A Grand Theft: Auto Industry Stole Our Streets And Our Future
It’s Time to Reclaim Both
At the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, the fate of American cities was sealed. It wasn’t the debut of the television, microwave, or fax machine that would most shape the world we live in today; it was a gigantic diorama. In a masterful work of showmanship, General Motors and industrial designer Normal Bel Geddes intoxicated the public with a car-centric vision of the future. They called it Futurama: the speculative world of 1960 frilled in a splendor of skyscrapers and highways criss-crossing the United States. To the detriment of our cities, lungs, and climate, their prophecy more-or-less became our reality. What they couldn’t have imagined is that their vision of 1960 would still be the reality of 2021. And what most people in 2021 can’t imagine is that they live inside a 1930s diorama. But like lucid dreamers, we have control of what happens next.
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As we recover from the nightmare of COVID and the social upheaval precipitated by it, it is up to us to steer our world toward a better future. But who does that future belong to, and who gets to dream in our society? These were the questions posed by Alex O’Keefe, Creative Director of the Sunrise Movement, in a short video last year. Over the course of his life, hurricane after hurricane battered his childhood home, insurance failed to patch the holes in his roof, and distant men in suits gambled away his neighborhood’s mortgages. It became clear to Alex that he wasn’t living in a world dreamt up by people like him. He was living in “the wildest dreams of a billionaire,” and he saw that “this whole world is a work of massive speculative fiction,” written to serve the interests of the powerful.
The problem is not that our world was dreamt up; the problem is who was in control of the dream. There is no better example of this than the self-fulfilling prophecy of Futurama. Many believe that “the fitter automobile drove the outmoded streetcar [an electric trolley] to extinction,” Peter Norton explains in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. According to some historians, it was the public who decided that cars would replace electric public transit. A common belief is that Americans rebuilt their cities because of their “love affair” with the automobile.
Peter Norton suggests a different version of events. Cities were built around the desires of the social elite, not the mass demands of ordinary citizens. He recounts that the wealthy “advocates of the motor city pulled up street rails and planned the deconcentration of urban populations. When there were no more streetcars to ride and cities were replanned around motor transportation, city people rode buses or bought cars. Mass preferences were relatively unimportant.”
Many Americans have adopted the idea that we live in some Darwinian, optimally-fit conclusion, that there is little room to innovate. On the contrary, the world we live in today is not an evolutionary champion, it is the fleeting pulse of an aberrant mutation. The world we live in was selected, yes, but not by the laws of fitness, but by the corporations that sold a self-serving vision of the future. Their greed has had a massive and cascading effect on our livelihoods, from destroying urban centers, creating pollution corridors and “cancer alleys”, to making the transportation sector America’s largest greenhouse gas source. If we, all of us this time, are to write our way successfully out of the many-headed crisis this choice has caused, we will first need to remember whose story we’re in and how to reclaim the pen.
I. Cars Steal The Streets
From the perspective of the early 1900s, for the entirety of history, cities and towns had always been made for people. What roads existed were made for walking, horse-drawn carriages, wagons, and push-carts. Sidewalks were in use but pedestrians casually crossed the street on their way to the vegetable stand and children played safely in the road. There were virtually no motorized vehicles in America. The streets were public spaces every citizen had an equal right to.
Over the next two decades, cars began encroaching on roads not designed for them. Unsurprisingly, car fatalities skyrocketed as these “murder machines” mixed with ingrained pedestrian habits. In the four years after WWI, more Americans died in auto accidents than had been killed during the war. A majority of them were children. The 1910s and 1920s were marked by a back-and-forth between an outraged public and the monied interests of automakers and the larger industries of steel and oil entwined with them.
Across the country, newspapers printed anti-automobile cartoons. The cover of a 1924 New York Times depicted the Grim Reaper driving a car over innocent children. Cars were seen as both a scourge and a frivolous luxury. They were often called “pleasure cars”, and those who drove too quickly were derided as “joyriders”, “death drivers” and “speed demons.” In response to this uproar, a city ordinance was proposed in Cincinnati to regulate speeds to below 25 mph within the city limits. Understanding speed as the car’s largest selling point, auto clubs and manufacturers put out racist propaganda equating these rules to a “Chinese Wall”. They won, the ordinance did not pass, and they began to realize their power of persuasion.
In the 1920s, car makers got smart about the public’s legitimate safety concerns and worked to win the war over who the streets belonged to. Herbet Hoover launched a National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, but the conference’s biggest players all represented the auto industry. Naturally, the policies that emerged from this federal conference favored private motor vehicles above all other modes of transit. After this conference, new ordinances in 1927 deprived pedestrians access to public streets. Jaywalking became a concept, and later, a crime.
Since the inception of the car it was the motorist’s responsibility to avoid pedestrians, but soon it would be the pedestrian’s fault for their own endangerment. The auto industry achieved this in three steps.
Step 1: Control The Media. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce set up a free wire service for newspapers to report traffic accidents. The catch? The articles shifted the blame from the driver to the pedestrian.
Step 2: Indoctrinate children. Your favorite road-side company AAA started sponsoring school safety campaigns that emphasized the priority of cars over pedestrians.
Step 3: Shame Dissenters. The term “jaywalking” was invented as a way to victim-blame pedestrians for endangering themselves — “jay” being slang at the time for country bumpkin or hick was meant to portray a sense of cluelessness. Auto dealers launched PR campaigns to make jaywalkers seem like idiots. They hired actors dressed like clowns and buffoons to jaywalk, re-writing the perception of a previously normal behavior. They lobbied for police to publicly shame jaywalkers, loudly blowing whistles and picking up women and walking them over their shoulders back to the sidewalk. Within a few short years, the streets no longer belonged to the people. The age of cars was in full swing.
Now this isn’t to say cars are some evil invention; nearly every technology, every change, is met with outcry and suspicion, and then we adapt. The problem is we chose (read: “we” and “chose” in sarcastic air-quotes) the wrong technology for the wrong reasons.
In the 1920s, America had an extensive network of electric urban railways (or public streetcars) that were highly regulated by the government, dictating when and where they went. Yet private vehicles were given free license to the road and were allowed to overrun streetcar routes. Public transit lost its edge as it increasingly got stuck behind automobile traffic. General Electric, knowing their streetcars were more efficient and more equitable, fought back. They launched ad campaigns demonstrating the inefficiency of the car, inflating a two-passenger car to its relative scale, painting it both as nonsensical and a public nuisance. But they couldn’t muster the support they needed as car traffic continued to degrade the streetcar experience.
Still, public transit didn’t die of its own accord, it had assistance. Metro railways across the country were purchased by front companies operated by a milieu of fossil fuel interests from GM, to Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum. Once bought, the front company proceeded to rip up the tracks and scrap the streetcars, further ushering in a dependency on the private car. After some biased lobbying, mass-transit systems provided by Public Utilities lost government assistance in 1935. “Meanwhile, traffic engineers were reworking city streets to better accommodate motor vehicles, even as they recognized cars as the least equitable and least efficient form of transportation,” Peter Norton noted in his book Fighting Traffic. To this day, cities still measure the efficiency of an intersection based on the movement of motor-vehicles, ignoring pedestrians, cyclists, and all other modes of transit.
A century ago, a handful of businessmen stole our public spaces, and we continue to cater to them by normalizing the centrality of the car. We have forgotten, or been made to forget, that there is any other option. Norton counsels “that the battle isn’t to change rules or put in signs or paint things on the pavement. The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for.” Unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry won the battle for our minds as well.
II. The Prophecy of Norman Bel Geddes
Once the battle for the streets was won, the fossil fuel industry had a new goal: sell more cars. In 1936, the Shell Oil company was working on a national advertising campaign to increase auto sales by 5–10 million a year. Each car represented a potential hungry client for their “Super-Shell” gasoline. To run their campaign, Shell picked up on an industrial designer named Norman Bel Geddes who had popularized the “streamlining” aesthetic and designed everything from Broadway stages, martini glasses, cookstoves, refrigerators, and a 9-story amphibian flying behemoth “Airliner Number 4” complete with orchestra, gymnasium, and solarium. At the time, Bel Geddes and his design studio had recently put their minds to the country’s latest growing problem: traffic congestion.
In her book, The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America, Alexandra Szerlip recounts some of the questions Bel Geddes posed to his team in the 1930s: “How could cars switch highway lanes without crashing? What was the best way to turn left at a cloverleaf? What could be done about road hogs, poor night vision, pileups?” Their answer: cross-country highway systems, separated speed-controlled lanes up to 100-miles per hour, self-driving cars, radio-controlled traffic towers, and photo-electric cells to light the road. There’s no doubt Bel Geddes was a certain kind of visionary.
Word of their ingenuity got around, and Shell hired Bel Geddes to create the “Shell Oil City of Tomorrow” diorama, a skyscraper-laden, super-highway reimagination of midtown Manhattan. While this vision included raised walkways for pedestrians, The City of Tomorrow catered to the car above all else, and appealed to the public’s increasing frustration with traffic (a problem, one might note, that Shell and their friends created). With the success of the City of Tomorrow, Bel Geddes was only getting started as he cast his eye toward the upcoming 1939 World’s Fair.
The Fair was to be “a modernist wonderland built quite literally upon the ashes of the past,” professor Mitch Goodwin explained. What became known as Flushing Meadows, New York, where the Fair was built, was cleared from the old Corona Ash Dumps — the “valley of ashes’’ described in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Whether that particular rebirth metaphor was intended, the Fair organizers saw it as an opportunity to lift the country’s spirits out of the economic depression with the promise of a techno-utopian future. From the perspective of today, Dr. Goodwin also described it as “the birthplace for consumer culture on a mass industrial scale… and a propaganda tool for American industry funded by large corporations such as Consolidated Edison, General Motors, Chevrolet, AT&T, General Electric, and Westinghouse Electrical.” The Fair became known as the The World of Tomorrow with its slogan “Dawn of a New Day,” and Bel Geddes saw it as the perfect opportunity to expand his City of Tomorrow diorama.
Despite the success of City of Tomorrow, Shell wasn’t interested in taking it to the Fair. After shopping the idea around for months, and persevering through rejection after rejection, Bel Geddes eventually convinced GM to fund what would become known as Futurama, a massive expansion of City of Tomorrow. Futurama was, at its most basic, a ride. A procession around a diorama depicting a utopian imagination of America’s future in 1960.
It was a tough sell, but Bel Geddes was a born salesman. He understood, as Szerlip recounted, “GM’s aversion to mass transportation. [It was] bad for business. The corporation had a history of buying up urban streetcar lines in order to scrap them. There were no streetcars or trains in Bel Geddes metropolis.”
A GM exec worried that his diorama wouldn’t sell a single automobile. Bel Geddes assured him, “It sells the future. With the promise that every citizen can own a piece of that future for the price of a General Motors’ automobile.” GM was sold with the idea of having “the public wedded to GM’s ‘vision’ and to make that vision so attractive and accessible that the average Jack and Jill would have a hard time imagining a future apart from it.”
It wasn’t then an accident that the vision of 1960 on display was replete with amusement parks, resort towns and a religious retreat on a mountaintop. The narrator of Futurama would explain to the riders, “leisure is afforded to those who have mastered productivity through industry,” mimicking the popular Keynesian economic belief at the time that innovation would allow us to indulge in less work and more leisure.
When Bel Geddes was asked to instead create Futurama for the year 2000, he said, “I can’t, because there won’t be any gasoline cars by then. I’m not Jules Verne.” He would have been right if it hadn’t been in the fossil fuel industry’s best interest to suppress electric vehicles. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs’ seminal book on urban planning, Jacobs points out that, “today’s [urban] plans show little if any perceptible progress in comparison with plans devised a generation ago. In transportation, either regional or local, nothing is offered which was not already offered and popularized in 1939 in the General Motors diorama at the New York World’s Fair… In some respects, there is outright retrogression.” For the past century, we’ve been held in a state of arrested development, for the benefit of a select few.
Despite its manipulative underpinnings, Bel Geddes succeeded in creating a true work of art. As one historian, Stephen Heller, described, “it was a masterpiece of showmanship, the epitome of stagecraft — real-life Land of Oz indelibly etched in the memories of those who attended and in the imaginations of those who did not.”
III. Futurama Captures the Public’s Mind
Futurama was constructed by 2,800 people under Bel Geddes’ scrupulous direction in a very quick and frantic eight months. GM gave him a budget of $3 million, and Bel Geddes spent $6.7 million — or $130 million in today’s dollars. The diorama covered nearly an acre. It was made of 408 meticulously crafted twenty-by-five foot panels. They contained more than 500,000 individually crafted buildings, a million handmade trees of various species and colors, and 50,000 cars, many of which moved along a 14-lane highway. True to his background in theatre production, there were 500 stage lights with specialized filters to simulate sunlight at different times of day, and pulsing ultraviolet lights to activate fluorescent pigments for dynamic night scenes.
The angle between the seats and diorama was chosen to simulate the view from a low-flying airplane, an exhilarating new technology and perspective most post-Depression Americans had never experienced. Five-hundred and fifty-two plush, mohair seats revolved around the diorama on a never-before-built circular conveyor. Each chair was equipped with personal speakers that played a script specific to the viewers location, courtesy of a 20-ton, state-of-the-art narration system they called the Polyrhetor.
After an inaugural speech given by Albert Einstein, the Fair opened on April 30th, 1939. Futurama was an instant success. Within three months, 2 million people had seen it. An endless line of fair-goers snaked in front of the stark, massive walls of the GM Pavilion. They came in droves, 28,000 a day, and waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the future, to embark on the journey of their lives. “Children of the Depression had travelled very little and led simple lives,” wrote Princeton professor David Billington recounting his childhood visit to the fair, “the unforgettable sixteen minutes in the grip of Norman Bel Geddes surpassed all the other impressions of the Fair.” Walt Disney himself, after experiencing Futurama, was inspired to create EPCOT.
Beyond being a technically masterful experience, Futurama was so successful because it played directly into the particular needs of that moment from the quotidian to the existential. Futurama addressed the frustration of traffic congestion and car fatalities, acted as a salve from the rise of fascism in Europe and the specter of war, and kindled the burgeoning spark of optimism as wages had begun recovering from the Great Depression. This vision enraptured a population by putting within reach all the answers to their deficiencies: a world technologically advanced, materially abundant, leisurely, beautiful and safe.
“You have to understand that the audience had never even considered a future like this,” Dan Howland told Wired magazine in 2007. “There wasn’t an interstate freeway system in 1939. Not many people owned a car. They staggered out of the fair like a cargo cult and built an imperfect version of this incredible vision.” It was no coincidence that as the dazzled riders deboarded their flight through their utopic future, they exited into a GM showroom. Norman Bel Geddes could have sold any version of the future to this hungry audience, but GM controlled the pocketbook and thus the future.
Futurama was the final blow in the ideological war between private industry and the public’s right to the streets. From that day on, the zeitgeist was sold on cars. Cars, they believed, would usher in a new era of productivity and leisure.
On the surface, Bel Geddes had promised a utopia, but underlying it all was the poison of consumerism and seeds of classism and racism. “On all express city thoroughfares, the rights of way have been so routed as to displace outmoded business sections and undesirable slum areas whenever possible,” the narrator of Futurama explained as the viewer slid past an urban center.
Futurama laid the literal groundwork for Eisenhower’s Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 that demolished and isolated entire city neighborhoods, bisecting once walkable streets with impenetrable freeways. Highway construction targeted primarily Black and minority urban centers for removal. While the houses that weren’t demolished were left to be mired in the fumes of the exhaust pipe. At the same time, this policy enticed wealthy whites to the suburbs, drained the city’s tax base and hastened urban centers’ declines. This type of environmental racism has left redlined districts, with freeways often running through them, with dramatically higher asthma rates. Eighty years later these decisions have contributed to the disproportionate number of Black and minority deaths from COVID-19. They are also responsible for why our public transit is so sparse, and why 80% of Americans drive alone to work every day.
IV. Writing Our Own Futurama
I can’t remember when I first stumbled across Futurama, but it hasn’t left my mind since. Eighty years after its prophetic debut, browsing its archived photos is a haunting experience. The scenes seem like visions you can’t quite distinguish as a memory or a half-remembered dream posing as one. Seeing draftsmen walk like giants through what appears to be our present reality unlocked something in my mind, defiled my view of the world in some important way. The world no longer looked solid and immutable; it gave off a sheen as if it were a tired hologram, some decades-old projection.
To see that our city blocks of concrete buildings and solid superhighways are actually made with old putty, is to understand that it can all be remolded, reimagined, reclaimed. This is what I believe is the most important lesson of the climate crisis, that it presents an opportunity to build a better future than the one previously chosen for us. It seems that America has lost its sense of possibility. Somewhere along the line America ditched its hope for the future in favor of nostalgia. Inspiring people to take climate action is difficult if they can only see change as a list of things to give up or do without. When the present is the idealized frame of reference, any movement feels like sacrifice. We need a new frame of reference, a new Futurama to write into existence. This tired world of 2021, by way of 1939 has overstayed its welcome. It should be with exhilaration and a shared spirit of creativity that a new generation imagines the future, so that it may become the present.
I often wonder what a Futurama made in 2021 would look like. If the Children of the Depression could be enraptured by the luxurious promises of Futurama, what deficiency can a new vision of the future promise to amend in us? I believe the vision we need to see right now must address the current needs of all people and counteract the damages of the past centuries. It must promise healing, regeneration, and fulfillment.
As the human-dominated world empties out of its species and natural wonders I know that the vision we must see is a world enriched. A civilization built in coherence and cohesion with all life on this Earth. It will make corridors for migratory animals across our roads and plant buffets for pollinators in our cities. Tall buildings will be adorned with trees like vertical forests, sidewalks draped with vines, and roofs covered with gardens. There will be natural preserves and sovereign indigenous territories abound, those irreplaceable safeguards of biodiversity.
To counteract the division and disconnection of the modern, digital world, the vision should be community-centric, with open plazas, outdoor dining, transit-oriented housing, large stretches of leisure and meeting space, Superblocks built for walking, cities built for social creatures, instead of machines. All people will be considered in planning, with no externalities foisted unjustly on “sacrifice zones”, no longer injecting refineries, landfills, and chemical plants into the most vulnerable communities. No longer accepting these harmful industries as necessary. All resources and wastes looped into circles instead of thrown into some imaginary “away”. The cities will be beautiful — healthy, lush, full of animal sounds, devoid of pollution. Our countryside will be even more so. Restored forests and grasslands, revitalized farming towns, and sleek, electric trains connecting city to town, rural to urbanite, culture to culture.
This is just an inkling of what is possible. Now is not the time for small plans. Let’s not just take back the streets, but reimagine the entire system. Incrementalism cannot dislodge us from this doomed trajectory, it will take a bold vision like The Green New Deal, painted in vivid strokes, to bring together as many groups as possible and create real, lasting impact. So I ask our new Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, where is our Futurama? But it’s not just up to him. Hey urban planners! Hey engineers! Hey ecologists and local leaders! Hey writers, designers and dreamers! Where is our vision of the future?
As Alex O’Keefe declared in his film, “It’s us who make the reality. It’s our job in a revolution…to empower people to see their own power in the world. And so who is going to be there with the idea? Who is going to be there with the plans? Who’s going to be there with the biggest imagination?” Futurama made it clear that if you can enrapture people with a vision of the future, it will become reality. The problem isn’t that our world is a work of speculative fiction, the problem is that we need new authors. Don’t let some self interested corporation design your city for you. Don’t let private car companies sell you their vision of the future; let us tell them what the future looks like and if they have a role in it, not the other way around.