We Americans love our cars. So there’s no surprise that rising gas prices are causing customer anxiety.
But gasoline prices have always been volatile, subject to decisions of oil cartels and a laundry list of causes, from government regulations to corporate greed, taxes, the distribution system, marketing, the cost of refining, and crude oil prices which are determined by global bidding.
Emotional protests over gas prices can have political ramifications (recall Jimmy Carter and the oil shortage of the 1970s). While presidents may catch the blame for the cost at the pump, they have very little to do with it, and historically, fossil fuel companies have avoided sustained high gas prices that might actually change driver behavior.
So why do gas prices elicit strong emotions when price spikes in other commodities do not? It’s because we live in a car culture. In the social sciences, “culture” refers to acquired ways of thinking, feeling and acting in a society. Cultures work like blueprints and tool kits that their members explicitly or tacitly use in their everyday lives.
Cultures evolve, and can be manipulated by political and economic interests. We are a society built around private modes of transportation, with massive public investment in the infrastructure that allows those private uses.
It is important to realize that our car culture was invented and sustained by car-related industries.
Car culture had a rough start. People liked their streetcars and before that, their horse-drawn vehicles. In the 1900s, cars were dirty, noisy and dangerous. They were initially the toys of European elites and not very practical, given the absence of roads and traffic systems.
How did Americans come to love cars, and take for granted that cars are necessary to fully participate in everyday life? It’s a fascinating story of conflict and even
subterfuge (see Chris Wells”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/apr/03/car-culture/”Car Country: An Environmental History,” which argues that the U.S. is a nation dominated by landscapes that are difficult, inconvenient, and often even unsafe to navigate by those who are not sitting behind the wheel of a car).
Here are selected examples of car industries’ efforts to create and shape car culture. Many such efforts have been hidden or just forgotten.
Henry Ford first saw the potential for a mass market for cars. His vehicles were cheap, tough, and able to handle the rough farm-to-market roads that crisscrossed rural America. By 1920, Ford products accounted for slightly over half of all cars produced, and his products were the only ones that continued to increase sales during the Great Depression.
He sponsored all kinds of public displays of how rugged his cars were. And he used his cars to promote his political and antisemitic views. Ford became more than an automobile maker. He encouraged and created the conditions for the rise of car culture.
Whether the “great streetcar conspiracy” was conspiracy or a business model that took advantage of existing trends may be debated. Whatever it was, it deliberately contributed to the decline and outright destruction of the elaborate streetcar system that existed in many cities.
Between 1936 and 1950, a company known as the National City Lines, financed by Standard Oil, Firestone, and General Motors, bought and intentionally destroyed the streetcar systems of cities all over America. They substituted buses for the trolleys (watch the documentary “Taken for a Ride: The U.S. History of the Assault on Public Transport in the Last Century” on YouTube).
An hour-long 1961 TV special funded by DuPont (at the time, a 23 percent owner of General Motors) titled “Merrily We Roll Along:: The Early Days of the Automobile” depicted the history of American motoring. Groucho Marx, the film’s narrator, referred to the public’s “love affair” with cars. The phrase became part of how we think about our cars, and we have forgotten it was invented.
Another example of efforts to change the ways people think about cars and their impact on our lives is the term “jaywalker.” In the 1920s, cars were killing pedestrians on America’s crowded public streets, and people protested. They saw the car, often driven by the rich while many victims were poor, as the culprit.
In response, the automotive industry put on displays such as the one in the streets of New York where a Model T gently but repeatedly rammed a clown named Mr. Jay (a midwestern term for a bumpkin).
Soon the term was widely used by auto club members and in the newspapers. Using the term helped shift responsibility for safety on the street from the driver to the pedestrian, the jaywalker (see “The Car Culture That’s Helping Destroy the Planet Was By No Means Inevitable” by Jeff Sparrow on Literary Hub’s website lithub.com).
Perhaps the most significant political act that invigorated car culture was the passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The nation had mobilized for World War II primarily on the existing railroad system which, after the war, needed a massive infusion of money to repair and modernize.
The U.S. government offered financial aid to Europe and made modernizing railroads a priority. But in America the story was different. It was obvious to the automotive industry that cars without safe and convenient roads on which to operate had a limited customer base.
Equally obvious was that the cost of a vast system of highways was beyond the fiscal capacity of private industry and investment. A bitter conflict between automobile mobility and other kinds of mobility ensued: The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was passed, and cars won.
Rebuilding the great American rail system would have undercut car culture. Today, our railroad system is a faint shadow of its former grandeur. We can only imagine how different our cities would be if they had grown around railroads instead of paved roads.
Even before WWII, General Motors had revealed to the world its vision in a popular display called Futurama at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Visitors to that fair were treated to a spectacular array of moving parts showing a model of the future. Ribbons of multiple-lane highways crisscrossed open landscapes and converged on towns and cities, portending congestion-free and safe automobile travel from village to city and within towns and cities all over our country.
After a delay caused by WWII, car industries got a messy version of their dream with the passage of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, authorizing construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
A contemporary example of the extremes to which the automotive industry goes to maintain car culture is the development of autonomous vehicles. According to their billing, driverless cars should enhance safety and usher in a new era of automotive freedom.
David Zipper, in a recent article in this newspaper, pointed out shortfalls of the technology, and questioned if we really need the autonomous car. He points to the exaggerated claims and persistent technology problems.
But there is another reason that car companies are interested in the autonomous car. These vehicles promise a solution to the problem troubling to the future of car culture: peak traffic. That is the point at which traffic becomes so congested and unpleasant to deal with that people stop driving and seek other means of mobility.
Autonomous vehicles solve peak traffic by grouping cars into bundles or packs to move at the same speed while offering “offloading options.” The need for building ever more highways would decrease because current infrastructure would become more efficient.
Ironically, these packs of single cars would be “virtual buses,” a new kind of public transportation that would eliminate congestion, reduce accidents and keep car culture alive.
With autonomous cars, we would still have our cars and be able to go anywhere and any time, but within a quasi-public infrastructure. Otherwise, peak traffic could
only be avoided by having fewer cars on the roads. Building more roads is not a long-term solution, given the costs and inefficiency of conventional highways to accommodate an ever-increasing number of vehicles.
Car culture has spread over the world, but its spiritual home is America. We accept traffic fatalities (42,060 in 2020), depreciation of investments in cars, hidden gas taxes, insurance, licenses, tags, personal property tax, maintenance, tires, and other less obvious costs such as deadly air pollution and the climate-damaging paving of green spaces associated with car ownership as “the way things are.”
Things did not have to be this way, but as long as car culture defines our preferred mobility, high gas prices will symbolize its demise. Political will is needed to change our system of transportation to a more public form.
Changing our transportation system so that we might take a train, bus, van, or driverless taxi would be cheaper, cleaner, and safer than living in our car culture. Yet to be discussed are the environmental impacts that life under car culture has caused.
Jeff Nash is a retired sociologist living in Fayetteville.