How the Automobile Shaped America: The ’Burbs
Drive-in movie theater
Chevrolet ad from the 1950s
The first McDonald’s franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois
Map of the historic Lincoln Highway
No other innovation has so quickly altered as many aspects of modern society as the automobile. America is a car culture and you only need look to suburbia to see how integral the automobile is to life as we know it. In the first installment of our “How the Automobile Shaped America” series, we take a look at four ways the automobile shaped modern suburbs.
Everyone can point to small ways cars impact their lives on a personal level. Without a car, Americans would have fewer monthly bills to pay, but most would also have difficulty getting to the office on time. It’s interesting to consider whether all 300 million Americans would be here today without the invention that helped make the American Dream possible.
Roughly 50 percent of Americans live in suburban communities—that’s over 150 million people, according to the Census Bureau. For most of these individuals and families, the automobile is a necessity. From business to pleasure, here are four ways the automobile has shaped the landscape of everyday suburban life.
The Mobile Middle Class
In 1931, James Truslow Adams first defined the American Dream as a "life [made] better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement, regardless of social class or circumstances of birth."
Nowhere did Adams mention the motorcar as a necessity for making the dream possible. Nor did he mention single-family homes, refrigerators or televisions. But in the 1950s these things, along with washing machines and white picket fences, came to define the iconic image of a modern nuclear family that had realized Adams’ ideal.
This new, “mobile middle class” became the backbone of a contemporary and prosperous American culture that, 50 years later, is still the envy of the world. Yet none of it would have been possible without the automobiles that provided an essential link for working fathers (and later, mothers) commuting to and from well-paying jobs in the city.
Roads. Roads. Roads.
“In 1898, there were fewer than 30 working automobiles in the United States,” writes Bill Bryson in Made in America. “Within a little over a decade there were not just 700 cars in America, but 700 American car factories…despite the fact that there weren’t any good roads in the country to drive on.”
Until the 1950s, road building in America was a project plagued by fits and starts. The success of Henry Ford’s Model T had millions of Americans clamoring for the government to get involved in the business of making roads. Congress even passed the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, a program designed to assist state highway agencies in road improvement. But before the plan could get off the ground, the United States entered World War I and the initiative was delayed.
Road building became a priority after the war thanks to the passing of the Federal Highway Act of 1921. This provided funding to help state highway agencies construct a paved system of two-lane interstate highways, a project that continued, but on a smaller scale, through the Depression due to state and federally funded road projects designed to keep Americans working. But then World War II broke out and again the road building was put on hold.
It was only after President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that the interstate program we know today truly got under way. According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are now 2,734,102 miles of paved public roads (and 1,324,245 miles of unpaved public roads) in the United States.
By connecting cities to suburbs, goods to the marketplace and millions of people to jobs, this complex infrastructure has become the cornerstone of the American economy and, by default, our modern American culture.
The Commerce of the Countryside
Is there any job in the country that isn’t touched in some way by the automobile? Some 88 percent of Americans drive their cars to work. Many of these jobs—like the 1.7 million people who are employed by the auto industry (Center for Automotive Research) and the 9.2 million people are employed in jobs directly related to the oil and gas industry (American Petroleum Institute)—have a direct connection to cars.
For every other business the connection might be slightly less obvious, but it’s still undeniable. A study by the American Public Transportation Association has shown that the average one-car family in America spends more every year on transportation-related costs than they do on food.
Suburban streets are lined with businesses that would not exist (and may never have been conceived or created) if not for the automobile. Grocery store chains, fast food franchises, movie theatres, strip malls, gas stations, shopping centers: it might seem easier to try to come up with business that don’t rely on automobile traffic to bring customers or to move and sell goods and services. That is, until you try.
Art and Culture
Without cars there would never have been any drive-in restaurants. No road trips. No “happy days” parking at Inspiration Point or cruising with friends on a Friday night.
Thanks to the automobile, suburban entertainment was brought to a new level of importance in daily life during the 1950s. Some have even argued that rock ‘n’ roll started with a song about a car: Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88.” The automobile made the drive-in movie possible and it was a staple of Friday night entertainment for decades. From Rebel Without a Cause to Kerouac’s On The Road, cars are the narrative mover of countless screenplays and American literary classics.
Whether you believe American music, literature or film plays the most influential role in American art and popular culture, it’s hard to imagine what any of these would look like today were it not for the car.