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Detroit, General Motors and the American Dream

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In 1953 GM President Charles Erwin Wilson sat in front of a committee of senators during his confirmation hearing as President Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense and famously said that "for years I thought that what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." The comment caused a brief firestorm of controversy because it seemed such a shameless expression of corporate greed and self-interest, and it forced Wilson to divest himself of a considerable amount of GM stock so as to avoid a potential conflict of interest.

Sixty years after that quip, however, it is becoming more and more apparent that Wilson was exactly wrong: what was good for General Motors has not proved to be good for the nation, nor, ironically, has it proved good for Detroit.

What was good for General Motors in the post-war period was, simply put, suburbanization. In the 1950s and '60s we became a nation disproportionately dependent on our cars. By 1960 roughly 90 percent of the households in the new suburbs owned a car; two-thirds of those owned more than one. As suburbanites, we became a nation of people who drove to work, drove to the grocery store, drove the kids to school -- drove everywhere. In those new suburbs there was no other way to get anywhere.

Those cars, in turn, depended on a vast new infrastructure of roads that were built by states and by the Federal government. Eisenhower's most significant domestic accomplishment, after all, was the 1956 Interstate Highway Act. At a ratio of 90 cents to the dollar, the federal government paid for over 40,000 miles of high speed, limited access expressways. More than anything else, the car was the symbol of American post-war prosperity.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, just what that prosperity has cost us. Americans first noticed the environmental price, as auto-generated smog settled over Los Angeles, Denver, Houston and any number of other places. As the car pushed American development ever outward, more and more Americans realized that we really were paving over paradise to put up another parking lot.

Those environmental costs, real though they are, often seem indirect. Economic costs are more easily quantified and plenty of analysts have done so. They have calculated how much time Americans now spend stuck in traffic and what that amounts to in lost work productivity each year. Whereas we once thought of cars as the epitome of personal freedom, more and more we are groaning under the expense of that freedom. The American Public Transportation Association figures that it costs a resident of the Philadelphia region, for example, $12,000/year to own a car, between the cost of the car, the gas, the insurance, the parking and the maintenance.

Now it turns out that the American dream of buying a car and moving to the suburbs may, in fact, be a contributing factor to the death of that dream for a growing number of Americans. The Equality of Opportunity Project -- a collection of Harvard and Berkeley economists -- has compared upward mobility rates in regions around the country. One of their findings is that mobility is more restricted in places defined by suburban sprawl -- like Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio -- than in denser, more urban places like San Francisco and Boston. Far from being good for the nation, our love affair with the car, and the sprawl it has produced, keeps people from moving up the economic ladder.

Nowhere has Wilson's maxim been more wrong than in American cities. What was good for GM was terrible for many American cities. The auto-centric society that GM helped create abandoned its older industrial cities as all those cars on all those new roads headed out of the city, out to the crabgrass frontier. For several decades after World War II, cities paid the heaviest price for GM's vision of America as a place of big cars and bigger roads. The urban crisis of the 1950s and '60s had many causes, but the auto-centric society we built during those years was a major one. What was good for GM came at the expense of our older cities in countless ways.

And nowhere has that played out more tragically than in the Motor City itself. The implosion of Detroit -- its population loss, job loss and resulting fiscal crisis -- also has many causes, but at one level Detroit has become the victim of the automobile society it did so much to create. The automobile industry helped shape Detroit in its own image: a place of low-rise, low density neighborhoods, where cars replaced all other forms of transportation, and where the decision to leave altogether seemed entirely logical.

A number of studies have appeared recently suggesting that our infatuation with the car lifestyle may have peaked. Americans are driving fewer miles; car registrations are flat; younger Americans are getting their drivers licenses later or not at all. They prefer to walk or bike to work or to take public transit, whose ridership across the country is breaking records right now.

But not in Detroit, where the "bones" of the city make it difficult to do anything but drive. The city that built cars was also built by and for the car, and that legacy may prove the biggest obstacle to creating a post-automobile future.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government (Oxford University Press).