“Hitting the Road, Jack?”: The City on Wheels Phenomenon

10 Mar

By Vincy Abraham

Source: imageshack.us

Source: imageshack.us

One of the most complex social and economic entities is the City, with this complexity comes the difficulty in defining it. There is no universal definition for the City; however, scholars have attempted to define the City using a number of criterions. One of the most prominent descriptions is given by Lewis Mumford. Alarmed by the unmanageable growth of cities, the urban planner and historian described the city as “a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity”.

Demographically, a City has a dense population which is more or less permanently settled in a limited area. The city limits however, have become blurred due to suburbanization and the urban sprawl. Morphologically, it is characterized by ‘the permanence and continuous nature of its constructions and by the presence of the urban planning rules’. Geography too affects the nature of the City—for example, European cities are mostly older and historic while Asian cities have developed from ports of trade (however, this is not true for all modern cities).

Technological globalization has been one of the dominant forces changing and shaping the locality. The effect of globalization is most obvious in the urban setting, even more than its rural counterpart. The automobile (or the car) has been one such dominant technological force. Statistics show that over sixty million cars were made in 2012, which means that there were about 165,000 new cars manufactured each day. It is believed to be on par with other dominant forces namely popular culture, television and the internet. Still, rarely do we discuss the influence of cars on cities. Cities are defined, determined and continuously influenced by automobility (among other factors).

Source: iconwallstickers.co.uk

Source: iconwallstickers.co.uk

The motor car emerged out of a hunger for speed in England and other places. In fact there were continuous efforts being made to break the speed barrier. Motor touring (in England) and motor camping (in the New World) became popular past times for who could afford it. Cars soon became a necessity for households in the developed world. The mobility that cars provide have led to what scholars call, car based suburbanization of American cities. The auto sprawl syndrome was not just restricted to the US but was also seen in Australia. The car came to represent progress of a society, and it is quite difficult to imagine the American culture without its car culture.

What are automobiles?

Cars have been, for long, thought to be a neutral technology. By accepting this, we have ignored that the car has reconfigured the city by presenting an entirely different pattern of dwelling, travelling and socializing in and through an automobolized time-space. Before going into the ways in which cars have redefined cities, let us look at what an automobile is. Urban sociology has significantly theorized and studied the car culture and its implication.

Shove believed that automobiles exhibited six component factors—it is a manufactured object (by the industrial sector), it is a major item of individual consumption (it is advertised as an object of desire through erotic imagery, power and speed), it is a powerful machinic complex (its unique nature creates links to other industries), it is also a ‘quasi private mobility’ (it substitutes other forms of mobility like trains), it is a dominant culture (that hold notions about what constitutes a good life), and it is the single most important cause of environmental resource use.

Source: ibnlive.in.com

Source: ibnlive.in.com

One can see the real time influence of automobiles through the infrastructure changes that take place in a city. For example, the design of highways is based on the anatomy and physiology of the car. The highway network system also was developed keeping in mind cars and trucks, not as much, the human driving it. Other examples include the development of the motel/hotel culture, the drive through counters of restaurants, diners and petrol pump-cum-supermarkets in cities. What they mean to say in all this is that cars act as a catalyst that changes landscapes and transforms cities.

Do Automobiles shape the City?

Although the available literature and empirical studies on urban growth and structure have been mostly restricted to the United States’ cities, we can conclude that there are three basic models of urban structure—the Concentric Zone Theory (by Ernest Burgess in 1924), the Sector Model (by Homer Hoyt in 1939) and the Multiple Nuclei Model (by Harris and Ullman in 1945).

Hoyt’s Sector Model is particularly interesting in understanding the growth of how urban structures expand along transportation arteries. Although Hoyt’s model has been criticized on a number of grounds, he was right in his assessment on the role of transportation in expansion of cities. Commutation is a priority for urban residents and has influenced their choices. It is interesting to study the transformation of the City—from the early “walking city” to the present “automobile city”.

Source: urbanfabric.fi

Source: urbanfabric.fi

The walking city appeared sometime around the nineteenth century and was characterized by high density, mixed land use and narrow streets. Cities were very compact and residents here were required to make a short journey (usually walking) to reach their place of employment. The scenario of cities began to change in the 1860s in Europe and the New World (the Americas) due to the increasing density of population and industrial development. The new city form could accommodate more people due to the mass transit technology. The trains created sub-centers while the trams created an almost linear development along the “main street”. The city centre retained its intensive activity characteristic in the transit city.

The most recent transformation of the City came about during the Second World War period, and intensified much more after that. The automobile became a substitute to other forms of transportation, and movement among and between train lines became possible. And thus, the auto city was here to stay. Affordable housing became a reality while the City itself began to scatter and spread out. The influence of automobiles, however, grew to an extent that it became dependence for the residents and have led to a decline in social interaction.

Do Cars still influence the City?

Cars continue to affect the City in a number of ways. The infrastructures of cities are usually made around the car needs. The traditional street was replaced by roads meant for cars. Within the city itself, the roadways are made out of concrete and asphalt as these are most suitable for cars. Organized road networks not only connected people and places but businesses began to pick up along the roadways.

The automobile industry was initially situated within the city limits and before its mechanization, it did employed laborers. The city also saw the establishment of shops, bars and restaurants that catered to these workers. The car began to support other industries. Car manufacturers, car maintenance and oil, that is, petrol and gasoline producers came to the forefront. The government’s role began increasing in this context. The car and other motorized vehicles needed public financing in the form of road construction and road maintenance. For example, potholes are still a major cause of concern for Mumbai’s residents. Thus, the car redefined public and private responsibility within the city.

Source: toptravellists.net

Source: toptravellists.net

The automobile made accessibility to distant places possible, thus was also instrumental in changing the land use patterns and the real estate possibilities. Urban suburbanization has been made possible by the automobile. Today, almost one half of the city is dedicated to car usage in some form. Even in the resting mode, cars demand attention and space. Car parking is an urban issue. The land areas in cities cater to car needs like services stations, signals and traffic signs and other automobile oriented industries. Space for other forms of transportation began to decline in a number of cities.

All’s well then?

Cities are plagued with traffic jams. Cars have certainly intensified these traffic jams but cannot be blamed for inventing them. This is mainly because the available spaces did not match (and could not absorb) the increasingly number of cars produced. Broadening roads has encouraged more traffic and the newer constructions have fragmented the urban community socially.

Source: torinodiary.wordpress.com

Source: torinodiary.wordpress.com

Cars have divided workplaces and homes in cities and produced lengthy commutes. It is often said that cars have become the problem that it had promised to overcome. The premise of the auto city was to shorten the time-space factor for commuting but in reality, cars have dispersed the city so much so that it takes more time for traveling. Cars also began to replace other forms of transport—trains and walking; this is particularly true for the developed countries.

Cars are health threatening and possibly life threatening too. City residents lead a stressful and even unhealthy lifestyle (possibly due to the lack of exercise and easy availability of fast food). Cars add these woes as they are a source of carbon dioxide emission, leaving a large carbon footprint behind. This has long term effects for the environment. Cars are potentially life threatening in the sense that road accidents are common due to negligence, over-speeding or drunk driving or other car related crimes. The urban setting has been often called a concrete jungle, cars contribute to this notion. The city has become a car-only environment. Images of New York, Mumbai, Tokyo and Shanghai are testaments to this.

Source: telegraph.co.uk

Source: telegraph.co.uk

Have Cars redefined the City’s urban community and the urban individual?

We have seen the effects of the automobile on the city’s infrastructure and its environment. Another interesting area worth considering is the effect of cars on the urban community. Road and other similar construction have fragmented city life and the urban community. Social interaction between members of the community began to decline with the increasing car usage. Even family life was disrupted as cities began to disperse. On the one hand, cities now allot lesser leisure and recreational spaces while simultaneously expanding car spaces.

However, the individual is perhaps most redefined by the Car. The car encapsulates individuals in a privatized, cocooned and moving environment. Cars have reinforced individuality and consumerism especially as seen in the city. It came to represent an extension of the individual and it reconfigured modes of sociality. Scholars even suggest that the urban civil society should be reconceptualized as a ‘civil society of automobility’ with car drivers and car passengers.


Automobiles in American Life and Culture. (2010). (University of Michigan and The Henry Ford) Retrieved March 7, 2013, from Automobiles in American Life and Culture: http://www.autolife.umd.umich.edu/

Newman, P., & Kenworthy, J. (1999). Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence. Washington DC: Island Press.

Sheller, M., & Urry, J. (2000). The City and the Car. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research , 24 (4), 737-757.

Shove, E. (1998, December 10). Trinity College Dublin. Retrieved March 7, 2013, from http://www.tcd.ie/ERC/pastprojects/carsdownloads/Consuming%20Automobility.pdf

Urry, J. (1999, January 6). University of Lancaster. Retrieved February 7, 2013, from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/fass/sociology/papers/urry-automobility.pdf


One Response to ““Hitting the Road, Jack?”: The City on Wheels Phenomenon”

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