Lentis/American Automobility and the Car Counter-Culture

Introduction of the Automobile to the United StatesEdit

The first self-propelled vehicle is attributed to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot who, in 1769, proved the feasibility of steam-powered vehicles.[1][2] With the advent of electricity and batteries in the 19th century, self-powered vehicles became more practical.[3] Karl Benz began production of gasoline-powered automobiles in Germany in 1888[4] and soon after Charles and Frank Duryea began production of gasoline-powered automobiles in the United States.[5] In the year 1900, 1,681 steam-, 1,575 electric-, and 936 gasoline-powered automobiles were produced in the U.S.[6]

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.[7] In December 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.[8][9] 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. . . " [10] This automobile's low cost, and other factors such as discovery of crude oil in Texas,[11][12] led to the decline, and effective disappearance, of alternately-powered automobiles.[11]

By the mid-1920s, consumers were less enthralled by the plain Model T, but the want for inexpensive mobility had hardly faded.[9] Between 1900 and 1930. cars became a staple of United States culture. Over this period, the number of passenger vehicles owned per 1000 people increased from 0.1 to 187.2.[13] Cars have remained ingrained in the U.S culture throughout the 20th century as evidenced by consistently increasing car ownership (over 470 passenger cars per 1000 people in 1998)[13] and the complex of industries that support automobiles' use and manufacture.[14]

"The use of automobiles as the main form of transportation" is known as Automobility.[15] Given the major systems and industries, the vast amount of resources, and the social paradigms that allow and perpetuate automobiles' dominance it is clear that Automobility is much more.

Components of AutomobilityEdit

Automobility encompasses the expectation of widespread access to mobility and the industrial complex that supports and relies on automobile use. According to John Urry, Automobility comprises six components that shape and preserve the system’s “specific character of domination.” [16]

  1. The item of individual consumption which communicates the status of its owner through sign-values (such as security, sexual desire, career success, freedom, family, and masculinity) and which is anthropomorphized (i.e. naming). Over time, the car has evolved beyond a means of transportation and into a status symbol. Cars are a hobby among people who appreciate their craftsmanship and performance. Car clubs and other activities are social scenes for car lovers.[17]
  2. The manufactured object produced by industrial firms such as Ford, Mercedes, and Toyota. The United States represents the largest passenger vehicle market in the world. In 2009, an estimated 254.4 million passenger vehicles were registered in the U.S.[18]
  3. The social paradigms that define "the good life" and what is appropriate for citizens of mobility. Social values are depicted in literature, art, and the media. Between 1905 and 1908, automobiles were the subject of over 120 songs.[19] Cars and Cars 2 are recent films featuring anthropomorphic vehicles. Cars often take part in celebrations, such as the decoration of a couple's car on their wedding day.[20]
  4. The socio-technical complex which comprises technical and social links with other industries (i.e. petrol refining and distribution, road building and maintenance, hotels, roadside service areas, car sales, repair workshops, suburban house building, advertising and marketing, urban design and planning, and foreign relations). Car use was encouraged in many places through zoning laws requiring new businesses to construct parking based on the facility size and type.[21] Automobiles changed transportation, facilitating outward growth of cities and development of suburbs.[19]
  5. The resultant mobility that subordinates other transit methods (walking, cycling, rail) and reorganizes how people balance opportunities and constraints of work, family life, and leisure. Increasing car use has reduced the roles of walking, horses, and railroads and contributed to changes in social interactions, employment distribution, shopping patterns, manufacturing, and city planning.[19]
  6. The environmental resources such as material, space, and power used in the manufacture of cars and car-only environments. Responses to the consequences (environmental, medical, and social) of such resource use are indicative of societal values. Each year, 27 million cars around the world reach the end of their useful life resulting in the annual disposal of five million tons of non-recyclable materials.[22]


Automobiles have dominated the transportation scene for the past century, but current trends indicate that their supremacy may not last.

Decreases in Car UseEdit

Many social scientists claim that Peak Car was reached in the U.S in the last 10 years. Sivak performed a series of studies highlighting decreases in car ownership, distance driven, and fuel consumption preceding the recession of 2008.[23] Sivak cites an increase, from 2007 to 2012, in the proportion of carless households as further evidence that these trends will likely continue.[24]

Americans aged 18–34 seem to be driving these reductions. As Sivak notes, fewer young Americans are getting their drivers licences.[25] Their motivations may include city living, alternative transit methods, technology, or simply disinterest.[26] Financial burdens may incentivize carlessness in this group, but financially stable and unstable young Americans alike drive less.[27] This seems to support Sivak's conclusion that these trends are not temporary.


There are 10 million carless households in America; 62 percent are in cities and 13 percent in suburbs.[28] This discrepancy is partly due to mass transit availability. According to the Brookings Institute, 99 percent of cities, while only 58 percent of suburbs, are accessible by mass transit.[28] On the surface, these differences are not surprising.

Low IncomeEdit

In 2009, roughly 24% of those below the poverty line did not own a vehicle[29] and there may be inequities in city transit. Ross and Svajlenka at Brookings note that Washington DC transit options connect high-skilled workers to more work opportunities than mid- or low-skilled workers.[30] They also found that neighborhoods with the best transit access were not affordable for mid- and low-skilled workers.

For some, carlessness is not a choice, but it may be a limitation. Not owning a car limits travel and access to work, potentially limiting income and opportunity.

Middle IncomeEdit

While only 5% of Americans between poverty level and $100k do not own a car, their distribution of trips is identical to that of individuals above $100k[29] indicating that this group has the financial flexibility to own cars but chooses not to do so. In 2009 the average American made 17 more trips by foot and walked 9 more miles than in 2001.[31]

This group's views may indicate a greater societal movement.


Recent movements aim to change the transportation landscape.


Environmental concerns are one motivation for reducing car dependence. Groups such as New Mobility Agenda[32] and the Union of Concerned Scientists[33] have made it their goal to raise awareness about cars' environmental impact. They promote carpooling and alternative fuels which reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Further, cars have required the import of over 3 billion barrels of oil per year.[34] Fracking in the U.S. has boosted domestic oil production alleviating foreign oil dependence. Fracking can release dangerous chemicals into the air and water supply and is opposed by many groups such as Americans Against Fracking[35] and New Yorkers Against Fracking.[36]

Electric and hybrid cars rely less on gasoline and appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers as cleaner alternatives to conventional cars. A growing hybrid and electric car market, which reached 3.2% of total automobile sales in 2013,[37] is further evidence of the public's environmental concerns.


Financial matters may also promote the purchase of alternatively-fueled cars. Hybrid sales appear to depend on gas prices. The steady rise in gas prices before 2014 may have bolstered hybrid car market growth.[38] The IRS incentivizes hybrid cars through tax credits between $2,500 and $7,500.[39]

The Auto industry also has financial motivations. To maintain a profit in a less car-dependent world, automotive manufacturers need to adapt. Alternatively fueled vehicles are attempts at such change. Since 2000, the hybrid market has grown to include 40 models.[40] Toyota is considered a "power-train visionary". The Toyota Prius dominates the electric car market[41] and the Toyota Mirai will be the first commercially available Hydrogen car.[42] While not a movement away from the automobile, alternatively-fueled cars demonstrate a response to criticism.

Ford is taking a different approach, "[envisioning] a radically different transportation landscape where pedestrian, bicycle, private car, commercial and public transportation traffic are woven into a connected network to save time, conserve resources, lower emissions and improve safety"[43] Ford's plan calls for cross-industry collaboration to reach transportation solutions for a world where personal vehicles are impractical.

The US and state governments construct and maintain roadways. The more drivers on the roads, the more funding is required. HOV lanes promote carpooling[44] reducing traffic (and air pollution). Toll roads decrease travel times for a fee. High Occupancy Toll (HOT) lanes combine these two constructs into an economical option for both drivers and the government.

Urban RecoveryEdit

Transportation Alternatives (TA) is a social group which advocates for the reclamation and redesign of city streets. They claim that cars dominate public areas and take up too much space. A comparison of walking, biking, busing, and driving corroborates this claim.[45] A painting titled, If Streets were Giant Pits illustrates how much space is dedicated solely to cars. TA also calls for infrastructure and institutions that protect all users. Together TA and Families for Safe Streets advocate for traffic enforcement and driver accountability through initiatives such as New York's Vision Zero.[46][47]

In 2013, Fredrik Gertten launched a Kickstarter campaign entitled Bikes vs Cars - We Are Many[48] a global project to release a documentary urging a movement from cars to bikes. In just a few months, the project met its goal and had raised over $80,000. In December 2014, Paris's Mayor, Anne Hidalgo, proposed to ban vehicles (excluding buses, taxis, delivery and emergency vehicles, and resident's cars) from Central Paris in an attempt to cut down on pollution.[49] This model, and others, may inspire TA to test the idea in the U.S.

The Future of MobilityEdit

Rethinking CitiesEdit

New Urbanism & Smart GrowthEdit

New Urbanism and Smart Growth are urban design movements which emphasize Transit-Oriented and Mixed-Use Development aimed towards dense, sustainable, walk-able communities that raise the quality of life throughout the population.[50][51] These principles aim to reduce health, environmental, social, and economic costs that result from Automobility.[51][52]

Multiple models have implemented such principles and displayed their feasibility.

New Urban ModelsEdit

Construction of Vauban was completed in 2006. This district of Freiburg, Germany was designed to reduce private car ownership. Designers achieved this through establishment of multiple transport options and dispersal of homes, shopping, and workplaces.[53] Vauban is known as stellplatzfrei, parking-space-free, since no permanent parking spots are present in the district.[54] Residents who want to own a car must purchase a space in a parking structure on the district edge.[53]

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.[55]

Village Homes is an ecologically sustainable community in Davis, California. It was designed for sustainability and to foster community through community events and common areas.[56][57] The design also has implications for driving. Cars drive on relatively narrow, curving streets behind houses which all end in cul-de-sacs. This style of streets results in slower driving. None of the streets are bordered by sidewalks.[58] This approach to community building prioritizes walking and biking over driving and separates these modes of transport.

Pedestrianization is another model of change. Pedestrianization involves limiting access of cars and opening areas to the public. Pedestrian only areas are not uncommon, in the U.S. they are known as Pedestrian Malls and include areas such as State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, the Charlottesville Downtown Mall, and Times Square in New York City. Recent initiatives have been put in place to enhance public spaces.[59]

Rethinking MobilityEdit


Alternative modes of transport have seen recent increases in demand. Public transit is at its highest since 1956[60] and car-sharing is becoming more popular.[61]

Bardhi and Eckhardt frame car-sharing as an access-based consumption model and state,

"... a shift in the established politics of consumption is emerging in which access is gaining symbolic capital as a more economically and ecologically viable, flexible, and freeing consumption mode. If not having a car is no longer tied to status loss, since it is a decision made on 'smart' grounds rather than on nonaffordability, the necessity of car ownership for symbolic reasons withers "[62]

This view has implications greater than car-sharing alone as evidenced by the growing "Share Economy".[63] Through the Share Economy consumers opt for access over ownership of commodities. This change indicates a societal shift towards utilitarianism which will have far-reaching environmental, socio-geographical, and political effects.


In a study on driver licensure across countries, Sivak concludes that countries with more internet use had lower proportions of young drivers[25] raising the question, "why?". It seems the internet is changing the number and nature of trips that an individual needs to take, which contributes to a changing social perspective regarding mobility.

Internet retail doubled from 2007 to 2014[64] and telecommuting grew by nearly 80% from 2005 to 2012[65] Online shopping paired with grocery delivery services [66] makes regular personal trips to grocers obsolete. Further, online retailers, like Amazon, sell and deliver clothing, entertainment, and even large household appliances.[67]

Sending a MessageEdit

Many initiatives exist to promote discussion about the mobility status quo. Every September 22, people around the world celebrate Car Free Day to highlight that cars are unnecessary.[68] Annual New York transportation races get public attention, fostering conversation no matter the outcome.[69][70][71]

The bicycle has been a popular means for getting public attention. Cyclists challenge car-domination by staking claim to roadways through Critical Mass rides.[72] A powerful statement is made through World Naked Bike Rides which emphasize, "the vulnerability of cyclists everywhere."[73] While each of these movements tout a particular message, they all start a dialogue on societal values that could lead to great change.

Physical examples of technologies or ideas, such as urban models and car-sharing, can send messages, too. They can inform and convince people of alternative or better ways of life. At the very least, they start a conversation.

Automobility as a Socio-Technical EpidemicEdit

In his book Tipping Point,[74] Malcolm Gladwell conceptualizes principles of Social Epidemics. He lays down three rules through which to understand how small things can bring about drastic change. His three rules hold insightful lessons for understanding both social and technical factors that influence an epidemic. For a socio-technical system, "epidemic" refers to the spread of a technology and "epidemic agent" can refer to a technology (automobiles) or an idea about the technology (automobiles are good). The examples in parentheses may apply to a technology, an idea, or even both.

Rules of Socio-Technical Epidemics

  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 affect its stickiness: in other words, persistence of an epidemic agent can be altered through endogenous means.
  3. Environment can foster (access to raw material) or hinder (taxes) growth of an epidemic: in other words, persistence of an epidemic agent can be altered through exogenous means


The abridged history of automobiles in the introduction 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). We can also apply these rules to understand how Automobility self-propagates. Highway networks,[75] laws, and social values all encourage car use. Environmental concerns are changing cars themselves and may even reduce interest in driving. Many other factors may contribute to this decline, such as the Share Economy, the internet, and generational shifts.[76] Of course, there are numerous aspects not included that further illustrate the historical rise and supremacy of gasoline-powered cars. Comparisons to other countries, particularly Germany,[77][78] may be informative in understanding car use in the U.S.

Further, Automobility can help us understand the Rules of Socio-technical Epidemics and apply them to other socio-technical systems.


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