This was about to change. In 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, a dependable, affordable car that soon found its way into many American garages. By 1927, the year that Ford stopped making this “Tin Lizzie,” the company had sold nearly 15 million of them. At the same time, Ford’s competitors had followed its lead and begun building cars for everyday people. “Automobiling” was no longer an adventure or a luxury: It was a necessity.
A nation of drivers needed good roads, but building good roads was expensive. Who would pay the bill? In most cities and towns, mass transit–streetcars, subways, elevated trains–was not truly “public” transportation. Instead, it was usually built and operated by private companies that made enormous infrastructural investments in exchange for long-term profits. However, automobile interests–such as car companies, tire manufacturers, gas station owners and suburban developers–hoped to convince state and local governments that roads were a public concern. That way, they could get the infrastructure they needed without spending any of their own money.
Their campaign was successful: In many places, elected officials agreed to use taxpayer money for the improvement and construction of roads. In most cases, before 1956 the federal government split the cost of roadbuilding with the states. (One exception was the New Deal, when federal agencies like the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration put people to work building bridges and parkways.) However, this funding arrangement did not get roads built fast enough to please the most ardent highway advocates.