American Automobility: The Rise of Mass Motorization and Oil Consumption

Transportation as a Driver of Oil Consumption

Transportation systems have long been a driver of global oil consumption and increasing carbon emissions. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, petroleum-based fuels such as gasoline, diesel, and propane account for 36 percent of total energy consumption in United States. Over two-thirds of refined petroleum fuels that are used in the U.S. are consumed within the transportation sector (O’Reilly, 2019). With a transportation system that is largely oriented around personal automobile travel, it may come as no surprise that the U.S. consumes the most gasoline and diesel fuel in the world, followed by China, India, and then Japan. The rise of the automobile and supportive infrastructure to facilitate personal automobile travel have undoubtedly contributed to America’s dominance of global oil consumption.

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The Rise of Automobility

In his book Mass Motorization & Mass Transit, David Jones describes how the system of American automobility has driven the U.S onto the path of pervasive motorization and mass oil consumption. As a policy analyst and historian who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University, David Jones has extensively studied how motorization has impacted energy consumption and influenced economic growth. He describes automobility as somewhat of a new term that expresses how cars function not just as a source of transportation, but as a technology that has become firmly implanted within daily life (Lindeke, 2012).

Automobility has become a new paradigm that portrays just how crucial the automobile has become for the average American. By looking at American culture, it is easy to see how the car has certainly become a source of addiction. Not only do the majority of Americans drive cars, but cars essentially drive Americans. The seamless system of personal automobile travel drives Americans to make trips to gas stations, to purchase large homes with full-sized garages, and to care about political stability in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East (Lindeke, 2012).

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Automobile Dependence

The automobile is by far the most common form of daily transportation in the United States. Without personal cars and trucks, the vast majority of Americans would be unable to travel to work and school, while also being less likely to be able to access common amenities. Through the system of mass motorization, the U.S. has constructed more metropolitan freeways and highways than any other nation in the world (Jones, 2008). In Mass Motorization & Mass Transit, Jones effectively conveys how the American automobile system has achieved worldwide domination, and on the contrary, how it has facilitated a critical level of unsustainable fossil fuel consumption.

America’s global dominance of motorization and energy consumption commenced after World War II. This period in history gave way to American automobile domination because World War II inhibited motorization in Europe, while also helping to provide a stimulus to jumpstart the U.S. economy (Jones, 2008). After the war, Americans were able to purchase more cars as a result of the rise in household incomes and the overall ability to purchase commodities. Multiple waves of economic growth and the outward expansion of suburbia subsequently made the United States the world’s most motorized nation (Jones, 2008).

America vs Europe

The automobile has been seen as a form of salvation that made the freedom of movement possible. Cars allowed people to travel outside the realm of the streetcar, which generally only provided transportation within a metropolitan area. Automobiles made it possible for people to move freely not just within in a city, but throughout the surrounding environment. Moreover, unlike many European cities, America could provide road space and parking requirements without having to deal with burdens such as density issues or the displacement of other land that was already in use (Jones, 2008). Older European cities didn’t have enough space to support a large volume of traffic without redeveloping historic districts. Moreover, American cities were spread across a much vaster landscape, which was a major factor that prompted public interest in the development of freeways and expressways.

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Funding the Addiction

Beginning in 1956, public interest and federal investment provided major funding for the development of a national system of highways to enable the mass movement of people by car (Jones, 2008). The construction of a national system of highways amplified America’s car addiction and fossil fuel consumption because it supported much more suburban sprawl, which dramatically intensified American car dependence. People could now live even greater distances away from city centers because of linkages provided by interstates.

In addition to soaring levels of suburbanization, factors such as rising incomes, an increasing number of women in the workforce, improved borrowing power, and increasing levels of home ownership all contributed to a growing number of cars on American roads (Jones, 2008). When these factors combined, not only did they lead to pervasive motorization, but also to uncertainties regarding the sustainability of intensive mass motorization.

Is Mass Motorization Sustainable?

David Jones has indicated how motorization is not sustainable because it requires massive inputs of fossil fuels to operate. Moreover, the fuels needed to power cars have traditionally been extracted from politically and economically unstable regions of the world. Jones has said that, “The volatility built into the geopolitics of oil demonstrates that intensive motorization is a double-edged sword” (Jones, 2008). He has often stated publicly how the American system of motorization was unsustainable because of the lack of a reliable fuel source and the issue of global warming. Jones believed that this lack of stability and the harmful toxins that are produced as a result of driving would encourage the development of alternative forms of transportation so that the internal combustion engine could be abandoned.

In some ways, Jones’ predictions have started to come to fruition. The development of alternative forms of transportation, mainly through the increased adoption of electric vehicles, have started to initiate a transition away from conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. A falling number of gas-powered vehicles could eventually push the world away from increasing levels of oil consumption and towards a more sustained decline in the global demand for oil. Additionally, with regards to the notion of abandoning the international combustion engine, some global policymakers have already started to implement plans to enact future bans on gasoline and diesel vehicles. Phasing out all conventional gas-powered cars would increase the sustainability of transportation systems if the overall goal was placed on reducing carbon emissions and lowering air pollution.

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The Geography of Nowhere

While David Jones has certainly been critical of mass motorization and fossil fuel consumption in the U.S., James Howard Kunstler’s view of American automobility in his book, The Geography of Nowhere, is viewed much more critically. Kunstler and Jones each approach the subject of automobility and energy consumption in a way that clearly portrays the unfavorable impacts. Jones covered the subject of automobility by using a more holistic approach, which conveyed an in-depth investigation into how the American automobile system has achieved worldwide domination and a dramatic rise in oil consumption. On the other hand, Kunstler specifically targets the U.S. government, General Motors, urban planners, and political figures as being key factors to how America has become addicted to fossil fuels and car culture.

In addition to increasing fossil fuel consumption, James Howard Kunstler blatantly illustrates his detest for how the advancement of the system of American automobility has destroyed many of the country’s great livable landscapes and replaced them with wastelands filled with oversized billboards and drive-thru fast food chains (Kunstler, 1993). In the beginning of his history of automobility, Kunstler describes how people first viewed the automobile as a form of liberation that would end the era of limited mobility. Americans were so focused on the possibilities that could arise from the freedom of movement that there was no room for thinking about the potential for destruction of landscapes, air quality, and culture in general.

Public and Private Support

The federal government and General Motors were the first two factors identified by Kunstler that supported American motorization and the subsequent rise in oil consumption. During the period from 1890 to 1915, the electric streetcar and the automobile were both invented. However, the automobile was heavily subsidized, while the electric streetcar received no public funds (Kunstler, 1993). This gave the automobile a significant edge over the privately owned streetcar companies.

In 1916, the federal government spent $75 million to subsidize automobile use through the Federal Road Act, which improved post roads and assisted the states in the organization of their highway departments (Kunstler, 1993). Conversely, streetcar companies received almost no government support and ultimately began a downward spiral into bankruptcy as the world shifted its focus on the First World War. Then in 1925, General Motors began its planned operation to buy up streetcar lines, demolish them, and then make new routes for automobiles. GM made it a goal to replace public transportation systems with new and innovative private transportation systems fueled by fossil fuels. By 1950, GM had demolished over 100 electric streetcar lines (Kunstler, 1993).

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Robert Moses and Ronald Regan

Besides General Motors and the federal government, Kunstler specifically points out that Robert Moses and Ronald Regan played key roles in sustaining American automobile dependence. Robert Moses was the director of numerous New York state agencies from the 1920s to the 1960s. He set the pattern for introducing the automobile to cities across the country.

He championed the development of countless highway construction projects while also tearing apart entire neighborhoods and solidifying America’s addiction to fossil fuel-powered automobile. His expressways, roads, and bridges all were designed specifically for the automobile rather than public transportation such as trains or even buses. Kunstler described Moses as being anti-mass transit. His highway infrastructure was designed so that space for public transportation couldn’t be added in the future. Furthermore, many of his overpasses were irrationally built so that buses couldn’t even pass through them.

In addition to Moses’ contribution toward American motorization, Kunstler also emphasizes that Ronald Reagan’s energy policy encouraged increased motorization. He says that Reagan’s polices abandoned Jimmy Carter’s alternative-energy research, which consequently led to increased oil dependence and yet further reliance on cheap fossil fuels to drive the American automobile system.

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The Future of Mass Motorization

Motorization has become integral in nations around the world. However, over the past few decades, the surge in mass motorization has heightened the demand for the world’s limited petroleum reserves and also has led to an increase in global carbon emissions (Jones, 2008). America began to dominate global motorization as World War II constrained automobile development in Europe and created economic prosperity for American households. Since then, the U.S. has become further immersed in an addiction with the automobile because of massive infrastructure projects that were aimed to support motorization.

Interstate highways and sprawling suburbs are key examples of how the car has changed the spatial distribution of the American landscape, which has led to an increasingly energy-intensive lifestyle. These features of American life are not sustainable without the automobile. As petroleum reserves continue to decline in the future, it will be imperative to increase the development of alternative forms of transportation. If electric vehicles ultimately fail to become widely adopted in the U.S., Americans will have to start thinking about how they would be able to survive if their system of pervasive motorization ceased to exist. While oil supplies are currently abundant and cheap, it’s inevitable that future oil supply shocks could strain the country’s transportation system.


Frankel, E., and Menzies, T. (2012). “Reducing Oil Use in Transportation.” Issues in Science and Technology.

Jones D. (2008). “Mass Motorization & Mass Transit.” Indiana University Press.

Kunstler, James. (1993). “The Geography of Nowhere.” Touchstone.

Lindeke, B. (2012). “Three surprising things about Automobility.” Streets.

O’Reilly, C. (2019). “Most US petroleum consumed in transportation sector.” Hydrocarbon Engineering.

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