Consumer Culture and Cars


The resource is a line graph visual that depicts the trend of passenger automobile miles in US urban areas in relation to the number of passengers carried by the transit industry, from 1936-1950. The source of the graphic is based upon data from the US bureau of Public Roads.

America’s free market economy is a significant factor that continually shapes our urban development and transportation industry. The transportation sector is a privatized and decentralized industry, unlike Norway and Sweden for example, where the majority of the transportation sector is centralized and funded by the government. Although capitalism has a background in all the previously listed segments of this project (decentralization, urban sprawl, environmentalism) it is also necessary to analyze it’s influence on the private ownership of cars, individually. The line graph of passenger automobile miles in comparison to the transit rides per capita is an exemplary tool to analyze the impacts of consumerist culture. The graph shows an increase in transit rides starting in 1941 and ending in 1945- when the amount of transit rides per capita dropped steadily. The number of passenger automobile miles per capita did not launch off heavily until 1943. By 1945 the amount of transit rides was already slowing down in their increase, and by 1945 they started decreasing. It is not a coincidence that the mass production of cars had just taken off in 1945 as well. Lizabeth Cohen argues that privatized mass consumption that was linked to suburbanization was a strategy of national recovery and prosperity after World War two. Cohen asserts that suburbanization contributed to the emergence of a social landscape in the postwar period where the majority of Americans share less common physical space and public culture.[1] Freedom to choose, individualism, and a lack of government imposition are basic features of a capitalist economy, and with the rise of the popularity of the private ownership of vehicles, the use of transit decreased detrimentally.

[1] Lizabeth Cohen. A Consumers’ Republic : the Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. (New York: Knopf, 2003), 255.