Last modified on 26 November 2014, at 19:34

Lentis/American Automobility and the Car Counter-Culture


Simply put, Automobility is, "the use of automobiles as the main form of transportation." [1] However, when considering the major systems and industries, the vast amount of resources, and the social paradigms that allow and perpetuate automobiles' dominance as a form of transportation it is clear that Automobility is much more. Automoblity, as a paradigm, is the expectancy of widespread access to inexpensive mobility and the freedom that follows. As a technical system, it is a complex of resource-intensive industries that support and rely on automobile use. Above all, it is a system of wide-ranging proportions which has commensurate social and technical implications. Herein, the term "Automobility" refers to this socio-technical system.

Components of AutomobilityEdit

Socio-Technical EpidemicsEdit

Before further discussing the phenomena of Automobilty, it is important to describe an advantageous way of viewing this system. In his book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference[2], Malcolm Gladwell conceptualizes the principles of Social Epidemics through which ideas are contagious and become a part of culture. He lays down three rules through which to understand the small variations that can bring about drastic change (an epidemic's tipping point).

Gladwell's rules

  1. The Law of the Few: Gladwell describes this as an extreme version of the 80-20 rule in which a small number of people effect a great amount of change in the perception of their peers. He identifies 3 types of people: Mavens who inform, Salesmen who persuade, and Connectors who do just that.
  2. The Stickiness Factor: Gladwell describes this as a change in the delivery or life span of an epidemic agent that makes it "stickier".
  3. The Power of Context: Gladwell describes this as the environment in which an epidemic agent exists, he emphasizes subtle and unexpected factors that have huge effects, but this could be anything outside of the epidemic agent.

Gladwell's principles do not apply directly to the technical portion of socio-technical systems. Indeed, the idea of small technical changes seems paradoxical as they often require very much research, development, or resources. Nevertheless, the three laws above hold insightful lessons for understanding both social and technical factors that can result in an epidemic. In this framework "epidemic agent" refers to a technology (automobiles) or ideas about the technology (automobiles are good).


  1. Changing public perception of an epidemic agent requires a) informing people about it b) convincing people of its value to them and c) connecting people to the sources that achieve a) and b). This could be facilitated by individuals or organizations (research institutions, mass media, etc.). Conceivably, a working example of the technology could also inform, convince, and connect.
  2. Characteristics of the epidemic agent itself (safety improvements) or its delivery (increased availability) can effect its stickiness: Persistence of an epidemic agent can be altered through endogenous means.
  3. Environment can foster (access to resources) or hinder (taxes) growth of an epidemic: Persistence of an epidemic agent can be altered through exogenous means

Consider a brief history through this lens of Socio-technical Epidemics.

Historical Case Study: Automobility as a Socio-Technical EpidemicEdit

The first self-propelled vehicle has been attributed to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot who, in 1769 proved the feasibility (and perhaps impracticality) of a steam-powered vehicle. [3][4] With the advent of electricity and batteries in the 19th century, self-powered vehicles became more practical.[5] Karl Benz began production of gasoline-powered automobiles in Germany in 1888[6] and soon after Charles and Frank Duryea (Charles and Frank Duryea brothers) became the first U.S. gasoline-powered automobile manufacturers by founding Duryea Motor Wagon Company. [7] In the year 1900, 1,681 steam-, 1,575 electric-, and 936 gasoline-powered automobiles were produced. [8]

Ford Model T

American manufacturer, Oldsmobile, began mass-producing gasoline-powered cars in 1901 by implementing a stationary assembly line attributed to Ransome Eli Olds.[9] On December 1, 1913, Henry Ford refined Olds' manufacturing process, complete with his signature moving assembly line, which reduced the time to build a car from 12 hours to ninety-three minutes.[10][11] Ford used this new manufacturing methodology to produce the gas-powered Model T which became the first car marketed to the middle class. As Ford wrote, “[The Model T] will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces." [12] This automobile's low cost, and other factors such as discovery of crude oil in Texas[13][14], led to the decline, and effective disappearance, of alternately-powered automobiles.[15]

By the mid-1920's, consumers were less enthralled by the plain Model T, but the want for inexpensive mobility had hardly faded.[16] Between 1900 and 1930. cars quickly became a staple of United States culture. Over this period, the number of vehicles owned per 1000 people increased from 0.11 to 217.34.[17] Cars have remained ingrained in the United States throughout the 20th century as evidenced by consistently increasing car ownership (nearly 850 cars per 1000 people in 2007)[18] as well as the complex of industries that support automobiles' use and their manufacture. [19] Recent trends suggest that "America's Love Affair with Automobiles" [20] may be coming to an end.

This limited history of automobiles in the United States offers insights into understanding Automobility as a socio-technical epidemic. It exemplifies changes in public perception (expectation of mobility), changes in automobile technology (fuel type, manufacturing process), and changes in context (availability of fuel). Of course, there are numerous more contributing factors that are not included here, but that further illustrate the rise of gasoline-powered automobiles.

Trends & Counter-CultureEdit


There are 10 million carless households in America; of these, 62 percent live in cities and 13 percent in the surrounding suburbs. [21] This discrepancy in location is partly due to mass transit availability in cities. According to the Brookings Institute, 99 percent of the cities are covered by mass transit services, whereas only 58 percent of suburbs are mass transit accessible. [21] The lack of public transport in suburbs leaves 700,000 zero-vehicle households without bus or metro options. [21] Another reason for more carlessness in cities is shortened commuting distances; the average urbanite commutes 43.5 minutes daily, whereas the suburbanite commutes 52 minutes. [22] This makes biking and walking more attractive options for commuting. Thirdly, higher traffic densities in cities can cause congestion, longer driving commuting times and frustration with cars.

Of 7.5 million carless households, 60% are classified as low income. [21] This trend has several explanations. First, the payment on a car can amount to a few hundred dollars, which is a substantial portion of a low income budget. [23] Second, when mass transit is available, it is often more cost effective than owning a car. Bus fares in Hampton Roads cost 50 dollars per month, which is less expensive than the costs of owning a car. [24] However, while the majority of carless Americas are low income, there are over 2 million middle and upper class zero vehicle households. [21]



Many people do not own a car because they prefer more cost-effective forms of transportation. For example, one carless urbanite said “Most people don’t realize it, but their car is what is sucking most of their cash away”. [25] Other carless individuals are too poor to afford a car payment and must live without a car.


Environmental concerns are another motivation for going carless. Cars emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and these individuals use mass transit, biking, or walking to reduce their carbon footprint. According to one individual, “And the Jetta didn’t make me any happier. … it still weighs 2,000 pounds and is full of metal and toxic things, plastic and gas. Do I need this monstrous thing to live?” [25]

Environmentalists are one proponent for a carless America. Fewer cars will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. Each year the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere increases in the US and globally. The United States has the highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the world with almost 20 metric tons per year per person [26].


Exercise is another motivator for carless individuals. Americans take the fewest steps daily of any developed country, due to a car-dependent culture. [27] These individuals aim to increase their daily exercise by biking or walking to work. In the words of one health-conscious commuter, “I’ve been without a car for two months now… Lots of walking and listening to the ipod”. [28]

Social Group AnalysisEdit

Car ManufacturersEdit

Car Manufacturers oppose a carless America for economic reasons; without a market these companies will go bankrupt. In 2012 the US market sold 8 million cars and 7 million light trucks [29]. These markets will cease to exist in a car free America. On the other hand, the price of unleaded gasoline will drop significantly. Lower demand will result in lower prices; today the price of unleaded gasoline is averaging $3.50 per gallon [29]. Lower prices for gasoline will further benefit the public transportation industry by making it less expensive for pedestrians, thus improving ridership.

Effect on Transportation LandscapeEdit

In an effort to make the streets safer and more accessible for non-vehicular users, there have been many changes to the infrastructure of cities and towns.

Bike Lane AdvocacyEdit

Bike lanes first became prevalent in major cities in the 1970s [30]. Today they still serve as a safe median where cyclists can share the road with motorized vehicles and are becoming more common in major cities such as Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia [30]. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Roadside Design Guide provides specifications for the design of bike lanes, such as minimum width of the lines and the lane itself[31].

Public TransportationEdit

Public transportation was begun to provide pedestrians with a safe and convenient mode of travel. A bus stop design guideline submitted by Darnell and Associates provided information to “encourage the members of the community to use public transit through the provision of safe, comfortable, and convenient transit facilities”[32]. Public transportation will reduce car use and lead to the environmental benefits previously discussed.

Walkable InitiativeEdit

Recently, a movement has arisen calling for pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick issued a statement highlighting the needs of more multifamily homes and affordable housing; he also emphasized how these homes had to be “near jobs, near transit, and near city and town centers”[33]. This proximity will deter the use of motorized vehicles and encourage people to walk to their destinations.


Rethinking Cities: New Urbanism & Smart GrowthEdit


Village Homes Davis, CA

Houten's infrastructure prioritizes cyclists and pedestrians. Railway stations are easily accessible and child-friendly bicycle paths weave through the city. Cars are discouraged because of the city’s urban planning. Bicycle paths are connected to each other all around the city, whereas cars have to travel to the city center first to get to another part of the city. The city council approved this innovative traffic layout in 1968. [34]

Rethinking MobilityEdit

car-/bike-sharing, walking initiative, walk score, public transport initiatives

More StuffEdit


working from home, delivery services, online shopping



  2. Gladwell, Malcolm. Tipping Point. Little, Brown and Company, 2000.
  7. Georgano, G. N. (1985). Cars: Early and Vintage, 1886–1930. London: Grange-Universal. ISBN 0517480735.
  21. a b c d e Tomer, A (2011) Transit Access and Zero-Vehicle Households. Brookings Institute. Retrieved from
  22. US Census Bureau. Commuting in the United States:2009 Retrieved from
  24. Hampton Roads Transit.
  25. a b Can you live without a car? MSN.
  26. Rapier, R. (2012, July 12). Global carbon dioxide emissions — facts and figures. Retrieved from
  27. The crisis in America walking.
  28. I finally sold my car. Location180.
  29. a b Wall Street Journal. (2012, December 04). Auto sales. Retrieved from
  30. a b Pedestrian Bicycle and Information Center. (n.d.). Bike lanes. Retrieved from
  31. American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. (2011). Roadside design guide. (4th ed.)
  32. Darnell and Associates. (2006, October 04). Bus stop design guidelines. Retrieved from
  33. Benfield, K. (2012, November 12). [Web log message]. Retrieved from