Return to Stories

Automobile America

This photographic journey across four states in the souther USA is an attempt to capture the enormous impact that cars have had on modern life. America, the home of the mass produced motorcar, is the most striking embodiment of our love affair with the car; an object that continues to inspire passion and a sense of identity in its owners. If Aliens were to descend on this planet in the 21st century and witness the vast number and variety of colourful vehicles whizzing around the roads they could be excused for thinking that it is the automobile that is in charge, not the smaller, two legged creature sitting at the wheel, steering the cars. Yet even this is going to change with the advance of the autonomous, self-driving car. In the 100 years since the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line in Detroit, Michigan, the motorcar has affected our daily lives in myriad ways and its role continues to evolve and expand. The arrival of the automobile led to the rapid expansion of cities as cars enabled workers to commute to their workplaces. The car has also made western societies more sedentary and lazy as there is little incentive to walk to the nearest shop if one can drive. I once met a member of a a neighbourhood watch team in a small US town patrolling a postage stamp sized patch of land near her house. While we talked, seated in her her enormous GMC truck with a 5 litre engine, she didn't see the need to switch of the engine.

In much of the US most local conveniences and services - including banks and cash machines - are either drive-through or located in places that are mainly accessible by car. The typical Main Street is a wide thoroughfare, dotted with fast food outlets, banks, lawyers offices and pharmacies, each housed in a separate building surrounded by large parking lots. The streets are devoid of pedestrians and cyclists and few roads have any pavements. Decades of town planning with the car in mind coupled with a lack of investment in public transport have made Americans overly dependent on the car which continues to be advertised as a must have lifestyle accessory.

Reversing this trend is fraught with difficulty. Towns sprawl endlessly outward, making the construction of integrated metropolitan transport systems prohibitively expensive. Even if better public transport were available, public attitudes would need to change. Much of suburban America is an identical landscape of sprawling residential areas, shopping centres, car parks and drive-throughs. To accommodate the large volumes of traffic ever larger roads measuring up to 8 lanes across, are built, cutting different parts of cities off from each other. Town centres are deserted at night.

And yet, the car is an integral part of American culture. It's a status symbol, a work of art, at the cutting edge of technology. With over 6.5 million kilometres of road, the US is the birthplace of the road trip and millions enjoy the driving experience. I love driving, love having a car - the feeling of freedom it gives (when not stuck in traffic). I love being in the fast lane on the motorway and I drive a lot. Car design is a fascinating field and with the spread of autonomous vehicles and cleaner fuels the car may slowly shed its reputation of being a major pollutant.

Maybe it's all about balance? There's plenty of space for both individual and public transport though at the moment, the balance is tipped very much in favour of the car. With a growing population and newly affluent middle classes in developing countries being able to afford to drive the current growth in car numbers on the road is unsustainable. Even with electric and hybrid cars becoming more common, the problem of generating energy to power these vehicles remains and issue. According to some studies, electric cars could actually increase traffic as passengers will be able to enjoy the drive without having to do the driving. Certain electric car enthusiasts in America are actually calling for broader roads to accommodate larger volumes of traffic.

I travelled around the southern United States, covering some 7,000 miles on a number of trips, and was struck by America's unique relationship to what could arguably be called one of the main forces behind its economic might and global influence.

Piotr Malecki, 2018
powered by