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The Greatest Invention: How Automobiles Made America Great

IP-6-2006 (September 2006)
Author: Randal O’Toole

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Executive Summary

In 1900, the United States was a rich and growing nation, yet many of the benefits of that wealth 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 especially lonely.

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 hundred miles;
  • In 1900, homeownership was affordable only to the wealthy, rural landowners, and white collar workers. The automobile made homeownership affordable to working-class families and led to a nearly 50-percent increase in homeownership 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, many of 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, some people argue that we should rely less on autos and more on other forms of transport. They support government policies, funding, and rules promoting 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.