In my review of Tom McCarthy’s Auto Mania (Cars and the Environment pt. 1), we explored the unprecedented environmental harm resulting from the mass production and use of motor vehicles. Whereas McCarthy argues that consumer decision-making drove the automobile to its apex in modern American life, our next author, Christopher Wells, places those consumer decisions in the context of local and national government policies that created a physical environment that virtually required car ownership for full membership in society.
Wells’s book, Car Country: An Environmental History (University of Washington Press, 2012) provides a context for those consumer decisions. If, after all, one is dependent on the automobile because of an infrastructure designed primarily for automobility, how free are those consumer decisions? And how did this infrastructure come to be so dominant? Wells sets his interpretation apart from what he calls the “love affair thesis” (i.e., that America’s love affair with cars is the primary explanation for our car-dominant society) and what he calls the “conspiracy thesis” (i.e., that automobile dominance occurred as a result of a cabal of automobile manufacturers and oil companies removing streetcars and weakening public transportation).
Wells argues that we must look at the broader patterns of land use and development that shape people’s transportation needs and choices. Put bluntly, when developers and government agencies design a landscape to be accessed primarily by automobiles, they create a “car country” that virtually requires automobile ownership. If, on the other hand, a society designs mixed-use landscapes that are conveniently accessible by walking, bicycling, and transit, people will find it easier to get along without a car. He contrasts his own experience growing up in car-centric suburban Atlanta, where he was dependent on a car, and where he cherished his beloved Toyota pickup with his later experience living in Switzerland, where he found it easy (and inexpensive) to get around without a car and where, he notes, “I never really missed having a car.” When he returned to the US, he tried cycling for transportation but it “felt dangerous” once he got beyond the confines of his own neighborhood where “a crush of traffic had enveloped the city in the 1980s.” He concluded from his own experience that “How I felt about cars had little bearing on whether or not I needed one.” Thus, he seeks to understand how people’s need for a car influenced how they felt about cars, and he provides a social and environmental context for Americans’ widespread use of the car by the end of the 20th century. Wells makes a persuasive case that land-use patterns, not attitudes (i.e., the “love affair”) are the strongest determinant of a transportation system’s success, whether it is transit-based or car-based. (pp. xx-xxv) Critics of the car have tended, he says,
to focus on cars rather than roads and on the behavior of drivers rather than the powerful forces shaping American land-use patterns. (xxxiv)
Wells is at his best getting us to “think about landscapes,” and the impact they have on people’s decisions about driving. He contrasts older “streetcar neighborhoods” of the pre-automobile era that were organized around streetcar routes with walkable distances between housing, shopping, and other neighborhood destinations, and the post-WWII “exit ramp neighborhoods” zoned as single-use, geographically separated areas designed to be conveniently accessed only by automobile. The process did not happen by itself, but was facilitated and accelerated by government policies that drove highway design and funding while neglecting public transit and FHA loan guidelines that favored suburban housing and retail developments zoned for single-use. Meanwhile older, mixed-use streetcar neighborhoods were frequently neglected or destroyed by freeway construction and “urban renewal.” Wells shows that the postwar drive to the suburbs was indeed a “choice,” but it was a choice that was virtually the only rational one for many people, given the fact that its immense costs were effectively socialized by federal, state, and local policies. Once the process began, it locked in the auto-centered lifestyle, leaving people few convenient alternatives to the car.
Wells reiterates the tremendously destructive environmental impact of the automobile highlighted by Tom McCarthy, underscoring the imperative to change the policies that lead to car-dependence for millions. He also highlights the immense challenge this will pose, for the costs of car-dependence are often invisible on an individual level:
Both smog and climate change illustrate a persistent theme in environmental politics: problems that seem negligible or unimportant on an individual scale can, once aggregated, have national or even global environmental implications. Because the problems do not become clear until after large numbers of people are involved, the damaging behaviors have often accrued both widespread social acceptance and economic importance. Moreover, the causal linkage between seemingly harmless behaviors … and environmental problems … frequently requires elaborate scientific explanation. This creates opportunities for entrenched interests to challenge the science … which often take time and study to disprove. As a result, “attack, delay, and ask for more research” has proven a fruitful strategy for those hoping to avoid new environmental regulations. Moreover, because such problems frequently necessitate sweeping changes in established behaviors, effective regulations are frequently intrusive and perceived as onerous. (p. 351)
Applied to the effort to move people away from auto-dependence, this theme suggests a daunting challenge lies ahead for those of us who seek to build a new infrastructure around alternatives to the automobile. Nevertheless, Wells’s study proves that Americans are not hard-wired to love cars, and that creating more compact, mixed-use developments in cities and even suburbs around good transit and safe streets for bicycling and walking can wean Americans from their environmentally destructive and unhealthy auto habit. It also suggests that for many people changing attitudes are likely to follow, rather than precede, a change in our infrastructure.