UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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The history of cars, and transportation in general, in the United States is a long and important one. Transportation changes have created the culture and landscape of America. These changes have impacted the lives and historical events of Americans and the world since the colonial era, and even before. Although travel is constantly evolving, electric and self-driving cars are on the horizon, huge changes in travel have happened in the last 300 years, and it has impacted American life and the landscape of the country as a whole.
Although it is a common misconception that horses arrived in the United States via European exploration, horses had been present, in a variety of species, for millennia previous to Europeans arriving in the Americas. Up until the invention of the railroad, horses were the primary mode of land transportation in the United States. They are still used frequently by police, as transportation in rural areas, and for sporting. Other animals have been used for transportation, such as oxen to pull carts and dogs to pull sleds, but horses were a primary mode of transportation for many Americans for centuries.
- Animal Welfare Institute: Wild horses as native as North American wildlife
- Animal Smart: All about horses
- Equine Heritage Institute: Shaping civilizations: the role of the horse in human societies
Bicycles have been immensely popular almost since their creation. Certainly, by the late 1870s bicycles were popular in America, although these bicycles were not to their modern stage yet. Many bicycles had vastly different wheel sizes and shapes than we would recognize today, but they were an important way for people to independently travel longer distances. This independence would reshape American life, especially for children and young people.
- Smithsonian Museum of American History: The development of the bicycle
- Library of Congress: Bicycles in America
Cars and Trucks
Automobiles have played a major role in US history, and are a huge part of the culture. Cars have been around for over a century now, and their importance as both transportation and as a hobby is only continuing to grow. Cars allowed young people to date without the interference of parents and to have independence from the family. This independence led to the rise of suburbs as people were able to live further from work. In addition, trucks dramatically changed the landscape of American farming.
Cars were not first invented by Henry Ford, with his mass-produced and affordable Model T, but they were first popularized by this new mass production system. When cars became affordable for a large segment of Americans, roadways as well as travel, dating, and living situations changed irrevocably.
- American-Historama: Henry Ford and the Model T
- Colorado State University: The history of the automobile
- National Institute of Food and Agriculture: Historical timeline: Farm machinery and technology
Air travel made international travel a reality for millions. It made travel faster, more affordable, and safer than ever before. Air travel had been a dream of humans from time immemorial, but in the 1780s, the first air balloon was successfully flown, and in 1903, the Wright Brothers made their first famous flight. Flying has become the most popular way to travel for many, and certainly has overtaken travel by boat for intercontinental travel for most.
For example, in 2015, over 890 million people flew on flights in the United States. This huge amount of air travel continues to increase, both on international and domestic flights. The massive migration of people, even temporarily, has made travel for both work and fun easier and more manageable for many Americans and their families.
- NASA: History of flight
- Wright-Brothers.org: A history of the airplane
- The Museum of Flight: Education
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics: 2015 US based airline traffic data
Rail travel, in short, revolutionized American life and made the country look like it does today. Railroads made travel to all areas of America possible, even remote areas, particularly in the West, which was sparsely populated in many areas and often only populated by groups of Native Americans rather than colonists. Railroad travel also gave us time zones. In order to keep railroad schedules on time, standardized national time zones had to be enforced.
Although the history of the railroad stretches back to the early eighteenth century, trains became popular and prevalent in the United States in the early nineteenth century and quickly spread across the country. Train travel is still a crucial part of transit in America.
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: American Indians and the transcontinental railroad
- NPR: How trains “railroaded” the American economy
- National Geographic: 1883: North American time zones created
Water travel, despite the replacement of ocean liners with airplanes, is still immensely popular in the United States. Water travel was revolutionized with the invention of the steam paddleboat, although paddleboats had been around for centuries, the steam boat of Robert Fulton in 1807 changed the way goods and people were moved on waterways. People could move goods faster, could travel further, and could be less dependent on currents and tides, as well as explore new areas.
- Teach US History: Historical background on traveling in the early 19th century
- Sandy Historical Society: A brief history of the paddleboat
Public transportation in the United States has a long and interesting history. It allowed cities to spread out. People could live further from the city center due to public transportation, and it allowed for more people to work and live in or near cities without clogging roadways or owning any kind of transportation. The arrival of steam ferries in the 1820s changed travel on water, and buses (pulled by horses) became immensely popular in cities during the mid-nineteenth century. Cable cars, buses, elevated railways, and subways followed, forever changing how people navigated cities.
- Portland State University and Museum of the City: The history of urban public transportation in the United States
- Nashville MTA: History of transit in Nashville
- American Public Transportation Association: Resource library
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