Student & Teacher Resources

The Automobile Shapes the City


I. Questions for Reading

1. What was the common physical layout of cities and their suburbs brought about by the railroad and the trolley? How did the automobile change that layout?

2. We think of the automobile primarily as a personal vehicle, something we purchase and pay to operate all on our own. But Melosi argues that the automobile is “not simply a private form of transportation,” for it is “largely dependent upon public support and public financing.” What are the examples of public support and funding that Melosi cites in support of his claim?

3. Like other forms of transportation, but possibly even more so, Melosi writes, “the automobile also helped to turn the landscape into real estate.” What does he mean by this?

4. How did the automobile affect the land-use patterns in cities?

5. Summarize the characteristics of each of the three stages historians have identified in describing the growth of American cities.

6. How did the automobile affect “the social life of cities”?

7. Did traffic jams exist in cities before the automobile? If so, what impact did the introduction of automobiles have on them?

8. Strange as it may seem, building new roads and freeways or widening existing ones does not reduce traffic and congestion. Why not?

9. Why is traffic congestion bad for the environment?

10. Why does the automobile pose such a space problem, especially for cities?

11. What caused cities to introduce traffic control measures? Why did cities ultimately come to rely on signs, lights, and painted pavements rather than laws and traffic police?

12. Summarize the early development of the gas station.

13. What effects has the automobile had on the distribution of population and the density of population in the U.S.?

14. What are some of the environmental problems that road-building creates or contributes to?

15. What kinds of businesses did the building of roads and highways lead to?

16. Melosi says that after 1970 the model of a core city ringed by suburbs “became more ambiguous (and even obsolete) in metropolitan areas.” How so? How did cities, suburbs, and the relationship between cities and suburbs change after 1970?

17. In what ways did the automobile change how and where we shop?

18. How has the automobile affected the design of houses? What does the evolution of the garage reveal about the automobile’s role in our lives?

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II. Questions for Discussion

1. In the opening paragraph of his Introduction, Melosi sketches two very different views of the impact of the automobile’s transformation of cities and suburbs, and by extension, on the way most Americans live. With which of these views are you most sympathetic? Why?

2. Melosi notes that in cities that have most effectively adapted to the automobile, pedestrians are an “endangered species.” Are pedestrians an endangered species where you live? What specific features make walking difficult or dangerous on the one hand, easy and safe on the other, in your community?

3. If you live in a major metropolitan area, do any of the suburbs in your area display the characteristics of what various commentators call “out towns,” “mall-towns,” “edge cities,” or “technoburbs”?

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III. Making Connections

1. Melosi notes that one historian has divided the life of the “automobile city” into a “recreational vehicle” period (1920-1945) and a “freeway” period (1945 to the present). Based on your reading of Melosi’s essays as well as those by Thomas Sugrue on “From Motor City to Motor Metropolis,” Margaret Walsh on “Gender and the Automobile,” and David Gartman on the relationship between engineers and designers in the auto industry and the history of scholarship on automobile design, why would this historian make this division, and what would probably be the differences in the characteristics of the two periods?

2. Melosi notes that the construction of urban interstates and beltways was supposed to contribute to urban renewal and revitalization but often had the opposite effect. Does the example of Detroit, as discussed by Thomas Sugrue, confirm Melosi’s statement?

3. Car ownership and miles driven have increased dramatically in the U.S. since 1970, as Melosi indicates at the end of his section of “Traffic and Congestion.” Based on Margaret Walsh’s discussion of gender and automobility in modern times, what role have women played in that increase?

4. Motorized transport, according to Melosi, “favored decentralization of industry” and enabled manufacturers to move away from urban locations along railroad lines. Is this true of the automobile industry in Detroit, based on Thomas Sugrue’s discussion in “From Motor City to Motor Metropolis”?

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IV. Questions for Writing

1. Melosi notes that in many cities, a freeway system radiating out from the center was superimposed on a very different pattern—a grid of streets—with the result, according to one critic, that “[v]iews have been obliterated, important landmarks have been isolated, great waterfronts have been cut off, all by freeways within the cities whom they supposedly serve.” Has this occurred in a city near where you live or with which you are familiar?

2. Melosi points out that much debate has raged about cities should deal with downtown automobile congestion. In 2003, in an effort to reduce traffic, London began charging motorists a fee of about $14 to enter its central business district during weekdays, making it the largest city in the world to use such a method. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a scheme? Is it fair or not, and for whom? Alternatively, you might address whether or not this idea should be implemented in American cities, or how Americans might regard such a proposal to implement this idea.

3. Melosi notes that newer suburban communities in particular are “geared towards motorized transportation, not pedestrians.” Write an essay analyzing how extensively your neighborhood or community is designed around and for the automobile.

4. Gas stations have changed greatly over the years. In the 1950s and 60s, for example, a uniformed attendant pumped your gas (self-serve was illegal), cleaning your windshield and checking your oil or tire pressure at the same time. Payment was in cash. The station might well have a mechanic who could perform maintenance on your car. A vending machine or two provided sodas and snacks. What are gas stations like today? What do their features tell us about ourselves, about our lives and the things that are important to us?

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V. Questions for Research

1. Melosi mentions the role of Robert Moses on the highways in and around New York City, and the suburbanization that ensued as a result, particularly on Long Island. Learn more about Moses and his impact on the highways and suburbanization of the New York City area, giving special attention to the Long Island Expressway. How did the building of the LIE shape Long Island, New York City, and the relationship between them?

2. Investigate one of the many “urban renewal” projects of the 1950s and 60s, preferably for a city with which you are familiar. What role did road-building play in the project. Was the project controversial, and if so, why? Who was affected by it, favorably or unfavorably, and how? Was it successful?

3. Automakers generally resisted government-imposed requirements to install as standard equipment two of best known safety features on cars today: seat belts and air bags. Select one of these and investigate its history. How, why, and when was the feature developed? How did it come to be standard equipment in cars? What role did the auto companies, governments, and advocacy and citizens’ groups play in that process?

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For other Resources on Environment see:

The Automobile and the Environment in American History

The Automobile Shapes the City


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