America does not have a car culture. Now I am not denying that, compared to many parts of the world, there are a lot of cars here. They are disturbingly, even laughably large in comparison to their European or Asian counterparts. It is also possible that American cities, roads and political institutions have been more thoroughly adapted to the needs of the private automobile.
But, rather than appealing to “culture” for an explanation of these differences, it is much more useful to think of them as “historically contingent automobility.” It is not just culture; it is a singular route through the events of the 20th century that has made the American transportation system distinct. Arbitrary choices, accidents of timing, and unintentional outcomes abound.
I’ve come to this viewpoint through exploring the policies shaping practical biking in the United States, but the lessons apply to automobiles too. The closer I look at transportation history, the more I see that innumerable policy choices at multiple levels of government have constrained the individual transportation options of Americans.
Toys for the Rich?
Even the first arrival of the modern bicycle in America diverged from the experience of Europe. In the U.S., the safety bike triggered a popular boom, an all-consuming and easily-mocked upper-class recreational fad that crashed before the end of the 1890s. At the time, most interurban roads were unpaved and often impassable, and there was broad opposition to general taxation for improvements. This meant that practical usage of the bicycle was severely limited. It was partially a matter of timing: when the farmers, cyclists and Progressives of the Good Roads movement eventually overcame accusations of class warfare to fund construction of paths and roads through general taxation, the bike boom was already fading. Years later, the newly-paved roads originally built for farmer’s wagons would ironically make the rapid spread of the automobile possible.
In the early 20th century, the increasingly-affordable automobile appeared to be a better choice than rail for many Americans, particularly in the sparsely-settled states away from the Eastern seaboard. The jumbled federalism of America also meant that individual states could shape their own laws for the newly-arrived motor vehicles. But the rapid boom and bust of early bicycling meant that there was no organized cycling lobby by the time those laws were codified, and they were largely written to privilege the automobile.
Throughout most of the century, the federal government placed a steep tariff on imported bicycles. Protected from Japanese and European competition in the 30s and 40s, American manufacturers chose not to build the new European-style bikes with multi-speed gearing or lightweight frames. They concentrated instead on heavyweight, balloon-tired, single-speed bikes for children. A tariff intended to limit foreign bicycles thus unintentionally kept adult bicycles artificially scarce and expensive.
Wartime decisions starkly altered the American transportation landscape. Rationing strategic rubber and gasoline in WWII, the federal government entirely halted consumer automobile manufacturing, but encouraged a closely-managed bicycle industry under the “Victory Bike” program. For a brief moment, adult bicycling was patriotic and automobiles wasteful. Unintentionally, however, this program choked out American bicycle manufacturers, for a time limiting production to two firms and later none at all. Companies switched to other lines; some never returned. By the end of the war, Americans associated adult cycling with sacrifice and automobile ownership with freedom and mobility.
But it was the distinct postwar experience that really separated America from most of the rest of the world. In contrast to European devastation and austerity, the U.S. was poised for prosperity. Combined with inexpensive energy costs, pent-up consumer demand and nervousness about returning to recession, policymakers were ready to invest in a vast and sprawling automobile transportation network. While urban planners had previously imagined that the new interstate highways would stop at the edge of cities, through a complicated set of decisions they proceeded to build highways directly through downtowns, remaking not only the physical city but enabling suburbanites to choose to live far from work. At the same time that automobile transport was being subsidized, the federal tariff on imported bicycles was increased.
A second American bike boom eventually came amid the 1970s energy crisis. But the options available to policymakers were severely constrained by previous decisions to build an auto-centric city, a concept known as path dependency. Funding to retrofit cities for bikers and walkers was scarce through the 1970s, and bicyclists themselves lacked consensus. It was not until later decades that a trend to redesign a more-livable 21st century American city has emerged.
The good news here is that policy choice, and not unalterable culture, has shaped the singular American transportation landscape. Certainly, culture influences our actions. But choice and happenstance have brought us to this point. In the same way, our collective choices and an unpredictable future can re-shape the city to come.