We Americans love our cars. So it’s no surprise that rising gas prices are worrying customers.
But gasoline prices have always been volatile, subject to the decisions of oil cartels and a long list of causes, ranging from government regulations to corporate greed, taxes, the distribution system, marketing, the cost of refining and crude oil prices which are determined by world prices. bid.
Emotional protests against gas prices can have political ramifications (remember Jimmy Carter and the 1970s oil shortage). While presidents can be blamed for the cost at the pump, they have very little to do with it, and historically fossil fuel companies have avoided high gas prices that could actually change driver behavior.
So why do gasoline prices elicit strong emotions while other commodity price spikes do not? It’s because we live in a car culture. In the social sciences, ‘culture’ refers to learned ways of thinking, feeling and acting in a society. Cultures function as blueprints and toolkits that their members use explicitly or tacitly in their daily lives.
Cultures evolve and can be manipulated by political and economic interests. We are a society built around private modes of transport, with massive public investment in the infrastructure that enables these private uses.
It is important to realize that our automotive culture was invented and nurtured by automotive-related industries.
Car culture had a rough start. People loved their streetcars and before that, their horse-drawn vehicles. In the 1900s cars were dirty, noisy and dangerous. They were initially the playthings of European elites and impractical, given the lack of roads and traffic systems.
How did Americans come to love cars and take it for granted that cars are necessary to participate fully in daily life? It is a fascinating story of conflict and even
subterfuge (see Chris Wells”https://www.nwaonline.com/news/2022/apr/03/car-culture/”Car Country: An Environmental History”, which argues that the United States is a nation dominated by landscapes which are difficult, inconvenient and often even dangerous for those who are not seated at the wheel of a car).
Here are some examples of auto industry efforts to create and shape automotive culture. Many of these efforts have been hidden or simply forgotten.
Henry Ford first saw the potential for a mass market for cars. His vehicles were cheap, tough, and able to handle the rugged farm-to-market roads that crisscrossed rural America. By 1920, Ford products accounted for just over half of all cars produced, and its products were the only ones to continue to increase sales during the Great Depression.
He sponsored all sorts of public displays about the sturdiness of his cars. And he used his cars to promote his political and anti-Semitic views. Ford has become more than a car manufacturer. He encouraged and created the conditions for the development of automotive culture.
Whether the “Great Streetcar Conspiracy” was a conspiracy or a business model taking advantage of existing trends is debatable. Either way, it deliberately contributed to the decline and outright destruction of the elaborate streetcar system that existed in many cities.
Between 1936 and 1950, a company known as National City Lines, funded by Standard Oil, Firestone, and General Motors, bought up and intentionally destroyed the streetcar systems of cities across America. They replaced streetcars with buses (watch the documentary “Taken for a Ride: The US History of the Assault on Public Transport in the Last Century” on YouTube).
A 1961 hour-long special funded by DuPont (at the time a 23% owner of General Motors) called “Merrily We Roll Along:: The Early Days of the Automobile” depicts American automotive history . Groucho Marx, the film’s narrator, spoke of the audience’s “love affair” with cars. The phrase has become part of how we think about our cars, and we’ve forgotten it was invented.
Another example of efforts to change the way people view cars and their impact on our lives is the term “jaywalker”. In the 1920s, cars were killing pedestrians on America’s crowded public streets and people were protesting. They saw the car, often driven by wealthy people when many of the victims were poor, as the culprit.
In response, the auto industry set up exhibits such as the one on the streets of New York where a Model T gently but repeatedly slammed into a clown named Mr. Jay (a Midwestern term for a hunchback).
Soon the term was widely used by automobile club members and in newspapers. The use of the term has shifted the responsibility for street safety from the driver to the pedestrian, the jaywalker (see “The Car Culture That Helps Destroy the Planet Wasn’t Inevitable” by Jeff Sparrow at lithub. com from Literary Hub).
Perhaps the most significant political act that reinvigorated automobile culture was the passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956. The nation had mobilized for World War II primarily on the existing rail system which , after the war, needed a massive injection of cash. to repair and modernize.
The US government offered financial aid to Europe and made railroad modernization a priority. But in America, the story was different. It was obvious to the automotive industry that cars without safe and convenient roads to drive on had a limited customer base.
It was equally evident that the cost of an extensive highway network was beyond the fiscal capacity of industry and private investment. A bitter conflict between car mobility and other types of mobility ensued: the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act was passed and cars prevailed.
Rebuilding America’s great railroad system would have undermined car culture. Today, our rail network is a shadow of its former greatness. We can only imagine how different our cities would be if they had developed around railroad tracks instead of paved roads.
Even before World War II, General Motors revealed its vision to the world in a popular display called Futurama at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. Visitors to this fair were treated to a spectacular array of moving parts showing a model from the future. Ribbons of multi-lane highways criss-crossed open landscapes and converged on towns and villages, presaging traffic-free and safe car travel from town to town and to towns and cities across the country.
After a delay caused by World War II, the auto industries got a messy version of their dream with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
A contemporary example of the extremes to which the auto industry goes to maintain car culture is the development of self-driving vehicles. According to their billing, driverless cars are expected to improve safety and usher in a new era of automotive freedom.
David Zipper, in a recent article for this journal, pointed out the shortcomings of the technology and questioned whether we really need the self-driving car. It points to exaggerated claims and persistent technological problems.
But there’s another reason automakers are interested in self-driving cars. These vehicles promise a solution to the troubling problem for the future of car culture: traffic spikes. That’s when the traffic gets so congested and unwieldy that people stop driving and look for other means of mobility.
Autonomous vehicles solve traffic spikes by grouping cars into bundles or packs to move at the same speed while providing “unloading options”. The need to build ever more highways would decrease because the current infrastructure would become more efficient.
Ironically, these individual car packs would be “virtual buses,” a new kind of public transportation that would eliminate traffic jams, reduce accidents, and keep car culture alive.
With self-driving cars, we would still have our cars and be able to go anywhere and anytime, but within quasi-public infrastructure. Otherwise, traffic spikes could only be avoided by having fewer cars on the roads. Building more roads is not a long-term solution, given the costs and inefficiency of conventional highways to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of vehicles.
Automotive culture has spread around the world, but its spiritual home is America. We accept traffic fatalities (42,060 in 2020), car investment depreciation, hidden gasoline taxes, insurance, licenses, tags, personal property tax, maintenance, tires and other less obvious costs such as deadly air pollution and climate-damaging paving of green spaces associated with car ownership as “the way things are”.
It wasn’t meant to be this way, but as long as car culture defines our preferred mobility, high gas prices will symbolize its demise. Political will is needed to transform our transportation system into a more public form.
Changing our transportation system so that we can take a driverless train, bus, van, or taxi would be cheaper, cleaner, and safer than living in our car culture. Still need to discuss the environmental impacts that living under car culture has caused.
Jeff Nash is a retired sociologist living in Fayetteville.