Joseph Irrante

The Road to Autopia: The Automobile and the Spatial Transformation of American Culture

In the 1920s, Robert and Helen Lynch, in their classic study Middletown,, found that the automobile had become "an accepted essential of normal living." It had become the primary focal point of urban family life, and had made leisure activity a customary aspect of everyday experience. Indeed, the car had become so important to Middletown residents that many families expressed a willingness to go without food and shelter, to mortgage their homes and deplete their bank savings, rather than lose their cars. "We'd rather do without clothes than give up the car," a working-class mother of nine told the Lynchs. "I'll go without food before I'll see us give up the car," another wife said emphatically. Other observers found that rural families were similarly attached to their cars. When a farm woman was asked by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector during the 1920s why her family had purchased an automobile before equipping their home with indoor plumbing, she replied, "Why, you can t go to town in a bathtub!" For these urban and rural Americans alike, the car had become a basic social necessity. This essay will examine the nature of that need in the context of changes in urban and rural space during the first half of the twentieth century.

More generally, this essay offers an alternative perspective for understanding the history of Americans' "love affair" with the car. Previous scholarship on the automobile has examined our consumption (purchase and use) of cars in terms of the car itself and the effects of its use. Authors may disagree over the relative importance of air pollution and traffic congestion versus privacy, freedom of movement and "democratic" access to consumer goods like the car, but all authors discuss the automobile strictly in those terms. This kind of cost-benefit analysis (which to a great extent ends up trying to compare apples and oranges) avoids the basic question, why people use cars. In examining the social and historical basis for our use of automobiles, scholars generally choose one of two explanations. Some writers talk about the "intrinsic appeal" of car use, its flexible and individual form of movement, as if this appeal were something which could exist outside of history. Such accounts focus on the car in isolation from a social context. Other writers explain the origins of automobile consumption in terms of corporate manipulation of consumer needs. At its most simplistic level, this argument echoes Vance Packard's "hidden persuaders" thesis that automotive companies have abused the public trust through false advertising and government influence. More complicated versions attribute the success of corporate manipulation to people's social isolation and feelings of powerlessness. However, both versions assume that our need for cars is a "false" need created through the manipulation of consumer desire.

In contrast to these interpretations, this essay begins with the premise that our consumption of cars satisfies a real need for transportation a need as basic as food, clothing and shelter but argues that this need has changed as the social and spatial patterns of American culture have changed. In other words, it looks at the automobile as an historically specific form of transportation, one appropriate to a particular stage in capitalist development. It examines the automobile as simultaneously a cause and consequence of the rise of consumerism that is, the corporate development of new markets designed to provide new goods and services to an enlarged buying public. When the automobile first appeared as a mass-produced commodity after Henry Ford's introduction of the Model T in 1908, people bought automobiles because they met old transportation needs better than existing alternatives and offered new possibilities for movement. But use of the car also altered urban and rural life in important ways, some of which I shall describe in the following pages. These changes were part of a general reorganization of the physical and social urban and rural environments which changed people's needs for transportation. This reorganization had already acquired a distinctive geographic form hy 1933, when the Hoover Commission on Recent Social Trends christened it metropolitanism":

By reducing the scale of local distance, the motor vehicle extended the horizon of the community and introduced a territorial division of labor among local institutions and neighboring cities which is unique in the history of settlement. The large [urban] center has been able to extend the radius of its influence . . . Moreover, formerly independent towns and villages and also rural territory have become part of the enlarged city complex. This new type of supercommunity organized around a dominant focal point and comprising a multitude of differentiated centers of activity differs from the metropolitanism established by rail transportation in the complexity of its institutional division of labor and the mobility of its population. Its territorial scope is defined in terms of motor transportation and competition with other regions. Nor is this new type of metropolitan community confined to great cities. It has become the communal unit of local relations throughout the entire nation.

"Metropolitanism" became, in other words, the geographic configuration of a consumer society based upon car travel. Initially made possible by the automolbility of the car, metropolitan consumerism in turn made the automobile a transportation necessity. This essay will explore the growth of metropolitanism in pre-World War II America. In the history of these developments can he found the origins of our dependence upon automobiles.

Between 1900 and 1940, changes in the structure of business enterprise and the strategy of industrial and market relations drastically transformed economic life in general and the urban economy in particular. Business firms extended their existing lines of goods to a greater number of customers at home, sought new markets and sources of materials overseas, and created new markets hy developing new products for different kinds of customers. The expansion and diversification of markets occurred through the combination and consolidation of firms into single multi divisional corporations like E.I. DuPont, General Motors, and Sears, Roebuck and Company. These corporations were distinguished from older industrial firms by their integrated structures and coordinated functions. Decisions and information flowed through a hierarchy consisting of a general office, divisional offices, departmental headquarters, and field units. Changes in business structure, which were designed to plan effectively for long-term and short-term market exigencies and to insure an undisputed flow of production for those markets, substantially altered, in turn, the quality of industrial work experience. A new class of professional and managerial workers was distributed among the various strata of the corporation to transmit instructions and information and to supervise directly the work process. The work process itself was broken down into numerous separate tasks, and synchronized through technological innovations like the automated assembly line as well as through the "scientific management" of individual and group worker behavior. As the work process intensified, the length of the work day was shortened and wage rates increased. The reorganization of factory work served the double purpose of rationalizing and increasing production, and of investing workers with the financial capacity and the opportunity to consume the goods which they produced. Together, these changes what the Federal Trade Commission called in the early twentieth century the transition to a "maximum production economy" radically transformed people's everyday experiences. They especially altered life in cities, where most industry had been located at the turn of the century.

Paradoxically, as multi divisional corporations integrated industrial and business relations, the spatial organization of manufacturing became decentralized. Corporations began to establish factories outside major urban centers in "industrial satellite cities" like Garv, Hammond, and East Chicago outside Chicago; Lackawanna outside Buffalo; East St. Louis and Alton across the Mississippi River from St. Louis; and Chester and Norristown near Philadelphia. Industrial growth in these satellite cities occurred at a faster rate than central city manufacturing: between 1899 and 1909, employment in the outlying districts around cities grew by 97.7 percent, while central city employment increased only 40.8 percent. Thus, while urban industrial employment continued to increase in absolute terms, the proportion of factory employment located within these cities declined. Between 1920 and 1930, it fell from 46 to 35 percent in New York City, and from 65 to 54 percent in Detroit. Indeed, every city with a population of at least 100,000 experienced this proportional decline in industrial employment. The decline was part of the increasing diversification of business functions, a diversification which manifested itself in specialized use of urban space. For as manufacturing declined in central cities, the proportion of communications, finance, management, clerical and professional services located there increased. Reflecting this specialization, downtown office space in the ten largest cities increased by 3,000 percent between 1920 and 1930. Tall skyscrapers mushroomed over the urban landscape: by 1929, there were 295 buildings 21 stories or taller in the five largest cities alone. These skyscrapers housed the general and divisional offices of the new corporations, as well as the banks, law offices, and advertising agencies which served them. They replaced and displaced factories, small retail businesses, apartments, and tenements. Thus cities became financial and administrative centers at the same time that they lost their older manufacturing functions.

Many residents displaced by the reorganization of economic activity and urban real estate within the city moved to outlying districts. This "suburban" boom, which began after World War I, peaked during the 1920s, and slowed but did not disappear during the 1930s, was based upon car travel. It was not simply an accelerated version of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century streetcar movement into suburbs. Unrestricted by a need for access to mass transit facilities, real estate speculators located subdivisions everywhere around the central city. By 1922, 135,000 suburban homes in 60 cities were already wholly dependent upon cars for transportation. host of these suburbanites were wealthy families, but during the 1920s and 1930s the movement out of the central city expanded to include the middle class (who located in exclusively residential suburbs) and the working class (who located closer to work in industrial suburbs). These outlying districts together grew during the 1920s at a rate twice as fast as the cities around which they were located. Even though the rate of increase slowed during the depression years, it remained impressive when contrasted with the absolute decline of population in central cities during the same period. By 1940, 13 million people lived in communities beyond the reach of public transportation.

Moreover, the socio-economic relationship between suburbs and the central city changed. As downtown shopping districts were transformed into central government and corporate headquarters, small retail services which could not afford skyrocketing rents and were losing customers unwilling to face downtown traffic snarls relocated in the suburbs near their customers. (One Atlanta drugstore owner, forced out of business in 1926, lamented, "The place where trade is, is where automobiles go . . . A central location is no longer a good one for my sort of business.") Likewise, large department stores set up branch stores in these satellite communities. Mail-order firms like Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward turned into suburban chains. Banks also established branches in suburbs. Dentists and doctors opened offices near their clients' (and their own) homes. In short, many formerly centralized institutions and services were relocated outside cities. These outlying districts became the retail business centers of urban space especially in smaller cities which had never developed extensive trolley networks. Indeed, the Hoover Commission noted in 1933 that the old 'star' pattern of nineteenth century urban development (a star whose rays ran along streetcar tracks) had been transformed into a veritable "constellation" of interdependent centers within a single metropolitan region. And the National Resources Committee declared in 1937 that the whole east coast from New York to Philadelphia had become a single "conurbanized" band of metropolitan settlement.

The dispersion of manufacturing and residential settlement was based upon car travel. The importance of the automobile varied, it is true, with the size of the city and the availability of public transportation. But even in cities with elaborate mass transit systems, like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, observers in the 1920s and 1930s noted that car travel was necessary for much of the business and recreation which took place in and around them. Moreover, the car's importance increased as streetcar service declined through mismanagement, over extension of services, and competition from jitneys and buses. Indeed, planners in these cities were deliberately reshaping the central city landscape by the late 1920s and 1930s in order to facilitate commutation by car. In these large cities. cars accounted for 20 to 32 percent of the daily traffic into the central business district (CBD) by 1930. Cars became more important earlier in smaller cities like Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Washington, D. C. There car travel during the 1920s accounted for 50 to 66 percent of the daily commutation into the CBD. By 1930, 222 cities with at least 10,000 residents were entirely dependent on motor transportation.

Urban space was enlarged through automobile use. The further one lived from the city, the more advantageous car travel became A 1930 traffic control study of Kansas City illustrated the savings in time during the evening "rush hour " In the downtown area, trolleys rapidly moved ahead of streetcars. Two miles from the CBD it had gained a five-minute advantage; at 7 l/2 miles, it had gained 15 minutes. Along secondary trolley lines, on which service was less frequent, cars traversed the 7 miles with a 35 minute advantage over streetcars. The same advantages were documented in Detroit in 1930. In addition to this daily flow of traffic into the city, automobiles made possible crosscurrents of movement throughout the outlying district something streetcars could not do. In Los Angeles, this movement superseded commutation into the downtown area. The number of people entering downtown Los Angeles between 1923 and 1931 declined by 24 percent despite a population boom in the metropolitan area. But the most important point was that the reorganization of urban space made these crosscurrents of movement not only more possible but more necessary as well. Goods which families had purchased in old downtown shopping districts now had to be purchased at stores scattered throughout the suburbs. Many employees had to drive to decentralized workplaces, or from decentralized residences to the CBD. If the automobile first appeared as a convenience which permitted more frequent, faster, and more flexible transportation movement, metropolitanism gradually made that movement an inescapable feature of urban living.


As metropolitanism reoriented urban areas, it also reorganized rural space. But while the distinguishing characteristic of urban metropolitanism was decentralization, the principle transformation of rural space was a centralization of institutions and activity. Moreover, rural society was affected earlier and more deeply than urban society, in part because farmers bought Tin Lizzies sooner and in greater numbers than urban residents during the prewar period. In 1910, 0.17 percent of farm families owned 0. 50 percent of the 450,000 registered motor vehicles in the United States; by 1930, 53.1 percent of the rural population owned 50.3 percent of the nation's 23 million cars. The reorganization of rural space which widespread car ownership facilitated changed farmers' needs for transportation. Within the specific context of those changes, the automobile was transformed from a rural convenience into a rural necessity.

From the 1890s through the farm depression of the 1920s and field work, and the collapse of many mid-sized farms brought about a new rural economy. The recomposition of agricultural capital was reflected in the loss of 72,854 farms between 1910 and 1930. Simultaneously, the number of farms smaller than 100 acres and larger than 500 acres increased. The shift in size represented the increasing specialization of agricultural production. Grain producers moved further west on the Great Plains; citrus growing on the Pacific and Gulf coasts increased by one-third; dairy farming also increased by one-third; and the number of truck farms, located around and supplying produce to urban areas, doubled. Along with these changes in agricultural work, the farm population declined numerically and became more stratified. Farm tenancy grew. The proportion of farms operated by tenants had remained at about 38 percent between 1910 and 1925, but it rose dramatically by 1930 to 42.4 percent of all farms. And a growing number of tenant farmers were actually sharecroppers who possessed little capital and rented their machinery and, in some cases, livestock. Finally, during the 1920s farm labor changed from an all-male occupation organized around the social milieu of rail-riding and hobo camps to one comprised of poor families who used automobiles for travel.

At the same time, the spatial organization of society changed. Many families who lost their farms and did not sink into tenancy or migrant labor moved, not to cities, but to rural villages and towns. Between 1920 and 1930, these towns gained 3.6 million people while the farm population decreased by 1.2 million. Furthermore, farm villages changed in socio-economic operation. Small crossroads centers lost their general trade and service functions to neighboring towns; some disappeared, while others became specialized agricultural supply depots. Small towns located on highways developed facilities catering to tourist traffic. Many formerly localized institutions and services education, health care, postal service, general stores and other formerly urban institutions libraries, chain stores, gas stations were relocated in and around the larger rural villages. These larger villages became the centers of rural space.

Rural space was not so much enlarged with automobile use as it was reshaped into a centralized and hierarchical form. Studies of automobile travel support this conclusion. Although rural people could travel greater distances with cars, most trips occurred within a previously demarcated local area. Studies of rural villages in 28 states in 1924-1930 found that the socio-economic hinterland of two-thirds of them did not expand by as much as two square miles. And studies of car travel in five states between 1926 and 1928 found that one third to one-half of all automobile trips measured under 20 miles. This was the approximate distance of a horse and wagon, but cars took less time to traverse it. Automobile use encouraged not longer trips, but more frequent ones. Families that traveled to a nearby village only one or two times per year before the car, traveled every three or four weeks with one. They traveled during the week and in the evening as well as on Saturday. And they traveled throughout the area to several different towns, instead of merely to the village located nearest to them. Meanwhile, they were going less frequently to crossroads centers, which were themselves disappearing or losing their retail business functions.

As in the urban case, the most important point was that the reorganization of rural space gradually made this movement both more possible and more necessary. Goods which the family had purchased at a crossroads store or by mail order now had to be purchased in town. (Mail-order houses, it may be recalled, were turning into department chains.) This centralization of services in rural areas was part of metropolitan organization. Metropolitanism changed the structure of rural society so fundamentally that by the Depression a family without a car faced special difficulties in satisfying its transportation needs: it took longer to reach relocated services in village centers by horse and wagon; and barns, liveries, harness shops, and blacksmiths had dwindled as their owners converted them into auto dealerships, garages, gas stations, and parking lots. As a result of these and similar changes, the car became a rural necessity.


The geographic reorganization of urban and rural areas drew these regions into closer and more interdependent relationship with each other. This relationship was most evident in the cities and towns which lay in the outlying districts around urban centers. These towns attracted people from both central cities and the surrounding countryside. For example, a 1931 survey of 4,000 families that moved to Evanston, Illinois during the 192 Is found that 47 percent came from Chicago, while 46 percent had moved to Evanston from rural areas outside the immediate metropolitan region. Indeed, small towns like Chana, Illinois, were beginning to advertise themselves "as a wonderful home for someone who wants to live in a small town away from high taxes and still have the conveniences of the city." In addition, farm families that converted to truck farming were tied more closely into the urban market and urban culture. Many families held onto their farms during the Depression by taking advantage of the work opportunities in cities and satellite towns. A study of farm families living near Seattle, Washington, discovered that 25 percent of the members of those families worked in nonfarm occupations: men worked as carpenters, machinists, shipyard workers, railroad and highway laborers, salesmen and deliverymen; women worked as domestic servants, clerical workers, teachers, telephone operators, and nurses. All of these activities necessitated new patterns of commutation based upon use of a car.

This change in people's habits of movement was a change in daily routine. Many of the goods and services food, clothing, education, health care, entertainment which people bought in village centers or suburban retail centers had formerly been produced or performed by members of these families, especially by women. This shift from the direct production of goods to the purchase of them in metropolitan markets changed people's habits of consumption. These new habits were a central aspect of life in metropolitan America.

In the 1920s, metropolitanism began to change household activity and consumption habits by drawing women out of the household and into the marketplace. Robert and Helen Lynd observed in their study of Middletown (1929): "The great bulk of the things consumed by American families is no longer made in the home and the efforts of family members are focused instead on buying a living." Middletown families bought more canned and prepared goods as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, more pre-made sweets, more women's dresses and hosiery, more cleaning and beauty products, more "personal accessories," and new household appliances like radios and washing machines. Families also spent more money and time on recreation outside the home. Both urban and rural families consumed these goods and services. A 1930 study of bread consumption, for example, found that most families everywhere had shifted to store-bought goods: 66 percent of farm households, 75 percent of village homes, and 90 percent of urban households. These figures meant that most housewives were now traveling by car to a local baker or A&P to buy what they used to make in their own homes.

Use of the car did not lessen women's household work; rather it helped to change it into many consumer duties. Six studies of the uses of time by farm women during the 1920 concluded that in creased conveniences did not decrease their workday instead of making free time for reading or recreation, they generated more work, such as more laundry, more housekeeping, and although the studies did not list this more frequent car trips to town to purchase household goods. Similarly, a study of housework in residential suburbs in 1925 found that women who moved from city apartment houses with centralized heating, elevator, laundry, incinerator, and janitor service now had to take care of these things in a single-or two-family home with independent furnaces, stairways, and washing machines, as well as lawns outside which required constant care. For these women, the study concluded, "the residential suburbs represent the decentralization of consumption." And for rural and urban women alike, changes in consumption represented the other side of the geographic reorganization of the metropolitan landscape.

If the automobile did not lessen women's work, why did women and their families accept these changes so readily? The automobile originally offered new possibilities for movement. It especially liberated women from the home. The automobile was a private vehicle, and that characteristic made it safer and more acceptable than public streetcars or trains. Even the most genteel women began traveling alone, some wealthier women took cross-country trips together unescorted by male relatives. This "freedom," as many women described the experience of driving, was the positive side to the transformation of women's lives. An Ohio farm woman's day was described this way in 1919:

Half a dozen years ago when only a few had cars, a farmer bought a Ford, and his wife soon learned to run it. One morning she hurried through the morning's work, had the car brought to the house before the men went to work, and after the partly cooked dinner was stowed away in a box of hay in the cellar to finish cooking itself she got into the car at a little before 10 and drove 41 miles to her daughter's home; getting there just as the family were sitting down to lunch. The route led through Cleveland, and in mid-afternoon she took her daughter and child and they did some shopping at a great department store, where she could buy better and cheaper than at home. The daughter went home on a suburban car, and the mother reached home in time to put a late supper on the table.

In the days before the automobile, this woman would have been taken to the nearby railroad station, a distance of 3 l/2 miles, and back the same evening, which would have consumed at least 5 hours time in hitching up and driving. In Cleveland she would have had to transfer from the railroad to a suburban trolley. Automobile travel saved her time, as well as the time of the husband or son who would have driven her to the railroad depot. But, more significantly, the time "saved" would not have been "spent" in this way before the automobile. As the metropolitan market expanded to include commodities formerly produced at home, the necessity for finding them in village and town centers increased. When the farm woman told the USDA inspector that she couldn't go to town in a bathtub, she was describing the changes in her life which made shopping in town part of her work. And when Middletown women told the Lynchs that they would sacrifice food and clothing before they gave up the family car, they knew that giving up the car meant sacrifices in family consumption.


What began as a vehicle to freedom soon became a necessity. Car movement became the basic form of travel in metropolitan consumer society. However, there was nothing inevitable about metropolitan spatial organization or people's uses of cars upon that landscape. The car could have remained a convenience used for recreation and cross-movement outside areas serviced by railroads and trolleys, while people continued to use mass transit for daily commutation. Car travel could have remained an option offering certain distinct advantages; instead it became a prerequisite to survival. Moreover, this dependence upon automobiles was not the outcome of a corporate manipulation of consumer needs. Rather, it resulted from the reconstitution of transportation needs within the spatial context of metropolitan society a reorganization of the physical and social environment which the car facilitated hut did not require. Within this spatial context, automobile movement became the basic form of travel.

The Depression did not loosen the relationship between Americans and their cars. "If the word 'auto' was writ large across Middletown's life in 1925," the Lynchs wrote in Middletown In Transition(1937), "this was even more apparent in 1935, despite six years of Depression." People clung so tenaciously to their cars, the Lynchs observed, because car transportation had become a "must" close in importance to food, clothing, and shelter. Hence, "car ownership in Middletown was one of the most Depression-proof elements of the city's life in the years following 1929 far less vulnerable, apparently, than marriages, divorces, new babies, clothing, jewelry, and most other measurable things both large and small." Automotive statistics reflected this dependence on car travel. Although annual car sales declined 75 percent, from 4.5 to 1.1 million, between 1929 and 1932, car registrations decreased only 10 percent, from 23 to 20.7 million, during the same period. People stopped buying new cars, but they gave up car ownership entirely only under the gravest economic circumstances. Moreover, both sales and ownership began to rise sharply after 1933, while the country was still in the depths of the Depression. Annual automobile sales increased to 3.7 million by 1940, and car registrations rose to a new high figure of 29.6 million in 1941. This rapid growth beyond the levels of 1920s consumption reflected people's social needs for car transportation.

Yet if automobile ownership and use had become a basic need by the 1930s, the Lynchs also found that people experienced that need and valued car ownership in very different ways. The working class saw the automobile as "their great symbol of advancement . . . Car ownership stands to them for a large share of the 'American dream'; they cling to it as they cling to self-respect." The business class, in contrast, viewed the car as a luxury item which "it is more appropriate for well-to-do people to have . . . than for poor people." Indeed, the business class "regard it as a scandal that some people on relief still manage to operate their cars." These different attitudes reflected a structural dynamic in modern capitalist society. For if the mass production of goods had democratized consumption by enlarging the potential market for goods like cars and making ownership contingent solely on the ability to pay, it did not equalize consumption. A range of social and economic considerations for example, the proportion of family income which could be spent on a car shaped people's identities as consumers and their uses of cars. In other words, inequality continued to affect the ability to consume even though the opportunity to consume became more widespread. The Hoover Commission in 1933 pointed to this inequality and even a growing rigidity in the American social structure. "The increasing fluidity of the metropolitan community seems to tend toward a local leveling of culture," it wrote, "but at the same time it seems to encourage a system of social stratification.

As both the Hoover Commission and the Lynchs noted, these variations in consumption were social rather than individual differences. Take, for example, the experience of suburban residence. Although movement to outlying districts involved both middle-class and working-class urban residents, as well as some rural inhabitants, suburbanization was a differentiated movement. Working-class suburbs and rural villages remained centers of work as well as residence, while middle-class suburbs were strictly residential areas. Indeed, this difference was protected through the use of housing covenants and zoning restrictions on land use, as well as through less formal factors such as the need for workers to remain within commuting distance of their scattered workplaces. In concrete terms, the difference was manifested in the kinds and quality of institutions located within the particular suburb: the presence or absence of noisy and sooty factories, the proportion of single- versus multi-family dwellings, the location of a highway next to or even through a working-class community, and even the kinds of schools available for children. These institutions shaped the experience of everyday life in suburbs the relation between work and leisure, the character of domestic life and the kinds of household goods purchased by a family, the senses of privacy and autonomy one felt in one's life, and the opportunities for and definition of personal achievement. In short, the degree to which suburban and village residents were able to exert over their social environments infused these residents' attitudes toward their cars. It was the promise of such autonomy which lay behind the Middletown working-class association between car ownership and the "American dream." It also lay behind the Middletown business class's concern that widespread car ownership threatened their privileged status within the community.

The experience of suburbanites and village residents differed from that of farm families. Suburbanites used cars for work and consumption. For farmers, the car was more strictly a means of consumption. Car use encouraged a new and unique separation between field work and "domestic" family life. Before the car, farm families had to allocate carefully their use of horses; a two to twelve hour trip into town would exhaust the animal which had to be used for field work the following day. The automobile made such allocation unnecessary by providing a separate vehicle for trips into town, and thus relegated the horse to the field (where it was eventually replaced by the gasoline tractor). Cars thus increased farm families' opportunities for leisure. Yet it was this very separation between farm work and family/recreational activity which distinguished farmers from suburbanites who used their cars to commute to work. And this distinction was grounded in a different relation between work and leisure: farmers lived on their farms/workplaces, while suburbanites traveled from their homes to their offices and factories. These differences affected the experience of automobile use: the distance to he traveled, the purposes behind travel, and the experience of the trip itself.

Of course, the significance of this separation varied for farm owners, tenants and sharecroppers. The difference was not necessarily one of car ownership itself. As many tenants as farmers owned cars: for example, 89 percent of the tenants and 93 percent of the farmers in Iowa in 1926 had automobiles. More important than ownership per se was their use of the car. Economic status affected these different households' consumption of ready-made goods, their use of recreational facilities like movie houses, and their participation in social activities like the Grange, women's clubs, and state fairs. Family activities outside the farm were also affected by the size of the village center and the kinds of services which it offered to the surrounding community. These factors affected farm households' reliance upon and uses of cars, and thus the degree to which they viewed it as another farm machine or as a pleasure vehicle.

Despite these variations, farm owners and tenants all used the automobile to commute from their farms to town. This relation distinguished them from the migrant labor family. A migrant family's car was not only a means of consumption, it was also the necessary basis for the migrant household's survival as a unit. As migrant labor reorganized around automobile movement, it became necessary to use a car to find work and reach that work as a family unit. The automobile thus dominated the lives of migrant families in a unique and deliberate way. As John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), "the highway became their home and movement their form of expression." Reflecting that relationship, Steinbeck had the Joads always feed the car before they fed themselves.

In both urban and rural areas, then, automobile use was shaped by social and economic considerations which lay behind class status: control over income level, workplace location, work hours, job tenure, choice of residence, consumption of household goods, and participation in leisure activities. (And it should be noted, although there is not room here to examine the differences, that these considerations were also affected by race, sex, and age.) These differences characterized people's different needs for transportation within metropolitan society. They remained in the forefront of automobile use because the automobile was a private vehicle which people fit into the fabric of their day to day lives. Thus, if the automobile promoted the reorganization of American space, it lid not homogenize the experience of automobile ownership and use within that space.


As we begin to reconsider our relationship to automobiles, it is important that our development of public policy be informed by an awareness of how social inequality has shaped our needs f`or and uses of automobile transportation. Contemporary scholarship on the automobile focuses exclusively and abstractly on "the car." There is a dangerous tendency in this scholarship to believe that the problems "caused try" the automobile will disappear with the automobile. The tendency is not "wrong" in any technical sense who would deny the car's destructive impact on landscape and ecology? But it nonetheless constricts our attention to a few issues which, although they may be momentarily palliated, will not resolve the larger issue of social inequality which shapes our uses of all forms of transportation. Solutions guided by a tendency which ignores the fact of inequality will inevitably place the greatest burdens of adjustment on those least able to carry them. In considering solutions to the current automobile and gasoline crisis, our goal should be not only an environment freed from dependence upon cars itself a revolutionary undertaking but also a society which is more just and more human for all of us.

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