City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s
A rapidly growing dependence on the car helped reshape life in American cities and suburbs after World War II. It created the suburban landscapes and culture that have come to dominate much of contemporary American life. Owning a car made it easier for white middle- and working-class families to move to sprawling new suburbs. Local and national transportation policy often encouraged suburbanization, to the detriment of older cities.
By the 1950s growing traffic problems and rapid suburbanization threatened the future of Chicago’s central business district. In response, city officials implemented a series of transportation projects designed to encourage downtown development. Instead, the “improvements” encouraged people and businesses to move out of the city. Park Forest, one of the suburbs that attracted Chicago residents, was a planned development where the landscape and the rhythm of daily life revolved around the family car.
Ford Country Squire station wagon, 1955
In the 1950s U.S. station-wagon production rose from less than 3 percent to almost 17 percent of the total number of cars built. The station wagon became a symbol of postwar suburban life. Suburban parents came to rely on these large cars to commute, cart the family, shop, and haul household goods.
Schwinn Panther bicycle, 1953
Owning a bicycle gave children a certain amount of freedom. This was especially true in the suburbs, where roads were less crowded and drivers were used to large numbers of children moving through the neighborhood.
Before the next stop, take a “ride” on the L train in Chicago, Illinois. When you leave the station and turn right, walk past the bus to the next label stop.
What Happened to Public Transit?
Public-transit ridership peaked during World War II and then declined as more Americans took to their cars, and residential and commercial development moved farther away from existing mass-transit services. Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, over 170 U.S. transit companies ceased operations.
In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson called for the nation to rebuild mass-transportation systems to renew American cities, and Congress passed legislation to provide some funding for transit. By the 1970s aid to mass transit was one of the fastest growing federal programs. Support for mass transit was on the rise, even if ridership was not. The civil rights movement had raised awareness of the transportation needs of disadvantaged people. Environmental issues gained public prominence, as did the escalating price tag for massive-road building projects and the costs of increased car and truck travel.
But America’s cities continued to sprawl, and transit couldn’t compete with the convenience of car travel. The Chicago Transit Authority was hard hit by falling ridership and revenue. In the 1980s a Chicago transit official declared that mass transit was “no longer relevant to the American way of life.” But in the late 1990s public transportation began a surprising comeback as planners explored smart-growth and transit-oriented development. Will more Americans turn to public transportation as roads become increasingly congested?
The next stop is the highway Interstate 10. Turn around and walk toward the blue truck, between the two red cars.