process.
Aaron Isaacs shared his vast expertise about railroads and streetcars at
a crucial point and provided the commuter rail timetables for St. Paul
Park that became the basis for one of the maps in this book. I owe an
eternal debt to Ross Donihue, Sarah Horowitz, and Birgit Muehlenhaus, who applied their GIS savvy to help me transform a motley mix
of timetable information, railroad and streetcar maps, road construction maps, oil pipeline maps, and my own nascent ideas into elegant
cartographic renderings.
Even more people provided intangible support along the way as
friends, colleagues, students, and intellectual sparring mates. Special thanks to Shelby Balik, Karen Benjamin, Jonathan Berkey,
Ann MacLaughlin Berres, Dawn Biehler, Louisa Bradtmiller, Scott
Breuninger, Thea Browder, Ernie Capello, Chris Capozzola, Adrienne Christiansen, the late Judy Cochran, Hal Cohen, Alison Craig,
Vivien Dietz, Jerald Dosch, Ann Esson, Ted and Abby Frantz, Tony
Gaughan, Aram Goudsouzian, John Gripentrog, Suzanne Savanick
Hansen, Paul Hass, Sandy Heitzkey, Dave Holmes, Jack Holzheuter,
Dan Hornbach, Lynn Hudson, Mary and Toni Karlsson, Tina Kruse,
David Levinson, Jane Mangan, Christie Manning, Sarah Marcus, Tom
McGrath, Sally McMillen, Ray Mohl, Alicia Muoz, Lara Nielsen,
Nancy OBrien Wagner, Roopali Phadke, Bill Philpott, Peter Rachleff,
Acknowledgments

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Andy Rieser, Mark Rose, Honor Sachs, Jim Schlender, Zach Schrag,
Matt Semanoff, David Sheffler, Tony Shugaar, Deb Smith, Kendra
Smith-Howard, Chris Taylor, Trish Tilburg, Dan Trudeau, George
Vrtis, and Kristen Walton.
Generous financial support also helped bring this book to fruition.
At the University of WisconsinMadison, various grants and travel
fellowships helped launch the early stages of research. A Henry Austin
Clark Fellowship from The Henry Ford made possible my extended
time in Dearborn. Several awards from the Mellon-funded Three Rivers Center at Macalester helped extend my sabbatical, buying muchneeded time to dedicate myself to full-time writing. I am particularly
grateful for the investments that Macalester College makes in its
junior faculty. Without its generous junior sabbatical and family leave
policies, completing this book would have been a very differentand
much more difficultprocess.
Last, but certainly not least, I owe a tremendous personal debt to
the members of my family. Their love, support, and unstinting belief
in the path I have chosen mean more to me than I can put into words.
My wife, Marianne Milligan, has talked through every idea and read
every word in this bookand then some. Only she knows just how
much it has taken to write this book, particularly after Jack, Annie,
and Meg joined our family. I dedicate this book to her.

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PROLOGUE

A Car of Ones Own

A good transportation system minimizes unnecessary transportation.


Lewis Mumford (1958)1

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Like many of my friends, I was ecstatic when the long vigil leading up
to my sixteenth birthday ended, and I finallyfinally!got my drivers license. Driving opened a new world of freedom and mobility, particularly after my father bought a new car and gave me his old one: a
yellow 1977 Toyota long-bed pickup truck. Despite its flashy white racing stripe, my new truck was in sad shape. Parts of the bed were rusting through, torn bits of foam protruded from gaping holes in its vinyl
seats, and the passenger-side door, which was crumpled from a previous accident, could only be opened by observing a careful sequence
of steps that flummoxed all but a select group of initiates. I was utterly
blind to its problems: the truck was a piece of junk, but it was my piece
of junk.
My truck made everything about high-school life easier. Now that
I was finally free of the complicated process of arranging rides home
after my various practices and after-school activities, it also became
infinitely easier to get to friends houses, to soccer games and debate
tournaments, and to movies and parties. Best of all, the costs of my
newfound mobility were negligible: I had only to make an occasional
emergency run to the grocery store for my mother, to give my younger
sister a ride when she needed one, and to use my own money to keep
the trucks tank full.2 My previously well-used bicycle went into storage, and for the rest of high school came out only for recreational rides
with friends.
When I left home for college in the mountains of western Massachusetts, first-year students were barred from owning vehiclesa
policy designed to prevent the towns picturesque streets from becoming a parking lot. Full of regret, I left my truck behind. I still vividly
remember the phone call, several months later, when I asked about
my truck and got silence in return. After some prodding, my parents
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1977 Toyota SR5 long-bed pickup truck (with racing stripe).


Ben Piff, courtesy of oldparkedcars.com

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explained that it had been totaledthe victim of a fallen tree during


a storm. The insurance company proclaimed it a worthless hunk of
metal, but I knew better: its loss meant forfeiting the easy mobility that
I had enjoyed through my last years of high school. I spent my remaining college breaks in Atlanta hitching rides with friends or negotiating
the use of one of my parents cars.
Somewhat to my surprise, though, I seldom missed my truck at college. The campus itself was less than one square mile in extent and
contained everything a student could need: dormitories, dining halls,
classrooms, athletic fields, museums, a variety of shops and restaurants
on main street, and a profusion of public gathering spaces that hosted
a diverse mix of activities, including lectures, musical and theatrical
performances, and whatever else two thousand college students living in an isolated town could dream up. When I moved off campus as
a senior, two of my housemates had carsalthough most of the time
they sat parked outside the house, unused, until one of us needed to
run to the nearest grocery store in the next town over.
After graduation, I took a job teaching high-school history in
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Switzerland, and like many Americans living in Europe I marveled at


how easy it was to get around by foot, bus, and train. Even without a
car, it was easy (and affordable, even on my small salary) to spend my
free weekends traveling. By contrast, on the occasions when I had to
drive a school van, driving seemed downright cumbersome. Narrow
streets, low speed limits, what struck me as outrageously high gasoline
prices, and exceedingly scarce parkingnot to mention the boisterous
teenagers I was carting aroundundercut much of drivings appeal.
Rather than embodying freedom and mobility, driving in Switzerland
seemed more like an expensive, inconvenient, and at times even harrowing chore.
Yet almost immediately upon returning to Atlanta for the summer,
the familiar yearning for a car of my own came flooding back. Even
something as simple as meeting friends during their lunch breaks presented significant obstacles. Infrequent, inconveniently located bus
service in my neighborhood made buses unappealing, and the nearest stop on the citys pleasant, rail-based rapid-transit system (whose
tracks did not run anywhere I wanted to go) was nearly three miles
away from my parents house. Cycling, the preferred transportation
of my youth, was fine in my neighborhood but felt dangerous beyond
it, where a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.3 With
such poor options for getting around, I felt incapacitated without a car.
Interestingly, my intense desire for a car quickly dissipated after I
moved to Madisonthe capital of Wisconsin and a bustling university townto attend graduate school. Madisons main commercial
street downtown, State Street, which connects the university campus
on one end with the state capitol on the other, is lined with enough
bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and small specialty shops
to keep the universitys forty-thousand-plus students happy. I rented
an apartment within a short walk of my classes and the library, dropping my vague plan to buy a car upon learning that off-street parking would add 50 percent to my monthly rent. I worried about getting
groceries until discovering a storehalf a mile awaythat offered
free delivery. With most of what I needed located within a reasonable
walk, I never really missed having a car.
By this point my interest in the differing transportation systems of
Europe and the United States had captured my academic interest as
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wellbut popular works on the subject seemed to raise more questions


than they answered. The most prevalent explanation for the remarkable success of the automobile in the United Statesthe ubiquitous
love-affair thesissuggests that Americans fell in love with automobiles and, once enamored, did whatever was necessary to accommodate
them. It is, at base, quite simple, one popular history of automobiles
declares: Americans have a fervent, intense, enduring love affair with
their cars.4 Most of those who adhere to this explanation see automobiles as basically goodas a technology that is ultimately liberating,
enabling, empowering, and democratic, all qualities that accord well
with American values. To be sure, proponents of the love-affair thesis
concede that the countrys dependence on automobiles has its negative side, including environmental damage, steep infrastructure costs,
the frustrations of jammed traffic, and dependence on foreign oil, but
these problems are simply the unfortunate trade-offs that Americans
must make to ensure universal access to an otherwise useful and beneficial technology. Deep down, advocates of the love-affair thesis argue,
Americans love their cars, whatever their flaws, and this more than
anything else explains the countrys relationship with automobiles.5
A second popular explanationcall it the conspiracy thesis
attributes the privileged position of automobiles in American life to
powerful interests foisting automobiles on an unwary public. A cabal
of automakers and various affiliated conspirators used underhanded
means to deprive the country of effective public transportation,
according to this argument, and powerful road builders have used
their clout to secure public financing for huge construction projects
at the expense of other social needs. Proponents of the conspiracy
thesis sometimes grudgingly concede that cars have certain positive
qualities, but on balance they see the countrys car culture as a negative, damaging force. Given free choice and a level playing field, they
argue, Americans would certainly choose a less automobile-dependent
lifestyle.6
Neither of these explanations for the dominance of cars in the
United States squares particularly well with my own experience, in
which my desire (and need) for a car has varied dramatically from place
to place. In Atlanta, I nearly always felt confined and helpless without
a car because what I wanted to do was spread out over a large area,
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making driving the only practical way to get around. Both in Switzerland and in two very different college towns, however, not having a car
proved at worst a minor inconvenience. Because most of what I needed
in a normal day was located in easy walking or bicycling distance from
where I lived, having a car was more a convenience than a necessity.
To put it another way, the physical arrangement of the built environment, in which housing, retail, and businesses intermingled in relatively close quartersa condition that planners refer to as mixed-use
landscapesmeant that my opportunities per square mile in all three
places were much higher than in Atlanta. Significantly, the prevailing patterns of land use limited my options for conducting my everyday affairs as much or more than the quality of public transportation,
which varied from excellent in Switzerland to nonexistent in western
Massachusetts. How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or
not I needed one.7 I did not want a car so much as I wanted to be able to
do things quickly and easily: get groceries, get to work, see my friends.8
In Atlanta I needed a car; in the other places I have lived since I left
home for college, having a car did not factor as much into the equation.
As I thought through these relationships, it became increasingly clear that most public discourse about the role of automobiles
in American life erects a false boundary between how Americans feel
about transportation technologies and why Americans drive so much
more than people elsewhere in the world. In endlessly debating the
merits of particular technologiesPriuses versus SUVs, buses versus light railwe lose sight of the social and environmental context
in which those technologies operate. This oversight has implications
both for how we live our lives and for the environmental effects of the
technologies we use. The language of the love affair, and the often
moralistic approach of critics who condemn the automobile, privileges
a tight focus on the relative vices and virtues of individual behaviors
and technologies at the expense of coming to grips with either the
genuine advantages and freedoms that cars create or the social and
environmental costs of the nearly universal automobile use that cardependent landscapes foster.9
Focusing on feelings about transportation technologies rather
than the conditions in which they operate can have nefarious consequences, as the case of Atlantas transit system illustrates. The systems
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trains function well as machines: when installed, they were quiet,


smooth, comfortable, clean, and fast and could efficiently move large
numbers of people over long distances. Judged on these merits alone,
they should have been a resounding success, but in the real world their
success has been mixed, at best. How can we explain this? Among the
residents of Atlanta I have talked to, the most popular explanation
directly mirrors the logic of the love-affair thesis: I guess people here
just dont like to ride trains. Pressed to elaborate, people tout the relative virtues of cars (deemed convenient, flexible, inexpensive, and fast)
and the relative vices of the trains (deemed awkward, rigid, expensive,
and slow).
Yet focusing on peoples predilections (people here just dont like
to ride trains) suggests that their attitudes are somehow timeless and
innate rather than informed reactions to a changing world. In the case
of Atlantas rail-based transit, for example, nearly all of its stations
until recently have connected the citys airport with four main things:
giant parking lots for commuters, office space, convention-oriented
facilities, and sports venues. The opportunities per square mile surrounding each rail stop, in other words, cater almost entirely to out-oftown visitors, office workers, mall-goers, and sports fans. Why should
anyone else ever ride the trains? The land uses within easy walking
distance of each station send strong signals about who is supposed to
use the trainslarge parking lots scream I am for drivers, just as rail
stops surrounded by office buildings and hotels declare I am for office
workers and conventioneers. As a result, the rail-based transit system
is awkward, rigid, expensive, and slow for most Atlantans, although
this is not because the trains are technologically deficient: it is because
most of the citys residents are neither conventioneers nor employees
of a company located near a rail stop. From its inception, the systems
engineers did not design it to help most city residents do the things
they need and want to do as part of their everyday lives.10
To understand how powerful the relationship between successful mass transit systems and land-use decisions is, compare Atlantas
system to one of any number of successful European systems. Why
would the latter enjoy much heavier ridership than Atlantas, even in
cases when they employ older, slower, less comfortable technology?
Following the love-affair thesis, we might conclude that Europeans
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have a stronger affinity for trains or, alternatively, that Europeans just
do not love cars as much as Americans. Paying attention to land-use
patterns, however, suggests that transit prospers in places where stops
grant access to many opportunities per square mile and are within
easy walking distance of housing. The relationship is not hard to
grasp: if just about anyone can leave home and take a short walk to a
transit stop, and if nearly every stop along the line offers a diverse mix
of incentives to exit and spend time and money in nearby businesses,
then people are likely to use the system heavilyeven if they own
cars. When transit conveniently connects housing to the innumerable
opportunities of dense, mixed-use landscapes, transit seems to thrive.
This appears to be particularly true when the opportunities near rail
stops are not limited to major attractions like ball fields and museums but also feature businesses that cater to more mundane everyday
needs, like drug stores, hardware stores, and supermarkets.11
Anecdotal evidence suggests that rail systems traversing landscapes that are rich in opportunities per square mile seem to appeal
as much to substantial numbers of Americans as to Europeans. For
example, consider American cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago, where subway and elevated train systems still attract heavy ridership. The transit stops in these places are frequently within walking
distance of residential areas and offer numerous attractive opportunities within a short walk. Consider also the attitudes of even resolutely
car-loving Americans who encounter robust rail-based transit systems
when traveling abroad. Many are pleasantly surprised to be able to get
around without a rental car and describe their experiences by saying
things like, Streetcar systems would never work in the United States
because Americans dont like public transportation, but the streetcars in Europe are very pleasant and convenient. In truth, streetcar
systems would stand little chance of succeeding in the United States
without radically different land-use patternsbut the point is that
land-use patterns, not attitudes toward rail, are the best determinant
of likely success or failure.
What is true of light rail is also true of cars: when we design landscapes that are easily navigated only by personal vehicles, people tend
to drive everywhere they need to go. In this book, I try to move past
the language of the love affair to focus on the built landscape. I do so
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in part because the love-affair framework so poorly explains my own


changing relationships with cars and in part because thinking in terms
of love and hate is conceptually limiting. However one feels about
carswhether you love them, hate them, or are filled with ambivalenceyou will not find much about those emotions in the pages that
follow. Instead, this book will ask you to think about landscapes: the
everyday world around us, from the mundane to the magisterial, and
especially the various principles that guide its physical organization.
Sometimes I employ the language of ecology to describe its organization, particularly in order to explore the environmental implications
of near-universal automobile use in the United States. Yet I will also
have occasion to describe changes in very different terms: more often
than not, the people who rearranged the American landscape in the
ways I describe did not think much about the effects of their actions
on nature or the environment as part of their decision-making
processes, even though the environmental consequences of their decisions have been profound.
Understanding the landscapes physical arrangement is crucial to
understanding why Americans drive so much. In addition to shaping
the fortunes of transportation systems like light rail, land-use patterns
also govern how far car-dependent Americans must drive to conduct
their everyday affairs. The easiest way to illustrate this point is to examine how the physical layouts of two very different residential areas in
the St. Paul metropolitan regionone urban, the other suburban
affect the transportation needs of their residents. The first of these two
residential areas is a collection of subdivisions located off an interstate
exit ramp roughly fourteen miles south of downtown St. Paul in Eagan,
Minnesota, a suburban community of more than sixty thousand people
spread out over 34.5 square miles. Its land-use patterns were established
primarily in the 1970s and 1980s in direct relationship to the newly
constructed interstate.12 The layout of one of Eagans neighborhoods,
grouped around an interstate exit ramp (fig. 1), reflects the approach
that suburban developers have honed to a science in the interstate era.
Eagans general land-use practices differ little from those of innumerable suburban communities around the country.
In order to understand the organization of this exit-ramp neighborhood, which covers roughly 5.5 square miles, one must first appreciate
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I.1Exit-ramp neighborhood, Eagan, Minnesota. Cartography by Birgit Mhlenhaus, 2011.

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how city planners in the last four decades or so have understood different kinds of roads, which they have sorted into clear hierarchical categories based on intended use. Planners divide roads into two broad
categorieshigh-speed highways and lower-speed roadsand then
make further distinctions within each category. In the lower-speed
road category, for example, planners distinguish between arterial
roads, collector roads, and residential streets and rely on each to serve
a different transportation purpose. Arterial roads are the most heavily
traveled of the three and typically connect important central locations
with one another and with the interstate. They tend to be zoned for
large developments like shopping centers, strip malls, office parks, and
townhouses rather than for single-family housing. In Eagan, as in most
interstate-oriented suburbs, the highways entrance and exit ramps are
located on a major arterial road. By comparison, suburban collector
roads have a lower capacity than arterials, and as their name implies
they are designed to collect traffic from adjacent subdivisions and
funnel it to arterials. The zoning regulations along collectors tend to
permit only a few small commercial and community-oriented developments; they are usually easy to identify by the many subdivision
entrances along their length. Residential streets, the final road type, are
contained entirely within individual subdivisionsthus discouraging through trafficand the land adjacent to them tends to be zoned
exclusively for residential land uses.
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By manipulating the arrangement of these different road types,


planners and developers create a rational transportation system that
is easy to navigate (by those with cars), ensures the relatively efficient
distribution of utilities like sewers and water mains through low-density areas, keeps heavy traffic concentrated on major routes (and out of
neighborhoods), and locates most everyday essentials within a short
drive of residential areas. Because zoning bars commercial activities
from residential areas, shopping trips typically begin at home, move
through curving residential streets to a collector, follow the collector
to the arterial, and take the arterial toward the businesses clustered
around the interstate ramp. In well-developed suburbs like Eagan, exitramp commercial clusters typically boast a variety of establishments,
including restaurants, grocery stores, barber shops and hair salons,
real estate agencies, financial services companies, various professional
offices, and perhaps even a movie theater or hardware storeenough
to satisfy a typical familys everyday needs. Whenever something is
not available locally, the interstate provides a direct link to the larger
resources of the metropolitan region.
The second sample residential area, whose physical organization
differs markedly from Eagan, is Macalester-Groveland, an urban
neighborhood in St. Paul with twenty thousand residents spread over
roughly 2.25 square miles, located roughly 4 miles west of downtown.
As with Eagan, the key to understanding the neighborhoods spatial
organization is to understand how its developers designed it in relationship to the dominant transportation system of the time. The
streetcars around which the neighborhood was developed from 1910
through the 1920s have been defunct for five decades, but the landuse patterns established during the streetcar era still have a profound
and continuing impact on the everyday transportation demands of the
neighborhoods residents today.
A map showing the relationship between the neighborhoods commercial infrastructure and its old streetcar lines demonstrates why this
is true (fig. 2). Unlike Eagan, whose developers sorted various highways
and roads into an elaborate, multilevel hierarchy, Macalester-Grovelands developers distinguished only two road types: residential streets
and streetcar streets. Three eastwest streetcar lines, spaced every half
mile, ran through the neighborhood, putting all residents within four
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I.2Streetcar neighborhood, Macalester-Groveland, St. Paul, Minnesota.

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Cartography by Birgit Mhlenhaus, 2011.

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blocks of a streetcar stop. Eastwest and northsouth streetcar lines


gave residents access to the rest of the city as well as to downtown Minneapolis, seven miles to the northwest.
Of more lasting importance than the streetcars, however, are the
small commercial nodes, located every half mileand sometimes
every quarter milethat sprang up along their routes.13 In contrast
to Eagan, where the interstate ramp provides the center of gravity for
nearly all nonresidential activities, all three eastwest streetcar lines
in Macalester-Groveland attracted businesses to the regularly spaced
clusters of storefronts along their length. As a result, commercial
establishments spread somewhat evenly throughout the neighborhood, putting nearly all residents within six blocks or less of multiple shopping areas by the late 1920s. For those who required goods
or services unavailable in the many nearby stores, streetcars provided
a direct link to all of the small commercial sites along any particular
route and, ultimately, to the resources of downtown St. Paul.
The very different land-use patterns established during the initial
development of Eagan and Macalester-Groveland continue to shape
the mobility options of their residents today. The developers of both
neighborhoods carefully separated residential and commercial areas
but balanced separation against easy access to everyday goods and
services. In a key difference between the two areas, entrepreneurs
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from 1910 through the 1920s defined easy access in relationship to


the slow speeds of pedestrians and streetcars. As a result, Macalester-Grovelands commercial establishments spread thickly and fairly
evenly through the neighborhood along the old streetcar routeswith
the result that even today, without streetcars, large numbers of stores
exist within a short distance of all neighborhood homes. Because distances are short, walking and bicycling remain practical options. In
Eagan, on the other hand, where planners defined easy access in
relationship to cars, the distances between residences and commercial
establishments are much longer. The distance a person can walk in
five minutes is much shorter than one can drive in five minutes, and in
Eagan (as in most postWorld War II suburbs), short walks seldom give
residents access to any shopping opportunities at all. In addition, since
most commerce is concentrated on highly trafficked arterial roads, few
cyclists feel safe making even reasonably short shopping trips unless a
special, separate infrastructure is provided for them. The only quick,
safe option is to drive.
All of this has implications, not only for how easily people can
walk or bicycle in Eagan and Macalester-Groveland, but also for the
distances that residents must travel to conduct their everyday affairs.
Measured in time and convenience rather than distance, there is little
appreciable difference between the commercial options in Eagan and
Macalester-Grovelandin both places, most of what people need is a
short trip away. Measured in distance rather than time, however, the differences have the potential to add up quickly (fig. 3).14 As figure 3 suggests, Macalester-Groveland residents typically have smaller distances
to travel for these everyday needs than Eagan residents. Each neighborhood design, in other words, imposes very different minimum mobility requirements on its residentsand those designed into Eagans
landscape (as measured in mileage) are notably greater than those
designed into Macalester-Grovelands. These requirements exist independent of what type of transportation residents usebut because distances tend to be shorter in Macalester-Groveland, both walking and
bicycling require less effort than in Eagan and thus are more likely to be
part of the mobility mix for larger numbers of residents.
Eagan represents what I call Car Country, a shorthand label for
places where car dependence is woven into the basic fabric of the
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I.3One-way distance,
in miles, from home to
nearest business.

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landscape.15 In the second half of the twentieth century, such places


have become ubiquitous in the United States, and during that same
period cars have become integral parts of the daily lives of most adult
Americans. It is a mistake, I believe, to explain this state of affairs either
as the simple product of an ardent love affair with automobiles or as
the result of a conspiracy to foist cars on an unwary public. Instead, the
nations dependence on cars stems from a reality at once more prosaic
and more profound: Americans drive because in most places the built
environment all but requires them to do so. Landscapes in the United
States that are easily navigable without personal vehicles have become
raresmall islands in the vast sea of Car Country.
Despite their ubiquity, todays car-dependent landscapes are a relatively new historical development. As recently as the early twentieth
century, the nations social, political, and economic institutions were
oriented entirely around foot-, rail-, and water-based transportation
systems. Rural roads were decrepitthe casualty of a half centurys
investment in railroads at the expense of highwaysand turn-of-thecentury streets in big American cities were in crisis. Few resources
existed to change this state of affairs. In 1900, for example, the total
annual budget for the sole federal agency involved in road improvement
was just $8,000, and its staff faced a strict ban on direct involvement
in road construction. Most states had sizable road-building budgets,
but funding sources were unreliable and almost none of the countless local officials charged with road construction and maintenance
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had any training in engineering. Few of the car-oriented features that


are integral to the modern American landscape, from limited-access
motor highways to parking lots, existed yet even as ideas. Further complicating the picture, early motor vehicles were ostentatiously expensive and notoriously unreliable, making it a laughable idea that the
countrys leaders would ever devote themselves to the complex and
forbiddingly expensive task of remaking the nations transportation
system around cars.
Yet, in relatively short order, this is exactly what happened. Politicians at every level of government funneled unprecedented sums into
developing and expanding the nations automotive infrastructure in
the first half of the twentieth century. Initially, these changes focused
on accommodating the flood of automobiles pouring onto American roads and streets, as engineers wrestled to design both cars and
roads that could overcome difficult environmental conditions. Then
in the interwar years, after a series of significant technological and fiscal breakthroughs, powerful cars and expanding networks of smooth
roads finally began to give motorists the ability to reliably overcome
older environmental limits on private transportation. Only then did
planners and engineers begin to make serious plans for completely carcentered landscapes that were designed not just to make driving easier
but to unlock the full transportation potential of automobiles; only
then did significant numbers of people begin to reorganize their everyday activities and landscapes around automobiles. After World War II,
with the profitability, practicality, and political attractiveness of carcentered activities well established, governments at all levels supplemented existing car-oriented transportation policies with new rules
and incentives governing land-use practices that redefined development as car-oriented development. By 1956, when Congress funded
construction of the interstate highway system, nearly all of the basic
patterns underpinning the creation of car-centered landscapes
as well as nearly all of the most significant environmental problems
related to heavy car usewere firmly in place. With these changes, the
United States became Car Country.
This transformation required two equally profound changes: first,
the development of a well-funded, car-oriented transportation infrastructure; and second, a complex set of regulations, incentives, and
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practices regarding land uses that helped create a new, car-dependent


economic geography. As a car-friendly transportation infrastructure
became a normal part of the American landscapethink stop signs
and centerlines, traffic lights and limited-access highwayscar use
became significantly easier. In addition, as car-friendly land-use practices became a normal part of the American landscapethink ample
parking lots and convenient drive-through windows, vast subdivisions of single-family housing and regional malls rivaling the size of
downtowncar use became more necessary. As the different sectors
of the American economy dispersed more thinly across the landscape,
even the most mundane of everyday tasks moved out of easy reach of
most people traveling on foot or by public transportation. Car use
became not just easy butfor most people and in most placesalmost
mandatory.
As car-dependent landscapes became the norm, they locked in the
significant environmental consequences of nearly universal car use in
a large, affluent nation. Born, as it was, from the desire to overcome
environmental limits on personal mobility, Car Country profoundly
altered how people interacted with nature. People developed new
ways of thinking about and interacting with the environments in
which they livedand particularly with the roads and streets that ran
through their communitiesas federal, state, and local governments
reshaped them based on the needs of wheeled traffic rather than the
needs and desires of people living along them. More subtly, cars transformed how people understood their place in the world and their ability to move around within it, redefining local space and prompting
new ideas about how to array everyday activities and enterprises across
the landscape. In addition to changing peoples interactions with the
environment, building Car Country required tumultuous, large-scale
transformations of the natural world. Dramatic increases in automobile use spurred the growth of the oil industry and its related environmental problems, for example, which became necessary and
significant adjuncts to Car Countrys continuing successes. The
momentous industrial effort required to put the nation on wheels had
profound environmental consequences, as did the equally momentous
road-construction program that provided the vast networks of streets
and highways that made driving so convenient. By introducing these
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changes, Car Country put more people than ever before within an
easy drive of places where they could find ample greenery, recreational
opportunities, and a sense of reconnection with the natural world. In
short, Car Country refashioned, on a grand scale, both the basic patterns of interaction between people and the environment and the fundamental structure and composition of the nations ecosystems.
Almost from the beginning, these changes inspired a legion of
vociferous critics.16 By the time full-blown discontent with Americas
car culture and its destructive environmental effects finally percolated
up into national politics in the 1960s and 1970s, however, patterns of
sprawling, low-density development had already become thoroughly
ingrained in the American political economy. Moreover, Car Countrys critics too often focused on particular problemsfactory pollution, tailpipe emissions, roadside eyesores, suburban boxes made
of ticky tacky,17 the loss of public open space and pristine wildernesswithout understanding the broader, interconnected forces at
work that continued to roll out new car-dependent communities year
after year. Environmentalists secured new regulations that limited
some of low-density sprawls more damaging environmental effects,
but they failed to stop sprawl itself or the engines driving its expansion. The overwhelming tendency among critics, with a few important
exceptions, has been to focus on cars rather than roads and on the
behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American
land-use patterns.18
Without effective criticsand with car-oriented facilities incorporated as a basic feature of the nations political, social, and economic
approach to both transportation and land-use practicescar-dependent landscapes have multiplied, older ways of moving around have
steadily disappeared as practical options for most Americans, and
more and more people have begun to drive longer and longer distances, whether they have wanted to or not. In Car Country, driving
and sprawl have become essential, interlocking components of American lives, landscapes, and relationships with the natural world.

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