The Impact of the Automobile on Twentieth-Century Transportation

Reliance on the automobile had profound impacts on human geography. Automobile use has spurred the decentralization of employment, shopping, and other activities, as well as the deconcentration of residential space in cities. Land use in the major cities of the developed countries is dominated by automobiles. Over a third of urban land in most American cities is devoted to streets, roads, parking lots, automobile dealerships, and other car-oriented land uses. New buildings are constructed with an eye toward automobile accessibility, and streets must be wide enough to accommodate the increasing volume of automobile traffic.

Today, automobile ownership remains concentrated in the developed countries, although it is increasing in less developed societies (Figure 9-4). About one-third of the world's automobiles are found in the United States, where there is one car for every 1.8 residents. High ratios also characterize Western Europe, Japan, and Canada. By contrast, there is only one car for every 100 residents of Africa, every 500 residents of India, and every 1,000 residents of China. Worldwide, the ratio of cars to people is approximately 1:10.

Figure 9-4 Automobile Ownership by Country. About one of every ten people throughout the world owns an automobile. The ratio of people to automobiles varies widely from place to place, however, car ownership is far more common in the automobile- producing developed countries

Increased automobile ownership and use has resulted in larger and larger numbers of cars crowding inadequate road networks. In the United States, motor-vehicle ownership increased by over 25 percent between 1977 and 1987. Despite this increase, few new highways were constructed during this period, and the national road network remained nearly constant throughout the decade (Figure 9-5). During the same period, highways built during construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 1960s were beginning to deteriorate. This has resulted in an increasing tendency toward traffic jams, especially in major metropolitan areas.

Figure 9-5 Highway Miles in the United States. Over the past two decades, the size of the U.S. highway network has increased only slightly, while population and automobile ownership have increased at faster rates. These differences have contributed to traffic-congestion problems in densely populated areas

Traffic jams are a way of life in large cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. Traffic congestion delays travel dramatically, even between nearby points. Congestion also results in increased atmospheric pollution, wasted fuel, increased transportation costs, and lost productivity. The psychological aggravation associated with delays in traffic also takes its toll in large metropolitan areas of the United States.

Automobile traffic congestion is increasingly com- mon in other countries as well. In part because high population density inhibits decentralization, Europe has long lagged behind the United States in car ownership. However, the growing prosperity of Western Europe has increased demand for private cars in that part of the world. New highways in England, Germany, France, and other countries have quickly become jammed. In Japan, automobile registration increased by nearly 50 percent in the 1980s, but the road network expanded by only 4 percent.

When routine traffic congestion reaches the point where all cars on high-speed expressways must come to a stop, the situation is known as gridlock (Figure 9-6). How to deal with gridlock is a major problem of sprawling metropoli. Although the construction of new highways would seem to be an obvious solution to the problem, new highways may eliminate gridlock only in the short run. In the long run, their availability may increase demand for cars, eventuating still more gridlock. Alternatives include the enactment of policies that will discourage automobile use and promote alternative modes of transportation. Yet, such policies are often expensive, politically controversial, and ineffective.

Figure 9-6 Gridlock on Los Angeles Freeways. Gridlock, or the complete stoppage of traffic along highways, has become a fact of life in many metropolitan areas. Large cities throughout the world have devised innovative strategies to combat this problem

The recent experience of Japan, where enormous traffic jams are commonplace, illustrates this problem. Japanese highways are notoriously crowded, especially in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Air pollution resulting from automobiles is a major problem throughout urban Japan.

In response to these problems, the Japanese government has mandated several policies intended to restrict driving. High taxes are levied on gasoline, and the price per gallon is several times that in the United States. Japanese drivers also pay steeper fines for routine traffic violations than American drivers. In addition, residents of Tokyo cannot own automobiles unless they also own or rent parking spaces for their vehicles. Parking spaces cost $200 or more per month. Yet, even when faced with high costs, traffic jams, polluted air, and long and frustrating commutes, Japanese consumers continue to buy cars.

In many American and European metropolitan areas, policies designed to reduce driving at peak hours have been adopted. Many communities encourage the use of carpooling. The city of Los Angeles now requires firms and government agencies that employ over two hundred people to develop carpooling strategies. High-speed freeway lanes are restricted to cars with three or more occupants. Other communities have encouraged employers to stagger work hours, allow for work performed at home, or grant employees greater flexibility in setting working hours.


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