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The built environment of an automotive city, the Los Angeles Freeway Interchange.
The built environment of an automotive city, the Los Angeles Freeway Interchange.

An automotive city or auto city is a city that facilitates and encourages the movement of people via private transportation, through 'physical planning', e.g., built environment innovations (street networks, parking spaces, automobile/pedestrian interface technologies and low density urbanised areas containing detached dwellings with driveways or garages) and 'soft programming' e.g., social policy surrounding city street usage (traffic safety/automobile campaigns, automobile laws and the social reconstruction of streets as reserved public spaces for the automobile).[1][2]


"The old common law that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation" – McClintock, a Consultant for Los Angeles Traffic Commission in 1924.[1] (Norton, 2008, p. 164)

Multiple competing views have attempted to explain the rapid dominance of automobile use over alternative modes of transportation in North America in the early 20th century. Two compelling arguments are:

While both arguments are nuanced, the basic principles behind each – advocacy of private transportation and advocacy of automobile production and consumption – informed the American automobile manufacturing boom of the early 1900s. By the late 1920s, the automobile industry was producing millions of cars each year, its surging growth due in part to the sociology of industrial phenomena related to Fordism.[1][4]

The creation of the automotive city may be due, in part, to an attack on old customs by the good roads movement, seeking to pave the way for the rapidly expanding automobile market—and to the triumph of individual liberties, associated with consumption and the free market, over restrictive governance of the built environment and its use.[5] By the 1930s, the interaction of automotive industry interests, a vocal, growing, minority of city motorists and favourable political sentiment, worked together to reconstruct the city street as a reserved space for the automobile, delegitimising previous users (such as pedestrians) and forging the foundations for the first automotive cities.[1]

This transformative process could not have succeeded, were it not for the development, and deployment, of a system of symbols, codes and laws which would become the language of traffic signs, and infrastructure design.[6]

Separation of traffic in Helsinki, Finland
Separation of traffic in Helsinki, Finland

20th century

Further information: Traffic congestion

Chang'an avenue in Beijing
Chang'an avenue in Beijing
Miami traffic jam, I-95 North rush hour
Miami traffic jam, I-95 North rush hour

By the end of the 20th century the automobile, and the land sequestered for its exclusive use (street infrastructure), had become synonymous with formulations of large North American and Australian cities. The label 'automotive city' has been used by academics such as Norton (2008) and Newman and Kenworthy (2000), to refer to the tendency of city design and configuration in many North American and Australian cities during the 20th century to privilege the private automobile above mass transit systems.[1][7] The creation of the 'automotive city' detailed by Norton in Fighting Traffic, primarily involved the reconfiguration of American city transport infrastructure and services, from the early 1920s to the 1960s, around the growth of modes of private transportation (the automobile).

In the early 1920s this reconfiguration of American city transport infrastructure around the automobile, at the instigation of traffic engineers, resulted in the rewriting of an old English common law (which had previously defined the street as a space where all users were equal) to define the street as a space which privileges cars, allocating them the right of way (except at intersections).[6]

This early and prolonged reconfiguration of the American, and Australian, city around private transportation served to dramatically alter the course of city development within these countries.[1] This is made most tangible through the generally accepted shape the man-made environment has taken in cities such as Melbourne (which never got rid of its tram system), Los Angeles and Detroit, which cater to the needs of automobile ownership (i.e. sidewalks, grid city layout linked with dormitory suburbs, highways and private transport corridors, and the securing of land for car spaces).[2][7][8]

Before usage of the automobile was ubiquitous in these regions, and its presence believed to be necessary to the efficient dispersion and mobility of human capital within a centralised, low density, metropolitan area, it was introduced to mixed traffic conditions, and was commonly viewed as a nuisance which endangered historically legitimate street uses.[6] In 1913, New York was experiencing frequent congestion, and by 1915, many individuals had reverted to using the subway.

Chicago's electric streetcar company indicated that it had slowed by 44% in the city's CBD between 1910 and 1920. In San Francisco in 1914, the number of automobiles surpassed the city's 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles. By 1910, Los Angeles had the highest per capita car registration in the world, Detroit and other Midwestern cities followed shortly thereafter. This time period for North America was marked by substantial growth in automobile ownership amongst the population, creating friction between private transportation interests and mass transit interests.[6]

The road lobby and securing the road infrastructure resource

See also: Fossil fuels lobby and General Motors streetcar conspiracy

The politics between different transportation stakeholders, who viewed roads as a securable resource and potential source of revenue, manifested in acrimonious conflict throughout the 1920s and 1930s.[7] One particularly controversial example of this conflict occurred between the road and rail lobbies in the 1930s, when a holding company, National City Lines, made up of interests from oil, tyre and car industries, bought the private electric streetcar systems in 45 U.S. cities, before closing them down. The reason attributed to this being clear, each subway car operating on the road was replacing 50 to 100 automobiles.[3]

They were viewed as obstacles to what was generally accepted, among stakeholders in the automobile, as the future of North American transportation.[3]

The purchase, and ultimate closure, of the electric street car systems by National City Lines, occurred approximately 10 years prior to the United States Congress proscription of diversification among rival industries, outlined in the Transportation Act of 1940.[5] The intent of this, in the words of the Interstate Commerce Commission, was, "to protect each mode of transportation from the suppression and strangulation, which might follow if control thereof were allowed to fall into the hands of a competing agency".[3] In 1949 a Grand Jury ultimately convicted National City Lines, and its constituents; General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Mack Trucks, Phillips Petroleum and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company on criminal indictment of anti-trust conspiracy, this decision did not, however, result in the return of electric street car systems.

280 million passengers were provided with the option of either taking the bus, or participating in the automobile industry. Within a few decades, the golden age of the automotive industry was well and truly under way, with cities such as Los Angeles being almost completely dependent on the automobile.[3][8]

Substantial funds were required in order to develop and maintain infrastructure capable of sustaining the level of automobile dependence observed by the burgeoning automotive cities in North America. Advocacy for these funds was spearheaded in 1932, by General Motors' Alfred Sloan, who brought a number of automotive industry interest groups together under the banner of the ‘National Highway Users Conference’.[7] The combined lobbying power of this organisation resulted in the substantial U.S. Highway Trust fund of 1957, through which the U.S. government invested $1,845 million in highways between 1952 and 1970. Rail systems only received $232 million during the same period.[8]

The decisive early action of large automobile lobbies in the U.S., in securing road infrastructure funding for their product, helped shape, and protect, the growth of automotive cities in North America and Australia through the 1900s.[5] In many contemporaneous European and Asian countries the influence of automobile lobbies were tempered by equally large mass transit lobbies, and the dependence on the automobile, evident in the urban sprawl of detached dwellings with garages, and accompanying street systems, in North America and Australia, has not been as significant, possibly due in part to this reason[7]

Suburban exodus

From the late 1940s and into the early 1960s the dispersal of the metro population in, and urbanisation of, U.S. and Australian cities correlated with increasing levels of car ownership for the same period, feeding into the political expectation that the car would be the future of urban transportation.[9] The discourse surrounding city structure, which would remain dominant during this period, was succinctly expressed by Hoyt in the 1943 Chicago Plan Commission article, 'American Cities in the Post-War Era'.[9] Hoyt held that the rise of the automobile would remove dependency on fixed rails for public transportation, and that old city design concepts, such as the high density ‘compact city', would be made obsolete due to the advent of the long-range bomber during World War II.[9]

In Hoyt's concept of the ideal post-war American city, low density urban garden homes in dormitory neighbourhoods on the urban fringe would be separated from industry and employment by a green belt, and arterial roads connecting these zones to greatly expanded car spaces at the base of principal office buildings and department stores would accommodate private modes of transportation, supporting independent mobility and accessibility in and around downtown areas.[9] Advocacy for this form of automobile dependent urbanisation, segregation of land uses, and low density expansion of the metropolitan area, was heavily informed by preeminent planned community systems such as Clarence Perry's 'Neighbourhood Unit', and Raymond Unwin's 'Garden Suburb'.[10][11]

These new planned suburbs, located at the periphery of the metropolitan area, were advertised as a means of escaping the congestion and pollution associated with inner-city living in the early to mid-20th century.[10] The development of replicable integral neighbourhoods, and processes of urban renewal (characterised by the development of street infrastructure) facilitated a suburban exodus from cities during this period, resulting in the dispersion of the western metropolis.[8][12] In a short space of time, a considerable burden was placed on the transit networks of many major North American cities, as processes of urbanisation created entire communities, isolated from what were popularly viewed as obsolete modes of mass transit, of automobile dependent commuters.

21st century

The High Five Interchange in Dallas, Texas

Twentieth century Western city planning has been characterised by academics such as Vanderbilt (2010) as an exercise in retrofitting the metropolis for the car.[13] While the benefits of private transportation and the mobility it affords citizens in a dispersed metro is widely acknowledged, logistically, it is exceedingly difficult, perhaps impossible, for planners to design a city which efficiently accommodates more than a fraction of its population in this manner.[13] Unfortunately, current research points toward a transportation system which has caused as many problems as it has solved.[7]

As early as 1925, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, had estimated that urban congestion costs were exceeding $2 billion a year.[6] In 2009, The Texas Transportation Institute issued the Urban Mobility Report (2009), in which the estimated current cost of traffic congestion (in wasted fuel and lost productivity) was $87.2 billion in the U.S.[14]

In Australia, through the twentieth century, Clapton makes the observation that the automobile has, "killed, injured and maimed more people than war has done to Australian soldiers" (Clapton, 2005, p. 313).[2]

In the 21st century Western automotive city, road engineers fight against the phenomenon of induced traffic (new infrastructure creating more congestion), road authorities strive for balance between traffic safety, the independence awarded to private transportation users and the rights of various road users in a democratic society, while land speculators continue to design dormitory commuter neighbourhoods, in cities where planning agencies facilitate (or do not regulate) car dependent sprawl.[2][7][15]

Rail revival: Perth, Australia

In March 2010 the Perth City Link Rail Master Plan was published, within; the increasing operational and capacity requirements demanded from the city's public transportation system by the community was acknowledged, and a robust framework outlining steps, to be taken by the Public Transport Authority of Western Australia, to meet these demands was established.[16]

The rail system in Perth has not always attracted the level of government resources and support from the community which it now receives (evinced in the recent Master Plans targeting its expansion).[16] As recently as the early 80s, Perth's rail system was embattled, with a rail corridor linking the city with a nearby port and residential district closing in 1979, to prepare for the development of a major road in its place. This minor war between road and rail over land reserve in Perth culminated in 1983 with a group of people, including Professor Peter Newman, defending the public transport corridor.[17]

They managed to stop the reallocation of the Perth to Fremantle rail reserve to road reserve, and the rail line which had been closed in 1979 to make room for the major highway was reopened to the public shortly after, in 1983.[17] 3 years later, in 1986, the first Master Plan for the rail system was prepared, and in 1988, the public, planners and policy-makers were outspoken in their preference for a new rail system to link Perth to the Northern suburbs, instead of the decidedly short-term solution of a bus-way advocated by the consultants commissioned to find the most affordable transit solution.[18]

Five railway Master Plans have since been produced, and in the 2010 report these plans are credited for ensuring the provision of infrastructure and rolling stock to improve and expand the suburban rail system in Perth.[16] Patronage of the Perth to Fremantle train line, which had initially been shut down in 1979 to prepare for the development of a highway on the site, has grown substantially between the 1980s and 2010, with current daily patronage levels for this single rail line (approximately 23,000 journeys per day[19] ) coming close to the total patronage of the rail line in 1989 going through the city station (approximately 25,000[18] ).[18][19]

The progression of public, planner and policy-maker attitudes in Perth, away from automobile and road infrastructure dependence, according to one researcher, has led to the following familiar scene in the city:[17]

"Cars sit in congestion on the freeway, delayed by the construction of a railway line through the southern suburbs to the coast town of Mandurah" (Wood-Gush, 2006, p. 19)

Far from the segregation of land uses advertised by Hoyt in 1943, the turn toward the expansion of the Perth rail system has also been accompanied by the advancing of New Urbanism leaning "Liveable Neighbourhood" policies, promoting mixed density development, walkable communities and sustainable transportation, potentially demarcating a departure from automotive city planning features for the city.[9][17]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Norton, p. 2008, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, published by The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, ISBN 978-0-262-14100-0
  2. ^ a b c d Clapton, R. (2005) Intersections of Conflict: Policing and Criminalising Melbourne’s Traffic, 1890–1930, Doctor of Philosophy Thesis, submitted to the Department of History, The University of Melbourne
  3. ^ a b c d e Snell, B (1974) American ground transport: A proposal for restructuring the automobile, bus and rail industries, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. Electronic Resource retrieved 5/05/2011 from; Archived 12 June 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Maller, J. and Dwolatsky, B. (1993) 'What is Fordism? Restructuring Work in the South African Metal Industry', in 'Transformation', 22:70–86
  5. ^ a b c Slater, Cliff (1997). "General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars". Transportation Quarterly. pp. 45–66
  6. ^ a b c d e Mcshane, C. (1999) 'The Origins and Globalisation of Traffic Control Signals', in Journal of Urban History, 1999, 25: 379, published by SAGE online, electronic resource retrieved; 5/05/2011, doi:10.1177/009614429902500304
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J. (2000) 'The Ten Myths of Automobile Dependence', in World Transport Policy & Practice, Vol. 6 No. 1, 2000, pp. 15–25
  8. ^ a b c d Holtz Kay, J. (1997) 'Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take it Back', published by Crown Publishers, New York, 1997, ISBN 0-517-58702-5
  9. ^ a b c d e Hoyt, H. (1943) 'The Structure of American Cities in the Post-War Era', in The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Jan 1943), published by The University of Chicago Press, accessed: 05/05/2011 pp. 475–481
  10. ^ a b Perry, C. (1929) 'The Neighbourhood Unit', Reprinted Routledge/Thoemmes, London, 1998, p.25-44
  11. ^ Unwin, R. (1911) 'Town Planning in Practice: An Introduction to the Art of Designing Cities and Suburbs', Reprinted Princeton Architectural Press, NY 1994, pp. ix–xvii,2–14
  12. ^ Cherry, G. (1984) 'Britain and the Metropolis: Urban Change and Planning in Perspective', in The Town Planning Review,Vol. 55, No. 1, Jan, 1984, published by Liverpool University Press, electronic resource retrieved 9/05/2011, pp. 5–33
  13. ^ a b Vanderbilt, T. (2010) 'Cars' in 'The New Urbanism', published in The Big Question, World Policy Institute, Winter 2010/2011, electronic resource retrieved 5/05/2011
  14. ^ Schrank, D. and Lomax, T. (2009) '2009 Urban Mobility Report', published by the Texas Transportation Institute, July 2009, electronic resource retrieved 15 May 2011, from "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 July 2011. Retrieved 15 May 2011.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ Hosking, W. (14 April 2011). "West's woes to worsen with plans for new suburb". Herald Sun. Retrieved 21 May 2013.
  16. ^ a b c Infrastructure Planning and Land Services Division, Public Transport Authority of Western Australia (2010)'THE HUB: Master Plan for the Lowering of the Fremantle Lines', funded by the State of Western Australia, The Australian Government and the City of Perth, March 2010, ISBN 978-0-646-51795-7, electronic resource retrieved 15 May 2011; Archived 27 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ a b c d Wood-Gush, Brett (2006) 'Turning new urbanism and transit-oriented development into a regional plan' in, Australian Planner, v.43, no.3, Sept 2006: 16–19 Availability: <;dn=200612187;res=APAFT> ISSN 0729-3682. [Cited 8 May 11]
  18. ^ a b c Hoare, J. F. (1989) 'Introduction' in 'Electrification Project and Future Development of Urban Rail Transport in Perth', published online by Institution of Railway Signal Engineers Australasia, electronic resource retrieved 14 May 2011; Archived 18 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ a b Public Transport Authority, 2010, 'Transperth Patronage, Midland Line', Government of Western Australia, electronic resource retrieved 15 May 2011 from;