"Our Love Affair with the Automobile"

"Our Love Affair with the Automobile"
Groucho Marx, trying to convince Americans they've always been in love with exhaust pipes and tailfins.

/ A Brief History of a Dysfunctional Relationship

When I was writing Straphanger, I had a conversation with a New York Times editor who expressed her skepticism that anyone would be interested in a book about trains, bicycles, and transit. "You're never going to get Americans out of their cars," was the way she summed it up. The idea being: Stop dreaming, buddy—nobody's buying what you've got to sell.

I shrugged and soldiered on, and eventually finished the book (which, now that I think about it, was published by Times Books in the US). But I sometimes think about that editor's fatalistic assessment of car culture in her country. It blurs in my mind with the old saw about "America's Love Affair with the Automobile," which is often stretched to include Canada. The United States is the most extravagantly "motorized" large nation in the world, with 908 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants; but at 790 per 1,000, Canada isn't far behind; if you exclude microstates like Andorra and Monaco, we're third in motorization, behind the US and New Zealand. And of course, a goodly chunk of North American automobile production happens in Ontario. As does oil production, coming from the Alberta tarsands. Climate (it gets cold here), geography (distances are big here), and culture (we're right next to the USA here) seem to conspire to create an inevitable "North American Love Affair with the Automobile."

And, it's well known that there's no arguing with love—it's crazy, irrational, maybe a little bad-for-us, but what are we going to do, we're head-over-heels in looooove!

This is where a little solid scholarship comes in. Peter D. Norton, a history professor in the department of science, technology, and society at the University of Virginia, asked himself where the "American-Love-Affair" phrase came from. It was absent from newspaper and magazine databases in the 1950s, but appeared, over and over again, starting in 1961. He discovered this was the year that "Merrily We Roll Along," a "telementary" about the history of cars in the US, aired on network television. It was extravagantly promoted in print media, inevitably with the slogan "America's Love Affair with the Automobile."

You can find it online here, and I guess there are worse ways to kill 26 minutes. It's hosted by a cigar-puffing Groucho Marx, occasionally behind the wheel of a convertible, who injects a series of sardonic wisecracks into a potted history of Model Ts, flivvers, and freeways. Groucho acknowledges that, in America's romance with cars, the honeymoon period ended long ago—he dates the end to 1929, which allows him to make a crack about the Stock Market Crash. There are lots of cringey, misogynistic jokes, mostly about staying in a bad marriage for the sake of appearances, and hell, because that's just the way things are. (The older I get, the more I find sarcasm the rhetorical default of people who have given up all hope of change for the better. I employed it a lot in my twenties, at a time I was feeling pretty hopeless about my future. Well-done sarcasm can be hilarious, but I now see it primarily as a symptom of powerlessness and despair.)

As Norton explains in this episode of The War on Cars podcast, "Merrily We Roll Along" was basically an infomercial, produced by DuPont, which had a 23 percent share of General Motors. At the time, there was a wave of resistance to freeway-building, which was taking out historic neighborhoods, usually occupied by African-Americans and other people of color, in cities across North America. What viewers were meant to take away was: "Sure, there are bad sides to cars, but they're triumph was inevitable, and we'd all be a lot happier if we just got used to them." Anybody who was standing in the way of cars, and the freeways that conveyed them, was standing in the way of love. And wasn't there something un-American in being anti-love?

A powerful corrective to the glib, folksy non-history pushed by Dupont, General Motors, and Groucho is Professor Norton's book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Norton went deep into the archives, digging up back issues of magazines, newspapers, and engineering journals, to document the real story. It was not a love affair, but an invasion, and even a rout.

The car’s arrival in cities across America was hotly contested, and with good reason: it turned public streets into killing fields. In one year alone, 1925, seven thousand children were killed by cars and trucks. (At the time, the population was 115 million, vs. 331 million today.) Reckless drivers were attacked by mobs in Philadelphia and “death drivers” were denounced in major city newspapers. In a Milwaukee parade, a streetcar pulled a flatbed trailer displaying a wrecked car driven by a likeness of Satan; in St. Louis, flowers were scattered from an airship over a monument that bore the names of 32 child victims of automobiles.

In a sustained and concerted effort, car manufacturers, auto clubs, and traffic engineers—a cabal of interests Norton calls "motordom"—banded together to usurp citizens’ ancient supremacy of the street, successfully confining pedestrians, now recast as “jaywalkers,” to corner crosswalks and turning roadways once shared by stickball players, bicycle riders and street vendors into motor thoroughfares and parking lots for private vehicles. (A "jay" was a term of abuse for a rural type, a bumbling hick, who didn't know the ways of the city.) Motordom also led a slow war of attrition that all but banished cheap, electric-powered streetcars from the American streetscape.

Look out your window: if you live in a city, you'll see that acres of what was once the public realm have been given over to cars. The curb is used for parking, which, when you think about it, is the warehousing of private goods—often for free, or whatever a decal happens to cost—on public space. Before the 1920s, you would have seen children playing in those streets. ("Playgrounds," basically vacant lots with seesaws and climbing apparatus, had to be invented when cars forced kids off the streets.) Depending on where you were, you may have seen bicyclists, streetcars, horses, and neighbors pausing in the middle of the street to chat. Now all that space is the domain of "motordom."

That's why, whenever somebody talks about a culture's "love affair with the automobile," I roll my eyes and give in to my unhealthy penchant for sarcasm. Because when you have no choice in the matter, the relationship has nothing to do with romance. There's another verb to describe what actually happened to the cities of North America—and it's definitely not "love."

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