Since at least the 1960s, urbanists have bemoaned the car-centric nature of US transportation. In her 1961 “The Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs notes that “everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles”: Traffic arteries, along with parking lots, gas stations and drive-ins are powerful and insistent instruments of city destruction. To accommodate them, city streets are broken down into loose sprawls, incoherent and vacuous for anyone afoot. Downtowns and other neighborhoods that are marvels of close-grained intricacy and compact mutual support are casually disemboweled. Landmarks are crumbled or are so sundered from their contexts in city life as to become irrelevant trivialities. City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to Noplace. And in the areas most defeated, uses that cannot stand functionally alone – shopping malls, or residences, or places of assembly, or centers of work – are severed from one another.
Really good piece, thanks.
It's probably worth at least noting the urban legend/conspiracy theory about "GM bought the street car lines in LA which were how everyone got around, so they could get rid of those and force everyone to buy cars". You're far from the first person to lay out the facts which debunk it but, I literally still hear it repeated as known fact to this day. Including on social media of course.
The late urban geographer, Larry Ford, is another excellent source. I especially recommend his book Cities and Buildings: Skyscrapers, Skid Rows, and Suburbs.
One additional element that Ford adds to the story involves downtown real-estate economics during the Great Depression. Many property owners found themselves saddled with obsolete, empty buildings in the 1930s. One response was to tear down the buildings and operate the cleared lots as surface off-street parking. This was a low-risk way to generate at least enough revenue to pay property-tax bills, while waiting for a potential future opportunity to redevelop. For so many downtowns across the country, that redevelopment opportunity was slow to arrive—and many of these Depression-cleared lots remain vacant a full century later. Clearing old buildings became part of a vicious cycle, making crowded downtowns only marginally more automobile friendly while destroying the very feature—collections of high-rise real estate in dense, pedestrian-oriented clusters—that offered the historic CBD a distinctive advantage over new developments in automobile-oriented suburbs.
The Housing Act of 1949 tried to arrest this decentralization, by mobilizing federal money to fund local urban redevelopment agencies, but this largely resulted in the gentrification, or "renewal", of old "blighted" neighborhoods such as LA's Bunker Hill, further destroying downtown's historic character and displacing communities of residents and small businesses. Not until the end of cheap oil in the 1970s and the birth of a culture of "new urbanism" in the 1980s did old downtowns begin to recapture some of their lost glory from the pre-automobile era. Today, this downtown renaissance is threatened by the work-from-home habits developed during the Covid era and by new transportation technologies (e-bikes, scooters, uber/lyft, driverless cars) that divert ridership and threaten the financial viability of mass transit. We see this in LA, but the even greater California symbol of downtown's hollowing out during the 2020s is in San Francisco. Cities are remarkably resilient human creations, but it currently is hard to see how downtown SF's commercial real estate and transit (especially fare-dependent BART) can pull out of their current death spiral without massive public subsidy.
"In the early 19th century, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had residential densities upwards of 75,000 people per square mile, compared to a current New York population density of around 26,000 people per square mile..."
I think this paints a picture of New York City that I'd add some detail to. Prior to 1898, "New York City" just meant "New York County," which was mostly just Manhattan for most of the 19th century. The Bronx was added to New York County in two large annexations in the 1870s and 1890s.
So if I were to make an apples to apples comparison of the NYC of the 19th century with the NYC of today, I'd just look at Manhattan.
Manhattan's population and population density peaked in 1910, at around 2.3 million residents, for a peak density of ~101k/mi2! So density peaked in the early 20th century.
Modern Manhattan's numbers are lower: ~1.7 million residents, and ~75k/mi2. This reflects, among other things, people getting wealthier and wanting more space for themselves, and more people leaving for the other four boroughs as they were opened up by the 1898 consolidation (https://www.maximumnewyork.com/p/1898-the-birth-of-new-york-city) and subway access.
Modern NYC's density (all five boroughs) is 26k/mi2, but the way the quoted section reads, it makes it seem like NYC went from 75>26k/mi2. The NYC of the 19th century (Manhattan) still has that population density, and it even far exceeded it in 1910! The rest of modern NYC (the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn), all have population densities that fall between 8-40k/mi2, and they move the city's whole average down from Manhattan's number.
This looks similar to greater Tokyo, where private RR firms bought up land around planned future stations in the 1920s and 1930s. To my knowledge there were never jitneys as car ownership remained low while developers turned to buses running between housing developments and suburban train stations, with bicycles the biggest competitor. The government stopped construction of a planned Ford ModelT/A plant in 1936, and until 1966 commercial vehicles dominated passenger vehicles. Only in the 1990s did car culture take off, particularly after 1994 when restrictions on large footprint building construction were eased and the number of malls exploded alongside businesses along major roads accessible only by car. Station adjacent shopping streets, accessible only by foot/ bicycle began a rapid decline. The shift is starkest in smaller rural cities, where this shift happened the earliest.
Separately, I was impressed by Wm Bogart Don’t Call It Sprawl but I now see dozens of other books on sprawl on Amazon.
The rise of cars was inevitable, the collapse of transit was not. Road infrastructure was almost exclusively publicly financed from the early 20th century onward, whereas consistent subsidy for public transit did not start until several decades later---federal support only began in the '60s. Transit was at a disadvantage for a long time, operating as a moneymaking concern facing off against subsidized car travel infrastructure.
So mass transit allowed the initial urban sprawl, which, in turn, made future mass transit infeasible? Crazy how the world works, sometimes.
Great post, thanks
This is great. One aspect I'd like to understand better is the effect of class (and by association race) in this transition. Early adopters of cars tended to be wealthy, because cars were so expensive to own and maintain. But the wealthy also had outsized political power. It's my understanding that this led to car-friendly public policies which worked greatly to the detriment of poorer residents and people of color, who were far more like to be (and remain to this day) more dependent on public transit.
Great info, thanks.
As for the future, economics would seem to rule out mass transit via rails or subways ( hyperloops too unfortunately). Our best hope may be self driving cars and their ability to self organize into efficient convoys. That and their integration into a smart algorithmic driven traffic grid could be a game changer (and even better when cheaper solid state EV batteries are available to reduce emissions).
I have observed two ideal forms of population growth. (1) intense urbanization such as seen in Manhatten and certain great world cities and (2) modest density sprawl.
I grew up in upstate New York near Albany where modest density sprawl was the norm. Population was spread between modest cities, small villages, suburban neighborhoods and rural farms. Traffic congestion was rare and occured only during the afternoon rush hour at certain intersections. Otherwise having a car and driving was a great convenience.
The problem with modest density sprawl is it invites greater density sprawl. This leads to overly crowded roads and the observation of constant road congestion.
In the Mid-Atlantic, northern Virginia has succumbed to high density sprawl . It has responded to the traffic congestion by building new highways and adding on-demand toll pricing. Maryland provides both high density and modest density sprawl. Those familiar with Montgomery county will understand what I am describing. In the modest sprawl communities it is convenient to drive around the community. But driving through the high density areas invariably involves delays .