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Over the course of the 20th century, the automobile rapidly developed from an expensive technological wonder into the de facto standard for passenger transport. The development of the automobile built upon the transport revolution started by railways, and like the railways, introduced sweeping changes in infrastructure, manufacturing and legislation. The wide reaching effects of automobiles on everyday life have been a subject of much controversy. Proponents on one end of the spectrum claim the car is a marvel of technology that has brought about unprecedented prosperity, while opponents on the other end claim it is a cancer on cities that has caused more harm than good.

Modern automobiles on the road

Economic changes

The main reason for the height of these signs is to attract the attention of drivers on the adjacent freeway.

The development of the automobile has caused changes in city planning, as well as changing the roles of horses and railroads.

Industry restructuring

Huge industries devoted only to the automobile were created. Others were expanded from once trivial insignificance to eminent importance. Before the internal combustion engine was developed, gasoline was a waste product, often discarded. Once the automobile became commonplace, the production of gasoline blossomed into a matter of such importance that the governments took action to secure a steady flow of oil. The steel industry was already established, but the coming of the automobile created huge amounts of business for it. The chemical, rubber, and petroleum industries were remade to suit the needs of the automobile and industries sprang up, such as service stations, motels, and automobile insurance, that were completely reliant upon the automobile for their livelihood.

As automobiles began to travel at higher and higher speeds, the sign industry began building larger and larger signs and billboards to draw the attention of drivers.


Aside from industries, one of the most visible effects the automobile has had on the world is the huge increase in the amount of surfaced roads. For example, between 1921 and 1941, the United States spent $40 billion on roads, increasing the amount of surfaced road from 387,000 miles (619,000 kilometres) to over 1,000,000 miles (1.6 million kilometres) which doesn't even take into account road widening.

With increased road-building came loss of habitat for wildlife on a massive scale. Loss of rural areas and agricultural land to pavement has also been extensive.

The quality of roads was also improved. Roads were paved with asphalt, and roads with more than one lane on each side became commonplace.

Technological Changes


The assembly line and other methods of mass production were developed when American businessmen began seeking ways to build more automobiles at a lower price. The idea of using many small identical parts that could be exchanged for each other was engendered by the president of the Cadillac Automobile Company, Henry M. Leland. Once other automobile makers realized the value of small identical parts that were interchangeable, they hired many small machine shops to make identical parts that were then put together at assembly plants. Because of this, replacement parts could easily be sent to car owners. This greatly prolonged the life of the automobile, making it even more attractive to consumers.

Ransom E. Olds took the first step towards assembly line production when he had the framework of each automobile pushed on a wooden platform supported by rolling casters. Henry Ford built on this when he used conveyor belts to pull along the bare frame of an automobile while workmen added parts to it that were brought to them by other conveyor belts. Ford's utilization of the conveyor belt in the factory was inspired by the Chicago Packing Association's disassembly line, where workers dressed beef pulled along by an overhead trolley.

Cultural Changes

Prior to the appearance of the automobile, horses, streetcars and bicycles were the major modes of transportation within cities. Horses require a large amount of care, and were therefore kept in public facilities that were usually far from residences. The manure they left on the streets also created a sanitation problem. The automobile had neither of those disadvantages.

The automobile made regular medium-distance travel more convenient and affordable, also in areas without railways. Because automobiles did not require rest, and were faster than horse-drawn conveyances, people were routinely able to travel farther than in earlier times. Historically, most people never travelled more than a few dozen kilometres from their birthplace in their entire lives; the advent of the automobile began the transformation of society in such a way that those who had never travelled that distance were only a tiny minority.

Changes to Urban Society

Traffic Jam

Beginning in the 1940s, most urban environments in United States lost their streetcars, cable cars, and other forms of light rail, to be replaced by diesel-burning motor coaches or buses. Many of these have never returned, though some urban communities eventually installed subways.

Another change brought about by the automobile is that modern urban pedestrians must be more alert than their ancestors. In the past, one rarely worried about being run over by streetcars, kicked in the face by horses, or stepping in horse dung. With the proliferation of the automobile, a pedestrian has to worry about being hit by automobiles at high speeds, and breathing noxious exhaust fumes. The Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair showed a City of the Future in which pedestrian and automobile traffic was fully grade-separated. However, for cost reasons, this vision has never come to pass outside of small experiments in a handful of downtowns.

The loss of pedestrian-scale villages has also disconnected communities. People have less contact with their neighbors and rarely walk unless they place a high value on exercise. Also, drivers lose time stuck in traffic jams and they people rarely get the recommended amount of exercise to stay healthy. In fact, since the 1980s, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States.

Especially in areas with high crime rates, people who do exercise usually prefer to do so in the safety of their home or in subscriber-only fitness clubs (which they drive to and from).

Large people visiting a large store in large vehicles.

Advent of Suburban Society

Because of the automobile, the outward growth of cities accelerated, and suburbs began developing rapidly for the first time. Until the advent of the automobile, factory workers lived either close to the factory or in a high density community further away, connected to the factorty by streetcar or rail. The automobile allowed them to live in low density communities far from the city center, without losing their job. The developing suburbs created few local jobs, and most residents commute elsewhere to their jobs.

Shopping centers were then built in or near suburbs to save residents trips to the city. The shopping centers provided enough goods and services to reduce the need for suburban residents to visit the city.

Finally, as the service economy gained importance, business parks appeared, allowing suburb dwellers to even work in the suburbs. Thus overall, the automobile caused a decentralisation of cities, while segregating land use.

Car Culture

The car had a significant effect on the culture of the middle class. Automobiles were incorporated into all parts of life from music to books to movies. Between 1905 and 1908, more than 120 songs were written in which the automobile was the subject. The automotive themes of these songs reflected the general culture of the automotive industry: sexual adventure, liberation from social control, and masculine power. Books centered on motor boys who liberated themselves from the average, normal, middle class life, to travel and seek adventure in the exotic. Car ownership came to be associated with independence, freedom, and increased status.

Changes to Individual Lifestyle in America

At the end of the 19th century, Americans put a great deal of emphasis on personal freedom and individual mobility. The automobile encompassed both of these ideals. Individuality was increased for the automobile owner. This individual zeal didn’t apply to everyone.

Critics felt that the automobile decreased church attendance, increased sexual activity, and weakened family unity. A popular religious magazine of the day, the Independent, argued that it took away from even more important things. It argued, for example, that middle class men were prone to delay marriage in order to buy an automobile. It then argued that the automobile led to an augmented divorce rate, due to an increased stress rate over car payments. Others felt that couples delayed having children or even had fewer children, owing to the expense. Despite these negative impacts on American culture, the automobile had numerous benefits.

Social status

The automobile signifies much more to many than simply a mode of transportation. Henri Lefebvre called the automobile "the epitome of possessions". In the early years, when the first automobiles were imported to America from France for the bourgeois and elite, the car served as a mark of distinction above all others. The automobile rapidly became a symbol of social status, and in some cases, a fashion item. The automobile, more than almost any other possession, allowed people to flaunt wealth. Not only was the ownership of an automobile demonstrative of a certain level of income and prestige (and still is, especially in poorer nations where the automobile isn't ubiquitous), it is also highly visible.


The creation of good roads and dependable automobiles changed recreation and vacations. Before the automobile, resorts were predominantly found near the coast or a railroad. Once the automobile became abundant, resorts sprang up that were off the beaten path. Resorts appeared in scenic places, far away from the hectic life of the cities. In the United States, national parks became popular tourist attractions and developed designs with automobile travelers in mind.


Automobile accidents caused many deaths and injuries before automobile safety laws were implemented. To this date, automobiles remain a major cause of accidental death and injury, not to mention emotional stress.

In comparison to pedestrians or users of mass transit, drivers of automobiles are not able to travel as quickly in inner-city urban cores. They are slightly less vulnerable to mugging, but are naturally vulnerable to crimes like carjacking, to torts like injuries sustained in car accidents, and to the inconvenience of vehicle breakdowns.

The automobile expanded the role, abilities and efficiency of the emergency services such as the response to emergency calls for firefighters or paramedics.

Political Changes

George Monbiot speculates that widespread car culture has shifted voter's preference to the right of the political spectrum [1]. He thinks that car culture has contributed to an increase in individualism and fewer social interactions between members of different socioeconomic classes. The growth of the suburbs is also considered an important factor. Suburbs dwellers are more likely to vote conservative than city dwellers.

Since the early days of the automobile, automobile manufacturers successfully lobbied consecutive governments to build public roads. Road building was sometimes also influenced by Keynesian-style political ideologies. In Europe, massive freeway building programs were initiated by a number of socialist governments after WW2, in an attempt to create jobs and make the automobile available to the working classes. From the 1970s onwards, promotion of the automobile increasingly became a trait of the conservative right. Margaret Thatcher talked of a "great car economy", and increased government spending on roads. Conservative parties often attempt to win votes by promising to defend motorists' rights.

Car-oriented convenience

A drive-through lane at an American post office

Many aspects of daily life in the First World industrialized countries reflect an impulse to make life convenient for car users.

Without having to exit one's car, a resident of a typical large North American city may accomplish the following:

  • Buy gasoline at a gas station (in areas where full service is still available)
  • Have the car washed
  • Obtain cash from an ATM
  • Buy many different kinds of fast food, and eat it
  • Buy freshly prepared coffee or other similar beverages
  • Deposit mail for delivery by the postal service
  • Drop off apparel for dry cleaning
  • Pick up and pay for prescription drugs at a pharmacy
  • Return library books, videotapes, or almost any other small object that is regularly lent to the public

Environmental changes

The automobile is one of the most noticeable modern influences on the environment. For a large part of its development, no consideration was given to concerns such as air pollution, destruction caused by road-building, and the massively increased consumption of limited natural resources, most notably petroleum and land. Some of these concerns are now starting to be addressed in some parts of the world. European Union is the leader in that, and it has many possibilities to do so, for example because the cities in Europe were planned for pedestrians and mass transit, before the automobile became common.

See also