Delving into the history of America’s car culture reveals its inception among an influential group of stakeholders—and suggests a possible future where transit, pedestrians, and cyclists take precedence over auto-centric climate solutions.
Electric vehicles dominate the conversation about decarbonizing ground transport in the United States, writes Yale Climate Connections (YCC), but that emphasis stems from an assumption that “driving is the only realistic form of transportation in most of the U.S. and that Americans, with their innate love of car culture, wouldn’t have it any other way.”
But recent study conducted by researchers at Swansea University in Wales reveals that Americans could well have a “car-bias.” Their peers in Wales certainly do.
Testing to see whether people in car-heavy countries like the United Kingdom “tend to habitually overlook the negative effects of auto-centric transportation,” explains YCC, Swansea University environmental psychologist Ian Walker and his team developed five statements about driving behaviour and risk, and then created a parallel set of statements in which a few words were changed to take cars out of the picture.
For example, ‘There is no point expecting people to drive less, so society just needs to accept any negative consequences it causes,’ became: ‘There is no point expecting people to drink alcohol less, so society just needs to accept any negative consequences it causes.’
The Swansea team presented 1,053 randomly-selected individuals with the car-based statements, while 1,104 got the non-car versions, to rank their level of agreement.
In what the researchers went on to define as “motonormativity,” the survey showed a strong inclination to overlook the harms caused by cars. For instance, only 4% of respondents strongly agreed that “people shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe the car fumes”. But 48% strongly agreed with its non-automotive analog, “people shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where people have to breathe the cigarette fumes.”
Government policies that prioritize EVs continue to reinforce motonormativity as “a shared, automatic assumption that travel is fundamentally a motor activity and must remain that way,” Walker told YCC.
But the natural primacy of the motor vehicle is by no means as natural as expected. Peter Norton, an associate professor of history in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, challenged that notion in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (2008).
The actual history, Norton wrote, is that the dawn of car culture was the scene of heated battles between those who wanted to keep the streets of 1920s America safe for walkers, cyclists, and children at play, and people like Edward Mehren, the editor of a contemporary engineering magazine who also happened to be president of the Portland Cement Association—which benefited from the rapid growth of paved roads for driving. Mehren envisioned a “radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for,” as he wrote in an editorial for his magazine. Faced with rising numbers of pedestrian fatalities in American cities as cars became more common, Mehren wrote that the only remedy was to ensure that cars secured absolute dominion in the street.
“For Norton, Mehren’s Engineering News-Record editorial was an important piece of evidence that the car-centric transportation system now found throughout the U.S. can be traced in part to a deliberate revolution led by a relatively small group of people with a personal stake in the automotive sector,” writes YCC. “Before long, this vision had become a reality in much of the nation.”
And car culture was “largely forced on an unwilling public by car dealers, manufacturers, automotive clubs, and others who banded together to promote automobile use, calling themselves ‘motordom’,” YCC adds.
Mehren himself would die in a traffic accident in 1963 at the age of 81. But efforts to shore up “motordom” continue full-throttle, the news story states, despite overwhelming evidence that cars have a pervasive impact—from being at the epicentre of “an epidemic of physical inactivity,” as Walker and his team put it, to the fact that road crashes remain the leading global cause of death for people aged five to 29.
And yet, motonormativity continues to be vigorously reinforced. “Everything from the street designs to the legal system to media reporting to film and television—all of those things push in the same direction of saying that motoring comes first and the harms of motoring are not important,” Walker says.
That still leaves the mystery of why cars remain so popular when driving is often so unpleasant—and so self-evidently harmful to the environment.
“Accepting the premise that virtually all adults need two-tonne private vehicles to accompany them everywhere they go necessarily implies devoting a vast amount of space exclusively to driving and parking, leading to sprawling, inhospitable concrete landscapes,” writes YCC.
As long as too many people still believe that they have no choice but to drive, Norton said, providing more transport choices and raising awareness about those modes will be key to returning the streets to the people.