Todd Huttunen began appraising more than 20 years ago with a few years off in between to pursue a career in cabinet making. He relegated that to hobby status and is currently an appraiser in an assessor’s office. His best friend dubbed him The Hall Monitor because of his rigidity and respect for rules. He offers Soapbox readers tongue-in-groove insight on appraisal issues.

This week Todd suggests we park our cars on the lawn because you can’t fight progress. …Jonathan Miller

With all its faults, you’ve just got to love the internet, Google in particular! I wanted to know how many cars there were in the United States in the early 20th century as opposed to how many there are now and to juxtapose this with the changes in population over the same time period. A Google search brought me to an article published in the New York Times entitled “How Many Can Buy Cars?

“Everybody who drives an automobile, or has tried to find a vacant space in which to park one, and every pedestrian who is daily obliged to dodge automobiles, or to wait on the endless stream of them to pass, so that he may cross a busy street every one of these persons, or nearly everybody must have asked himself at some time:

What is going to happen when there are several times as many automobiles as there are now? How many automobiles are there going to be in this country, anyhow? Where are we going to put them all?”

The article that posed these questions was published in The Times on August 28, 1921, and the somewhat less than prescient sub-heading to the story read “Country’s Limits in the Use of Automobiles Not Far Off, According to Expert”. “Indeed it appears doubtful if there will ever be even twice as many cars in use as there are today. The point of saturation is probably only a few years ahead.”

The Times may, or may not, ultimately be vindicated with regard to their recent story suggesting an “improper” relationship between John McCain and a female lobbyist. But as to the question of the future of the automobile, it seems clear they missed the boat on that one back in 1921.

According to the article, there were nine million (9,000,000) cars on the road for a population of one hundred and five million (105,000,000) in 1920 – one car for every twelve people. The population has nearly tripled, to 300,000,000 people in the United States, but the number of cars has multiplied by a factor of twenty-five to 228,000,000, according to The World Fact Book. This breaks down to one car for every 1.3 people.

What got me thinking about cars and people was an article in the on-line version of The Atlantic, written by Christopher B. Leinberger entitled The Next Slum? The writer argues that “The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.”

He notes, “In most metropolitan areas, only 5 to 10 percent of the housing stock is located in walkable urban places. Yet recent consumer research by Jonathan Levine of the University of Michigan and Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia suggests that roughly one in three homeowners would prefer to live in these types of places. In one study, for instance, Levine and his colleagues asked more than 1,600 mostly suburban residents of the Atlanta and Boston metro areas to hypothetically trade off typical suburban amenities (such as large living spaces) against typical urban ones (like living within walking distance of retail districts). All in all, they found that only about a third of the people surveyed solidly preferred traditional suburban lifestyles, featuring large houses and lots of driving. Another third, roughly, had mixed feelings. The final third wanted to live in mixed-use, walkable urban areas-but most had no way to do so at an affordable price. Over time, as urban and faux-urban building continues, that will change.”

The automobile industry was a necessary precursor to the creation of the post WWII suburban landscape. And although The New York Times was wrong its 1921 predictions, they did pose questions which are today more relevant than ever: “What is going to happen when there are several times as many automobiles as there are now? How many automobiles are there going to be in this country, anyhow? Where are we going to put them all?” It is perhaps ironic that the very industry whose growth played a pivotal role in the success of the suburbs, at the expense of cities, will now be a driving force in the ultimate demise of many of them.

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2 Responses to “[The Hall Monitor] The Pendulum Swing From City to Suburb – is Swinging Back”

  1. Dale says:

    There is a difference between how many cars people have and how many cars are on the road at any given time. Similarly to those of us who believe in a free market economy, there are those of us who believe that patterns will change when situations become untenable. Traffic and gas prices are factors which determine means of transportation used when one has choices, both of which make using more fuel efficient cars a rational decision. I’m a believer that roads will change and accomodations made to make living more enjoyable when our current ways of living no longer make sense. If cities are too congested, usage fees for driving during high traffic hours will be incurred. Parking costs will increase, etc.

  2. Todd Huttunen says:

    I agree – “patterns will change when situations become untenable”. My concern is that the automobile “culture” is the foundation upon which the economy of this country is based and that the patterns of development we have witnessed since the end of WWII were only possible because of cheap and abundant energy. If the days of cheap and abundant energy are over, not even the free market can soften what will be a very hard landing. There may not be a viable transition to another way of living when our current ways of living no longer make sense.