were accessible to just a few. Only the wealthy, and
some whose jobs depended on travel, frequented
passenger trains, dined regularly in restaurants,
or regularly wore fine clothes.
For many urban dwellers, life was harsh: living
in high-density tenements, walking to factory
jobs that demanded long hours and offered low
pay. Life in rural areas was, in many ways, even
worse. While a larger share of families owned
their own homes, they were rarely able to leave
their farms. Life for women in particular was
The mass-produced automobile changed
everything. The moving assembly lines that Henry
Ford developed to build his Model Ts increased
worker incomes and made mobility affordable to
the average family. The use of trucks for shipping,
especially when aided by intermodal containers,
greatly reduced consumer costs.
Some of the benefits that are largely or entirely
due to the automobile include:
• In 1900, the average American traveled less
than 3,000 miles per year, mainly on foot,
and many lived and died without ever journeying
more than fifty miles from home. Today the average American travels close to 20,000
miles per year, mostly in automobiles, and thinks nothing of taking trips of several
• In 1900, homeownership was affordable only to the wealthy, rural landowners, and
whitecollar workers. The automobile made homeownership affordable to working-class
families and led to a nearly 50-percent increase in
homeownershi p rates;
• In 1900, food and shelter alone consumed more than half of an average family’s
personal income. Today the average family eats much better and lives in a much nicer
home, yet food and shelter consume only a quarter
of its income, leaving more for recreation, education, and other things;
• In 1900, many women and most blacks were trapped in oppressive social systems.
The automobile offered escape, enabling the civil rights and womens liberation movements;
• In 1900, the average grocery store stocked fewer than 300 items on its shelves.
Today, the variety of foods and other consumer goods has increased by 100 times or
more— and quality has increased as well;
• In 1900, only upper-class families could afford
to take an annual vacation—most employees worked six days a week, fifty-two weeks
a year. The automobile (and the moving assembly line that made mass production possible)
reduced the work week and made annual vacations the norm;
• In 1900 outdoor sports such as skiing, backpacking, and river running were either
accessible only to the very wealthy or did not exist
at all. Today millions of people engage in innumerable outdoor sports each year,
which are only accessible by auto.
Railroads, bicycles, streetcars, and subways
have all played a role in American transportation.
But no other form of transportation has produced
such huge benefits at such a low cost as the automobile. Despite these benefits,
argue that we should rely less on autos and more
on other forms of transport. They support government policies, funding, and rules
alternatives to the auto and hindering driving.
It is wrong to imagine that America can limit
automobility without reducing incomes and the other benefits automobiles have produced.
Regions that try to discourage auto driving or that divert highway user fees to expensive
transit schemes are only hurting their residents, especially low-income families
for whom the automobile offers an escape from poverty. The nation should instead
recognize that the automobile is the greatest invention in its history and create
systems giving people the freedom to choose how they travel while insuring that they
pay the full costs of their transport choices.
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