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How Cars Divide America

Car dependence not only reduces our quality of life, it’s a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions.


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Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

Urbanists have long looked at cars as the scourge of great places. Jane Jacobs identified the automobile as the “chief destroyer of American communities.” Cars not only clog our roads and cost billions of dollars in time wasted commuting, they are a terrible killer. They caused more than 40,000 deaths in 2017, including of some 6,000 pedestrians and cyclists.

But in the United States, the car plays a fundamental role in structuring the economy, our daily lives, and the political and social differences that separate us.

Writing from prison in the 1930s, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci dubbed our modern economic system Fordism—invoking the system of automotive production developed by Henry Ford. On the factory floor, Fordism described the powerful synthesis of scientific management and the moving assembly line, which revolutionized industrial production. Applied to the economy, the term captured Ford’s move to higher pay for his workers—the famous $5-a-day wage—that enabled them to buy the cars they produced. At a broader societal level, Fordism catalyzed the shift to a mass suburbanized society.

As Ford himself once put it: “We shall solve the city problem by leaving the city.” The car enabled the American suburban dream, prompting the relocation of the middle class, industry, and business from the city. In doing so, it helped shape the relatively short-lived era of post-World War II prosperity and the rise of a stable, blue-collar middle class, stoking economic demand for the products coming off the country’s assembly lines.

But today, the car plays a central role in worsening America’s social, political, and economic divides.

This can be seen in a simple statistical-correlation analysis by my colleague and frequent collaborator Charlotta Mellander. Mellander ran correlations for the share of workers who drive their cars to work alone, along with three other types of commuting: taking transit to work; walking to work; and biking to work. She compared these to certain key features of our economic and political geography, including income, education, and occupational class; population size and density; and political affiliation and voting.

As usual, I point out that correlation in no way infers causation, but simply points to associations between variables. (All of the correlations reported below are statistically significant.)

She found sharp differences between metropolitan areas where a high share of people drive their cars alone to work and those where greater shares of people take transit, walk, or bike there. These are especially striking in the light of the fact that an overwhelming share of Americans—85 percent of us—drive alone to our jobs. Also, car dependence encompasses both liberals and conservatives: 73 percent of independents, 86 percent of Republicans, and more than three-quarters of Democrats say that they depend on their cars to get to work.

The key is not individuals’ car use, but the way we sort into communities based on our reliance on cars.

For one, the geography of car use tracks with income and wealth: Car-dependent places are considerably less affluent. Metros in which a higher share of people depend on their cars to get to work are poorer, and those where more people use transit or bike or walk to work are considerably more affluent. The share of commuters who drive to work alone is negatively correlated with both wages and income. Conversely, in more affluent metros, a higher proportion of commuters use transit, walk, or bike.

The geography of automobile dependence is also related to divisions along educational lines. Metros with lower levels of educational attainment (measured as the share of adults who have a college degree) are those where a larger share of commuters drive to work. In more highly educated metros, larger shares of commuters use transit or bike or walk to work.

America’s geography of car dependence also reflects differences in the kinds of work we do. Car dependence is a feature of working-class metros, while metros with higher concentrations of knowledge workers and the creative class have much higher shares of people who use transit or walk or bike to work.

We see the same basic pattern where we look at metros that are knowledge and tech hubs. Driving to work alone is negatively associated with the innovativeness of metros (measured as patents per capita), whereas the share of commuters who use transit or bike or walk to work is positively associated with innovation.

America is an increasingly polarized and politically divided nation, and the car both reflects and reinforces those divisions. Car-dependent places are much more likely to have voted for Trump in 2016. Although the associations are stronger for Trump votes, the same basic pattern holds for Romney votes in 2012. On the flip side, metros that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2012 have much higher shares of commuters who use transit or walk or bike to work.

Of course, voting patterns differ based on the size and density of places as well as their educational and class composition. It is well-known that Trump took the presidency by winning smaller and medium-sized places and rural areas, whereas Hillary Clinton took America’s largest, densest, and most productive areas. Car dependence is negatively associated with the size and density of metros. People in larger, denser urban areas are more likely to commute to work by transit or bike or walk (although the correlation between population and biking to work is statistically insignificant).

All of this raises the question: How exactly does this geography of car dependence work to divide us?

The detailed historical research by Stanford political scientist Clayton Nall offers some clues. Nall’s work shows how road infrastructure that has promoted car use—and in particular America’s massive investment in the federal interstate highway system—played a profound role.

The car and car-dominated infrastructure propelled suburbanization and white flight. They split our society into white, affluent suburbs and poor black and minority cities. The car shaped the rise of what Richard Nixon identified as a “silent majority” of suburban whites back in the late 1960s, and is a precursor to the suburban and rural backlash that lifted Donald Trump to victory in 2016.

Nall has written that “Democrats and Republicans have adopted increasingly different positions on spatial policy issues such as transit and highways. Transportation infrastructure has been a necessary condition of large-scale suburban growth and partisan change, facilitating migration into rural areas that were previously unoccupied and inaccessible to metropolitan commuters and workers.” In other words, the car and the infrastructure that enables it had a huge influence on the disparities that vex us today.

The car’s politically divisive role extends beyond America. It has helped shape the politics of my adopted hometown of Toronto. Indeed, dependence on the car was a key factor in whether or not someone voted for the city’s late, dysfunctional mayor Rob Ford.  Ford singled out so-called “urban elites” for waging a “war on the car,” and promised supporters he would remove bike lanes to give more room on roads to drivers. According to detailed research by political scientist Zack Taylor, commuting to work by car and living in the suburbs (inside the city limits) were among the strongest factors in electoral support for Rob Ford.

I’m not trying to blame the car for everything that’s wrong in America. But it is increasingly clear that in addition to wasted time and productivity, reduced quality of life, and even fatalities, the automobile takes another toll. It may be that cars are not only the chief destroyer of our communities, but are tearing at the nation’s political and social fabric.

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This post originally appeared on CityLab and was published July 19, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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