The Automobile Shapes The City

by Martin V. Melosi

Automobiles and Sprawl

The automobile’s mark on the land went well beyond core cities and their immediate surroundings. While the suburbanization process began well before cars were invented, and the outward thrust of the urban population had many causes, urban sprawl is clearly a phenomenon of the automobile era. The motor vehicle, as one critic stated, “has a voracious appetite for land.” Urban sprawl in post-World War II America did not follow a clear, consistent pattern of outward development, however, but a kind of “leapfrog nature of urban growth” that scattered people, businesses, and industry over a broad landscape with substantial patches of vacant or empty land interspersed among tracts of homes, commercial strips along roadsides, and a variety of low-density uses of various types. Ultimately, metropolitan growth morphed into megalopolitan development with urbanization stretching for 200 miles from Santa Barbara to San Diego, with Houston engulfing more than 600 square miles, and with the nation’s capital part of an urban matrix extending northward to New York City and southward to Richmond. In the late 1990s, Chicago accounted for only six percent of the land area of its metropolitan region. The automobile was the perfect mode of transportation in this terrain, and if it was not responsible for causing sprawl, it certainly fed the impulse. Sprawl became synonymous with the automobile.

Cars became both forces of diffusion and cohesion, helping to change the scale and form of suburbanization well before World War II. As David Nye suggested, “The automobile was an enabling technology that permitted greater dispersion of the population.” Motor vehicles disperse populations almost randomly, and roads and highways become the essential common links between people and their homes, their jobs, and their diversions. This process was underway well before anyone recognized urban sprawl and put a name on it. In 1922, approximately 135,000 homes in sixty cities had become dependent on automobile transportation. By 1940, 13 million homes did not have access to public transportation. In 1920, the average density of urbanized areas (cities, suburbs, and towns) in the United States was 6,160 people per square mile; in 1990 that figure was only 2,589. In fact the average density of developments built since 1960 was only 1,469 people per square mile. These figures, however, vary widely from region to region. In the late 1990s, Northeast cities, which generally predate the automobile age, generally have triple the density of Midwestern cities, and six times the density of Western cities.

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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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