American Urban History: Mass Motorization + Mass Transit

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This is a short review of:
Mass Motorization + Mass Transit
by David W. Jones; Indiana University Press, 2008 (paperback 2010)

Jones quantitatively describes the history of American urban transportation from horsecars to automobiles, providing masses of data (although few pictures; this isn't that kind of history). His descriptions fit everything I knew about the field, and his data provide strong support for his descriptions (and support the knowledge that I already possessed). Most of his measures are rides per year per capita for mass transit, automobiles per capita for motorization. For example, the peak streetcar use per capita was in 1917, peak total mass transit year in rides per capita was 1926. Jones quotes Brian Cudahy: "It can be stated unambiguously that the American mass transit industry was a casualty of the war [World War 1] and never fully recovered from its impact." Some about the effect of motorization on mass transit: "The diffusion of cars and trucks first accelerated rapidly in the United States during the 1920s. Indeed the per capita increase that occurred from 1920 to 1929 was 157 percent. Much of this increase in automobile ownership occurred in small towns and midsized cities, producing the first wave of transit's ridership losses. Only the largest cities experienced continuing growth in transit ridership." America was well motorized by 1926; this occurred because America was the richest nation, with a growing population, few old cities, room to spread out. The Great Depression slowed motorization, but that rapidly resumed after the end of World War 2. The initial proposals for the Interstate highway system started about 1930, along with the parkways around New York City in that decade, but nothing beyond prototype segments was done for the Interstate  system until Congress appropriated funds and produced the cooperative agreement that persuaded the states, in 1956. Thus, pervasive motorization did not occur because of the Interstate system; it was progressing long before and would have occurred anyway.

 Motorization killed private mass transit. Transfer to public ownership cost much money and stabilized ridership at the low level attained previously. The only cities in which mass transit shows any signs of growth are those with dense office clusters at urban centers, cities with banking and other financial operations. The rest probably won't recover ridership in the foreseeable future.

 The unforeseen product of the Interstate system was the polycentric metropolis; nobody foresaw that. And that development has greatly limited America's choices for the future. Not only is Europe moving in the American direction, but trying to remake America in the European pattern is largely impossible. Jones states that America, and much of the rest of the world, depends on personal mechanized transport. Therefore, Jones states, producing a sustainable technology for personal mechanized transport is our greatest long-term challenge. Jones opts for hydrogen powered fuel cells as the technology with the best promise, providing, of course, that the great technological problems are surmounted. He suggests that 2030 is a reasonable prediction for enough such vehicles to be competitive with internal combustion vehicles.

 Why do I consider this important? That's obvious. We vehicular cyclists are those best suited to traveling without motors in the present polycentric suburban pattern. The ideas being spread around that that pattern will soon be done away with and replaced with a pattern very suitable to walking and slow cycling are most unlikely to bear fruit. We will have to live and travel in much the same type of polycentric urban areas that we now inhabit. Our skills will be more necessary, rather than less, in the foreseeable future.