Comparing Now and Then: An Overview of How Cars (Drastically) Changed Human Lives

The vast majority of us can’t even conceive of a world without cars. Whether you love them or hate them, use them often or occasionally, you likely have to admit that cars play a leading role in our lives. They have shaped our culture, our behavior; they have deeply changed our outlook on the world and marked our imagination. Countless songs, poems and books have been written about them. Road movies are the quest stories of today. Heroes, behind the wheel, are going on epic journeys across countries as well as within themselves, as if driving was some rite of initiation,  as if cars had some kind of answer, some kind of clue to the meaning of life.

Here are some thoughts on how cars drastically changed our lives – and ourselves.

The Face of Industry Transformed

Although concept automobiles were already being built in the late 1800s, it was only in the early 20th century, with the invention of the Ford Model-T, that cars really made an impact on the transportation market. Circa 1900, less than 1000 cars were manufactured in the US. Not 15 years later, in 1914, 1.7 million cars were sold.

Ford  assembly line - 1913Why such an infatuation with cars? They were practical, of course, and quite revolutionary. People could actually imagine going anywhere they wanted, anytime they wanted to. No more horses, no more walking, no more trains. But also, thanks to Ford, cars were affordable.

As a matter of fact, with his Model-T, Henry Ford did not only revolutionize the world; he also changed the face of industry forever by creating the continuously moving assembly line. The principle of having workers assigned to a specific post doing a specific job, simple and highly effective, allowed Ford to increase his profits and his production and, therefore, to sell his cars at a more affordable price, contributing to the gain in popularity of the automobile. All of a sudden, those fancy vehicles only the richest could afford were accessible to a lot of other people.

Cars, then, increased the speed of human life in two ways: first they allowed humans to move in an easier, faster way, and their fast-paced manufacturing was copied by many other manufacturers, increasing the speed of production and transforming the face of industry forever.

Suburbs, Commerce and the Human Mindset

If cars got popular fast, they started changing the world pretty fast too. With their new freedom of movement, people no longer needed to live close to their workplace. They could settle down further away and have more space: the suburb, a significant emblem of the North American way of life, was born.

Ford Model T - 1913Cars also made commerce explode: suddenly you could taste a mango without having to head for South America; you could order a dining set from Denmark and have it delivered within a week. In other words, you could buy much more than you used to.

What was most deeply affected by cars, though, was probably our mindset. Just imagine: before cars, a 220-mile trip between New York and Boston took an average 12-14 days by horse or on foot, or several days by train. Traveling was expensive, complicated and dangerous. Most people had only been a few miles away from their place of birth in their whole lifetime.

Today, it is another story. It takes a mere three hours and forty-five minutes to  drive from New York to Boston. You can plan your trip minutes before actually embarking on it. Covering distance is just plain easy. Whether it is for a weekend in the country or a road trip across North America, travel has become common in our lives. You’re free to do whatever you want: buy a used car in Winnipeg for a handful of money and drive it across the Rockies if you like. You can go fast, you can go easy, you can go anywhere. Since the invention of cars, the world is a much, much smaller place. And there are roads all over it, winding through forests, deserts, marshes, over mountains, above rivers and lakes. The face of the earth has been changed.

A Change For the Better or the Worse?

Yes, we move faster, we cover more distance, we have access to resources that once were inaccessible. But have cars changed the world for the better or for the worse?

Motorway construction in IrelandAfter all, transportation is responsible for over a third of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Air pollution is causing nearly 800 000 deaths every year. Not to mention that car-related accidents kill over 1.2 million people on the planet annually. they are the number-one cause of accidental death in many countries, including the US. The construction of roads is destroying ecosystems, and the noise pollution created by the vehicles on those roads is chasing various animals away from their natural habitat, endangering their species.  

Also, cars can be held partly responsible for the increase of individualism. Because we no longer live within walking distance of anything, communities have become scattered and people are less likely to collaborate or even talk with each other.

There is more: cars allow us to move faster, yes – and no. In some major urban areas, getting to one’s destination actually takes longer by car. Due to the increasing number of vehicles on the road, in certain city centers the traffic jams are so critical that going from point A to point B is now a slower process than it was before cars were invented.

Of course you can find both upsides and downsides to cars. And it is not really possible to say if the change they have created has been for the better or for the worse, for both answers have some truth in them.

Perhaps the question that is really worth asking is: did cars really respond to a need, or did they create a need?


Photo Credits

Ford Model T – Wikipedia Public Domain

Ford Assembly Line – Wikimedia Public Domain

Motorway Construction In Ireland – Wikimedia Public Domain


Guest Author Bio

Mireille Mayrand-Fiset

Mireille is a travel, music and theater enthusiast. She also writes for the stage and television and is a freelance blogger for





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