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The Auto Drives the Growth Machine

September 12, 1999 by Administrator in September/October 1999

By Aaron Golub

Nothing defines and shapes post-war urban transportation in the United States more than the automobile. The strong links between transportation, land use, and urban development affect nearly every aspect of the urban environment. Planners now find that providing for the circulation and storage of automobiles is an integral part of their jobs. How did the automobile become so central to urban America, and what does this mean for the urban development process referred to as the Urban Growth Machine? The Auto as Commodity

The automobile is a commodity, and its production and sale are motivated and historically constrained by the social and economic framework of the capitalist order. The economy in the United States changed into a form of monopoly capitalism with the post-Depression concentration of industrial, banking, and insurance assets, along with the ballooning federal expenditures associated with the New Deal’s Keynesianism. This transition to monopoly in many key industries ushered in a new set of demands on society as a whole. In the automobile industry monopolization meant an explosion in production technology, a growth in the size of firms needed to manage such complexity, and an increase in the amount of capital demanded and risked.
As the automobile industry grew and arrived at the apex of interlocking industrial monopolies, its needs shifted from battling competition to careful planning, controlling markets, preventing consumption from stagnating, eliminating competition from other transportation modes, and deterring city planning alternatives which infringed on automobile usage. This transformation played a major role in the development of the Urban Growth Machine.

The Auto and the Growth Machine

The industry nourished the Urban Growth Machine as an integrated system of land development and auto consumption. This nexus was necessary for the auto manufacturers and their related suppliers, for whom the Growth Machine was a national “car buying” machine guaranteeing return on their increasingly expensive investments. Urban public transit systems were torn up, in part because of direct intervention by the automobile industry and in part because cars clogged narrow streets and there was no longer enough street
capacity for at-grade trolley systems. Pedestrian areas were taken over by more and wider streets and movement became more difficult in the growing traffic. The growth of automobile usage also meant that each car needed space to park, thus favoring lower density development. This spurred strip, big box and mall type commercial development with ample parking and more streets and freeways. The auto also facilitated commuting longer distances to more remote and sprawling developments built along a highway system supposedly designed for interstate travel in the event of a national emergency or foreign invasion. In short, the traditional dominance of public space over circulation space was inverted. Many cite the “conspiracies” that were revealed in the anti-trust suits against General Motors. But these suits were the more obvious expressions of the complex process in which the industry steered the country’s development through:

• Public policy making and investment

• Private investments

• Mass consumer culture

• Engineering and science education

By the fifties, the question became not whether to build urban freeways, but how to displace thousands of families for freeway construction in existing cities, how to spend many hundreds of billions, and how large to construct the new freeway system. The prior federal and state transportation commissions became “highway” commissions and were typically made up of representatives from the automobile, construction, and engineering industries. Decision-making moved out of the hands of local bodies and into ones comprised of professionals and experts. There are even reports of hired hecklers putting down dissent in those rare public meetings held during planning processes.

Through the Urban Growth Machine the automobile industry helped support the post war economy. In Keynesian fashion, public investment facilitated production and nurtured consumption by subsidizing home mortgages and highway construction. It would directly or indirectly consume millions of acres of land, pollute countless ecosystems, devastate communities, mine countless hillsides, and pump billions of gallons of oil from the ground. Most importantly, it would sustain the post war economy for 30 years, employ millions of engineers and auto workers, and keep developers, auto makers, and oil producers wealthy and powerful.

The Costs of Growth

This growth could only last so long, and since 1975 the bottom began to fall out. Congestion costs urban regions billions every year, air pollution and runoff have grown to unacceptable levels, and inner cities have become cash-strapped wastelands. Efforts to stop highway construction, encourage mass transit, pedestrian and bicycle modes are meeting with some success and growing. Furthermore, there are profound international political and economic implications because the stability of oil imports, the potential for war, and the role of oil-based corporate profits are ever more important and problematic for capital. The changing global economy makes fresh demands on industries worldwide, and has placed the automobile industry in a new role. Just as the emergence of monopoly altered the development of urban areas, these new changes within capitalism will be felt as well. As centers of capitalist growth and activity, redesigned forms of the Urban Growth Machine will take on new roles in response to traffic congestion, pollution, and the global politics and economics of petroleum. This next stage is now unfolding, and we can count on the automobile industry to play a powerful but modified role in both economic development and related planning efforts.


Aaron Golub is a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation tudies. He can be reached at goluba2(at)yahoo(dot)com.

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.

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