The Automobile Shapes The City

by Martin V. Melosi

Roadside Businesses

With freeways came new roadside businesses that also changed the physical, cultural, and economic landscape. In the post-World War I era, one might find fringe areas on the outskirts of cities that were neither rural nor urban. Settlements along the roadside could include farmers, people who lived in the country but worked in the city, and service areas catering to automobile traffic. Modest cabins and shacks attempting to attract motorists eventually led to tourist courts, and ultimately the “motel.” Eventual uniformity of style and service advised motorists of what to expect in the way of accommodations from motels, and how much they were likely to pay. The roadside restaurant also came into being alongside the tourist court or motel. Well before chain restaurants like McDonald’s, hundreds of “Mom and Pop” eateries served quick meals and possibly full-course dinners.

Outdoor advertising, especially billboards, followed the roads into the countryside and promoted many products and services. The great numbers and garishness of billboards, along with the deterioration of residential properties adjacent to the burgeoning roadside business explosion, inspired roadside beautification efforts. For example, at the time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the City Beautiful Movement was attempting to provide architectural guidelines, promote planning, and restore some aesthetic sense to downtown development, reformers criticized unappealing roadside commercial structures and promoted construction of more scenic corridors through which cars could travel. A roadside reformer movement remerged in the 1920s and periodically was revitalized after that.

Billboards were an overt form of product advertising along the roadways. But possibly less obvious at first was how, as one architectural historian noted, “the new vehicles prompted a marriage of architecture and advertising, a blend of building and sign, far beyond any sales campaign ever envisioned downtown” in order to promote business. “In fact,” he continued, “by opening up vast expanses of roadside beyond the urban fringe to commercial exploitation, the automobile helped stimulate not only a new kind of landscape but also a commercial architectural revolution.” Steeples on restaurants could be made to look like ice cream cones, and refreshment stands could be built in the shape of dogs or ducks; characteristic styles of gas stations and motels and myriad other establishments were designed to identify the structure with its business or product. The automobile culture not only changed the landscape, but also altered the visual representation of commodities associated with it.

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The “Footprint” of the Automobile on the American City

From “Walking Cities” to “Automobile Cities"

Modifying the City Core

Traffic and Congestion


Traffic Control

Filling Stations and Other Services

Automobiles and Sprawl

Expressways, Freeways, and Superhighways

Roadside Businesses

Suburban Communities

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