How the Rise of the Car Failed American Society


Now households spend (in the suburbs) 1/4 of their income on transportation or (in the cities) more than 1/10th. This is, in many ways, where everything went wrong, writes Christopher Leinberger in The Atlantic: “In the early 20th century, every town of more than 5,000 people was served by streetcars, even though real household income was one-third what it is today. A hundred years ago, the average household spent only 5 percent of its income on transportation. How did the country afford that extensive rail system? Real-estate developers, sometimes aided by electric utilities, not only built the systems but paid rent to the cities for the rights-of-way.”

Obviously that went south. But one thing this analysis doesn’t really explore is how big cities like Cincinnati, and its smaller-town counterparts as well, once actually had thriving local industries and incomes! You could afford to run a public transit system when residents were viewed as (and largely were!) the subjects of a thriving kingdom of local industry. When, more recently, many of these cities lost the ability to have income, the burden of transportation was shunted to the individual.

That’s when both the society and geography of the cities became car-focused. Here’s a look at how Cincinnati once was in the era of street cars. While streetcars were on the way out, the city actually planned and built an immense subway system and then never even put it into use. Now there’s not much of any going back. In Cincinnati, the average resident spends 1/5th of his income on transportation, and a planned (very minor) light rail system faced strong opposition on budgetary grounds.