The Effect of the Automobile

    During the 1920s and 1930s the mass adoption of the Commercial Vehicle in the United States left few facets of everyday life untouched, and the young technology became deeply woven into the fabric of the country's economy, mobility patterns, and culture. As cities became larger and denser, industries increasingly sought cheap land on the urban periphery where they could erect the large, horizontally configured factories that mass production techniques necessitated. Wealthier urbanites, too, dispersed into out-lying suburban areas, closely trailed by retail stores seeking their patronage. Across rural America, larger trading areas hastened the death of the village general store, cut into small local banks' deposits, forced the mail-order houses to open suburban retail stores, and prompted the large-scale reorganization of both retail and wholesale trades, particularly as they fought to stay afloat during the Great Depression. Urban amenities, too, reached into formerly isolated rural areas, most auto parts suppliers notably in the form of far better medical care and consolidated schools. The Model T, the motor truck, and the motorized tractor also played a role in the reorganization of the agricultural sector as large-scale agribusiness began to replace the traditional family farm. 


    Large-scale use of automobiles had a tremendous effect on the cities, too. Public health benefited as horses disappeared from cities; but street life became increasingly hazardous, especially for playing children, and automobile accidents became a major cause of deaths and permanent disabilities. Modern city planning and traffic engineering arose to meet growing traffic and parking problems; and attempts to accommodate the motorcar through longer blocks, wider streets, and narrower sidewalks strained municipal budgets even as they undercut the tax base by encouraging residential dispersal. Parents complained that auto parts online undercut their authority by moving courtship from the living room into the rumble seat; police complained that getaway cars made it more difficult to catch crooks. Recreational activities changed, too, as the automobile vacation to the seashore or the mountains became institutionalized and as the Sunday golf game or drive became alternatives to church attendance, the family dinner, and a neighborhood stroll. 
    By the mid-1920s auto parts manufacturer ranked first in value of product and third in value of exports among American industries. The automobile industry had become the lifeblood of the petroleum, steel, plate glass, rubber, and lacquer industries, and the rise of many new small businesses, such as service stations and tourist accommodations, depended on the 26.7 million motor vehicles registered in the United States in 1929—one for every 4.5 persons—and the estimated 198 billion miles they traveled. Construction of streets and highways was the second largest item of governmental expenditure during the 1920s, accounting in 1929 alone for over $2.2 billion in road expenditures, financed in part by $849 million in special motor vehicle taxes, $431 million in gasoline taxes, and the steady expansion of the federal-aid road system that began dispersing funds in 1916.