The Shifting of Ideals: Cities of the Future Propelled by Car Culture

The 20th century saw the emergence of the automobile and the shifting city

As cars pushed their way up to prominence, pushing pedestrians to the side, the idea of a city began to shift.

Perhaps one of the greatest innovations in human history is the city. Humans are social species, and the concept of living together in a vast, built-up urban environment has never been more relevant than in the ever-urbanizing world we find ourselves living in. But with this increasing urbanization comes opposing forces, and throughout much of the twentieth century, that opposing force was another human invention: the automobile.

During this period, the ever-increasing accessibility and popularity of the automobile, particularly in the United States, threatened to alter the very fabric of the country’s urban landscapes, and numerous concepts of the “city of the future” arose, putting the automobile front and center. While some of these visions did not quite pan out the way these futurists imagined, some of their ideas did, and with this of course came copious unintended consequences.

The history of the automobile itself dates back to at least the nineteenth century, but it was not until the early 1900s that mass production of the automobile began, allowing it to become more accessible to the public and thus more popular. While the automobile was a relatively new invention at this point, its impact had already begun to be felt in cities across America, and feelings regarding this were mixed. According to a 1908 entry from The Yale Law Journal, entitled “The Status of the Automobile” by H.R. Brown:

“[Automobiles’] great power, speed and weight have made veritable king of the highway…they have brought suburban towns within easy access from the city; they do not run upon a fixed track, and have no monopoly of any part of the highway; they do not seriously interfere with its use by other vehicles, and afford a most convenient and expeditious method of traveling between cities and outlying villages or country seats.”

While there was no denying their convenience, automobiles were commonly viewed in a negative light, specifically in regards to their impact on the urban environment. During this time, cities consisted of roads which were mere dirt paths, used by horse-and-carriages, electric trolleys, and most importantly, pedestrians. Streets were a place for people to walk, to congregate, to play games — they were for the people.

New York City in the 1900s, a time when pedestrians, not cars, dominated the streets.

However, this livelihood was now being threatened by the newfangled automobile. Because of this, the automobile was not immediately accepted throughout the 1900s and 1910s. The same Yale journal mostly argued against the automobile’s implementation, stating that:

“The invention of the automobile has introduced upon the public roads of the country a novel and not altogether welcome guest. The increased size, weight and noise of such cars, particularly those employed in suburban travel, has resulted, as a matter of fact, in a marked depreciation of the value of property upon residence streets.”

It is important to note that in this instance “highway” is referring to a street, making the argument that the automobile has forced itself upon the scene and was threatening the very fabric of cities and streets, dragging down land value and pushing people out.

The late 1900s and early 1910s were, according to James J. Flink of the American Quarterly, “characterized by the rapid development of an attitudinal and institutional context that made the domination of American civilization by the automobile inevitable” which he wrote in his article “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness.” It was at this point when the realization settled in that automobiles were not going away anytime soon, and going forward, they would become an integral part of society — the question was, how were they going to be implemented, and how would our cities adapt to this change?

In the early 1910s, the idea began to be seriously considered that our cities would need to adapt and change to make way for the automobile, not the other way around. Numerous concepts of the ‘future city’ began to be dreamed up which would combine the pedestrian-friendly nature of cities of the time with a less-friendly, automobile-centered nature. The results varied, but most concepts of the time managed to pack in a lot of action in a dense space, serving both the pedestrian and the car rather equally.

Harvey Wiley Corbett’s “City of the Future” concept (1913).

One of the most prominent concepts of the future city from this time was the City of the Future concept art by Harvey Wiley Corbett, a prominent and reputable architect of the time. Corbett’s vision from 1913 depicts what he envisioned the future city was to look like with the implementation of the automobile, and he imagined a vast urban space with towering skyscrapers, divided into multiple levels. On the bottom level were tunnels for passenger rail and rapid transit subways, then above that lay wide avenues for automobiles to travel, with trolleys running in the middle, and then above the avenue were two more levels of elevated pedestrian walkways which criss-crossed the city.

Corbett’s vision also featured pedestrian bridges spanning between buildings high above. The result was a complex city serving as the definition of separation: in a world where cities of the time were united by the street — that is, all forms of transportation shared the same space together — the city of the future was to be the exact opposite, a space where all forms of transportation had their own reserved spaces, and were completely separated from each other.

Another lesser-known but still important concept of the city of the future from the 1910s was Edgar Chambless’s Roadtown. In essence, the Roadtown was a linear city, a “skyscraper [laid] on its side, creating a continuous house and road” according to Robert Mansfield in his book Cosmopolis: Yesterday's Cities of the Future. The Roadtown called for essential services to be held in the ‘basement’ of the long structure, which would contain roads, and living and working spaces stretching through it.

Edgar Chambless’s “Roadtown” concept, which would have functioned as one long, indoor city.

Chambless’s Roadtown essentially combined urban, suburban and rural lifestyles all into one. The Roadtown was proposed by Chambless in 1910, and it was a wild plan which ultimately, like much of Corbett’s concept, did not pan out. According to Chambless, the Roadtown would not have just been a concrete jungle, but rather:

I would surround the city worker with the trees and grass and woods and meadows and the farmer with all the advantages of city life.

The automobile’s prominence and popularity increased through the 1920s and 1930s, with this period “involv[ing] mass idolization of the motorcar and a mass accommodation to automobility that transformed American institutions and lifeway”, according to James Flink. Concepts of the city of the future with the automobile front and center continued to emerge, including Dr. John A. Hariss’s 1927 idea of a six-deck street in Manhattan, with each level being designated for a different purpose — for example, the top level “was reserved for high speed automobile traffic” according to Mansfield, and levels below it were reserved for slower traffic, as well as trucks and buses.

Additionally, the highways were to be built with sidewalks, and parking would exist on all six levels. Suffice to say, cities were quickly adapting to the automobile, with the engineering of new road layouts and intersections such as the cloverleaf intersection, and the creation of the Traffic Engineer, a new profession created “in response to the needs of a nation on wheels” according to Volume 35 of The Science News-Letter, published in June 1939.

The traffic control engineer’s concern is not with the structure of a road itself. It is with laying out the road so that traffic can move swiftly. It is with traffic signals, road markers and warning signs. He is concerned with intersections -New Jersey’s famous clover-leaf inter- sections on main highways leading out of New York City are typical of the traffic engineer’s work. He is also very much concerned with designing curves such that automobiles can move around them safely at the prevailing speeds on that particular road.

The Traffic Engineer played a crucial role in ensuring automobile traffic flowed through suburban and urban areas, and its emergence can be seen as a result of America’s transition to an automobile-dependent nation. But despite these innovations and concepts, however, the transformation of cities was not at the rate which futurists had imagined. That was, until the 1939 World’s Fair, where a new concept of the future city was showcased to the world.

The 1939 Futurama exhibit, which depicted the future city as a massive, freeway-oriented space, connected by a complex of pedestrian bridges.

Dubbed Futurama, this exhibit was featured at the World’s Fair in Queens, New York in 1931. It took visitors on a journey, whisking them around a model future city with the primary focus of the exhibit being the vast highways which stretched across and right through the cities. According to Norman Bel Geddes, prominent industrial designer of the time, and creator of the Futurama exhibit:

“These motorways which stretch across the model are exact replicas, in small scale, of motorways which may be built in America in the near future.”

Thus, the model was his interpretation of what the future city would look like, putting the automobile front and center. Futurama, like Harvey Wiley Corbett’s ‘City of the Future’, featured a separated city, one where pedestrians and automobiles were not to live together, but rather, on completely separate levels. In Futurama, expansive freeways criss-crossed cities and urban spaces while pedestrian bridges lingered above.

The exhibit was fully sponsored by General Motors, a company whose actions greatly impacted transit in America during this time, and will be touched upon later, and so of course the exhibit placed a strong emphasis on the automobile; however, it was still the most prominent concept of the city of the future, possibly even to this date. It was also arguably the most popular, as “thousands of visitors waited for hours in lines up to a mile in length for the opportunity to experience the Futurama”, according to historian Roland Marchand. The amount of influence Futurama had on the public forced them to believe that this was, indeed, going to be the city of the future — and in some ways, they were correct.

Highways were already beginning to be planned and built throughout the early twentieth century, in wake of the automobile, but it was not until the mid-1950s when President Eisenhower sped up the process of organizing a freeway system, and in 1956, the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, shortened to the Interstate Highway System, opened. For the first time, America actually resembled Futurama, with large arterial highways cutting across major cities and landscapes, severely altering the nature of these cities with negative effects, which will be discussed later.

A ‘city of the future’ depicted in Disney’s “Magic Highway, U.S.A.”, which envisioned massive highways a la the Futurama Exhibit, but being used by rocket-powered cars.

In 1958, Disney’s Tomorrowland TV series aired an episode called “Magic Highway, U.S.A.”, which depicted America as a nation on the move. Highways were essentially speedways where everyone zipped and zoomed to their destinations in personal transportation devices, of course influenced by the automobile. This illustration was quite ridiculous at times, with concepts such as highways spanning the oceans depicted, but nonetheless its vision in some ways was quite comparable to both the Futurama concept and the actual highway systems which eventually panned out.

With many of the primary concepts of the automobile-centered city of the future discussed, it is worth pondering the question: to what extent have these visions come true, and what methods were used to make them a reality? Harkening back to the 1910s concepts of the city of the future, Harvey Wiley Corbett’s vision mostly did not come true. While some of his ideas depicted in the concept, such as the separated levels for subways and roads (subways in tunnels underground, roads with automobiles above) absolutely did come true, his visions of sprawling cities connected by complex series of sky-bridges and pedestrian walkways did not pan out. Rather than pedestrians being separated from automobiles vertically, they were separated horizontally: pushed off the road as Corbett envisioned, but to sidewalks alongside the roads, not on bridges above them.

Chambless’s Roadtown did not take off in full, but his vision was partially realized with the building of the Union Carbide headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut, now known as The Summit at Danbury, where, according to Mansfield, “workers…can park [their car] within one hundred feet of their office and walk in.” The building consists of large office buildings connected by parking garages and a series of roadways where workers can essentially drive into their workplace, taking inspiration from Chambless’s idea.

Aerial view of the massive Summit at Danbury complex, where workers park their cars right next to their offices inside. The complex is a partial realization of Chambless’s Roadtown concept.

The architect of the Union Carbide headquarters, Kevin Roche, stated that his building was “uncontaminated by any kind of formal idea…The design grew entirely out of the initial seed of the office arrangement” which is referring to Chambless’s Roadtown. Even Hariss’s idea of the multi-decked highway came true to an extent, with the city of Chicago featuring multiple-level decked streets in its downtown Loop area, which aid in alleviating traffic and even serve a similar purpose to what Hariss envisioned, with the lower levels intended for express trucks and delivery vehicles, and the upper level devoted to local automobile traffic. What these concepts have in common is that while they were not fully realized, and absolutely did not become widespread, elements of them were in fact realized in certain, very specific instances.

Harkening back to Futurama, its visions of massive highways cutting through cities, essentially altering the very fabric of America’s urban landscapes to make way for the automobile, did come true, on an even more widespread scale than the visions of the 1910s. This was not coincidental, however, as these highway projects were government-approved and funded. In this instance, America literally shaped its own future — it wanted a car-centric society, and it got it.

Around the time of the Futurama exhibit, trolleys and streetcars were the dominant form of transportation, with numerous cities across the country consisting of complex and efficient streetcar systems. Soon after, however, the lines began to be bought over by private corporations, in an event commonly referred to as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy. According to CBS reporter Mark Henricks:

“Back in the dawn of the Automobile Age, General Motors began systematically buying streetcar lines and then shutting them down, leaving millions of Americans without viable public transportation options. Its motive? To ensure a market for its still-novel personal transportation technology. Rather than walk, the idea was, people would buy [cars].”

The true motive for this action is debated among historians: some argue that GM purchased and removed the streetcar lines to replace them with cheaper buses, while some argue that GM did this as part of a plot to remove public transit options for Americans so that they would be forced to purchase and rely on automobiles. Whatever the true motive was, it is undeniable that this action transformed America’s urban landscapes as the streetcars which were a core part of them for decades were removed, and this made way for the massive highways and freeways to be built through them which further altered their landscape.

Scrapped Los Angeles streetcars following the privatization of the lines.

Soon after the purchasing, privatization and removal of the streetcar lines, America began to build highways across the land, including the Interstate Highway System by President Eisenhower, discussed earlier. It was at this point when America finally began to resemble the “city of the future” depicted in numerous concepts such as Futurama and even Disney’s “Magic Highway, U.S.A.”, but it was not all a cause for celebration.

The construction of these highways forever changed the landscape of many of these cities, and, since many of these cities were already developed, the highways often cut right through already-existing neighborhoods, completely demolishing and destroying neighborhoods — which were often poorer and home to helpless minority residents. For example, multiple neighborhoods were completely destroyed in 1955 due to the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway in The Bronx, New York.

At the helm was Robert Moses, the man whose job was to fulfill America’s automobile-centered vision in New York City, and he did this through the construction of numerous highways and freeways in and around the city, such as the Belt Parkway and the aforementioned Cross Bronx Expressway. Author and philosopher Marshall Berman, who lived in The Bronx during the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, literally had his home and neighborhood destroyed due to this project, as discussed extensively in his 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, specifically in the chapter ‘Robert Moses: The Expressway World’, and the subject of a previous article of mine.

This devastation occurred in cities across the country, not just New York, where the citizens who lived in these areas — again, often minority groups — had their livelihoods destroyed by the construction of these automobile havens, and the fulfillment of this “dream” of the future city. This was, in essence, America’s vision of an ideal city: one reliant on automobiles, not mass transit.

San Francisco waterway before and after the Embarcadero Freeway’s removal.

While this vision was mostly achieved, it was not long before ideals began to shift, and after a few decades, no longer was an automobile-centric city and society viewed as desirable. The damage was done, however, as the freeways and interstates built in the mid-twentieth century were already completed and implemented, and the neighborhoods they ran through were already destroyed and segregated.

Decades later, the ideal “future” city was no longer one that relied on automobiles, but one that saw a return to a reliance on public transit and pedestrian-friendly spaces, as cities once were before the automobile. Some American cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, have taken part in this process, with San Francisco’s removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in 1991, and Seattle’s removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in 2019.

Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel Project or “Big Dig”, a megaproject which demolished the elevated Central Artery which cut right through downtown, and replaced it with an underground tunnel and built fresh green space above it, lasted for sixteen years. When it was finally completed in 2007 to the tune of $8 billion ($21 billion adjusted for inflation), it was easily the most expensive highway project in American history.

Despite this, it can be argued that the Big Dig, along with the removal of the other highways in San Francisco and Seattle, were beneficial to the cities which they affected, as they replaced these clunky, bulky elevated highways with more valuable space, and lowered their overall reliance on the automobile.

Downtown Boston before and after the ‘Big Dig’.

Ultimately, the concepts of the “city of the future” from the early- and mid-twentieth centuries contained a plethora of unique concepts, but were united by one common factor: the automobile. They viewed the automobile as the answer, the solution to America’s problems specifically within cities, and elements of these visions were carried out in some aspects. Yet, their implementation did not come without drastic unintended consequences, both environmentally and culturally.

Through these consequences, it has become increasingly clear that the city of the future is no longer one which relies on automobiles, but rather does the opposite. In a matter of less than a century, America went from believing that the ideal city was one relying on the automobile, to realizing that the opposite is, in fact, true.

When analyzing past visions of the future city, two aspects become apparent: what the ideal city was once considered to be, and how quickly those ideals can shift. While automobiles should not be cut completely, as they are undeniably vital to navigating around a country built for the car, they should, for the most part, take a back seat in major cities.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Twitter and on Medium to be informed of new articles.

Sources utilized:

  1. Berman, Marshall. (1982). Robert Moses: The Expressway World. In All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (pp. 297–302).
  2. Brown, H. B. “The Status of the Automobile.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 17, no. 4, The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc., 1908, pp. 223–31, https://doi.org/10.2307/784433.
  3. Corbett, Harvey Wiley. City of the Future. 1913.
  4. Disney, Walt. Disneyland. Magic Highway U.S.A., Disney, 1957.
  5. Flink, James J. “Three Stages of American Automobile Consciousness.” American Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 4, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972, pp. 451–73, https://doi.org/10.2307/2711684.
  6. Geddes, Norman Bel. Magic Motorways. Random House, 1940.
  7. Henricks, Mark. “The GM Trolley Conspiracy: What Really Happened.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 2 Sept. 2010, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-gm-trolley-conspiracy-what-really-happened/.
  8. Mansfield, Howard. “Motopia.” Cosmopolis: Yesterday’s Cities of the Future, Center For Urban Policy Research, New Brunswick, 1990, pp. 106–123.
  9. Marchand, Roland. “The Designers Go to the Fair II: Norman Bel Geddes, The General Motors ‘Futurama,’ and the Visit to the Factory Transformed.” Design Issues, vol. 8, no. 2, The MIT Press, 1992, pp. 23–40, https://doi.org/10.2307/1511638.
  10. “A New Profession: It Is Traffic Control Engineering.” The Science News-Letter, vol. 35, no. 24, [Wiley, Society for Science & the Public], 1939, pp. 374–75, https://doi.org/10.2307/3915394.

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Chris K

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me here and on Twitter for more articles!