Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
© 2008 Peter Norton
Stroll into the middle of any American city today, and provided you are not in Detroit, odds are better than not you will be sent flying by a car. Streets are the province of the constant flow of automobile traffic, and anything else — bicycles, horses, skateboards, pedestrians — is most unwelcome. This is a comparatively recent development, however; for most of human history, streets were an integral part of the human landscape, the site of markets and ad hoc playgrounds. Fighting Traffic details how streets became instead traffic sewers, moving the most cars as quickly as possible, and does so with impressive heft. Its scope is more massive than its size, as in the course of rendering a social history of the urban fabric, Norton also details the shifting evolution of economic and legal assumptions that policy became a manifestation of.
The automobile was a novelty in human history, not just for its speed but for its cheapness. Although horse-drawn wagons and carriages took up as much space per vehicle as cars, if not more, horse teams were so expensive that their ownership was not universal. Even so, cities throughout history have had congestion problems and attempted to deal with them through legal means. Mass-produced automobiles, however, became so popular in the early 20th century that even the poor owned them, and they flooded city streets. As their numbers increased, so to did the fatalities they inflicted, driven at speed by people unaccustomed to such power. The rising spike in deaths prompted public outcry and attempts to bring the beast to heel — and so began the war. At the same time that concerned citizens were attempting to curb the car, automobile owners and auto manufacturers were mobilizing to expand its horizons.
The battle that emerges throughout the two decades of the 1910s and 1920s has a fascinating cast of players who frequently switched sides on one another. The auto lobby first used citizen-groups like safety councils to begin shifting the responsibility of reducing fatalities to pedestrians. In urging for laws to define the rules of the road, they managed to turn ageless human behavior — crossing the street — into a crime called jaywalking. The safety councils were unreliable allies, however, eventually insisting that the safety of the community was most imperiled not by ambling pedestrians, but the reckless speed of the drivers. The nascent traffic control movement was then employed with good effect; in the early days policemen were charged with keeping the roads in good order, but they were soon usurped by engineers. The changing world of the 20th century had come to favor their like; cities were now tied together by massive engineering projects like gas pipelines and water mains. In the wake of their success, why not treat the streets like a public utility, one run by experts? The reign of engineers would accomplish much in driving people out of the streets; the implementation of synchronized traffic signals so spurred the rate of traffic that pedestrians were forced by survival instinct to cower at the crosswalk until given sanction to pass by the new machines. But tasked with making transportation more efficient, the engineers eventually stood their ground against the auto lobby: cars, after all, are far from the most efficient mode of transportation. They don’t use space terribly well, and they require parking — acres and acres of parking!
The continuing and rising popularity of cars, however, made victory seemingly inevitable. Not that cars had triumphed merely owing to the free market; they were, after all, given a free hand and their roads public financing whereas the trolleys were stifled by regulation. Once cars took to the road in numbers, they effectively destroyed any room for other choices. The book leaves off at the start of the 1930s, before traffic masters like Miller McClintock began their dream of “gashing through” the cities with auto-only highways, but even so their triumph was accomplished in physical fact and in law and culture. Fighting Traffic’s history of the city’s initial conquest by the automobile impresses with its thoroughness and organization; Norton is almost lawyer, building a case point by point and constantly reinforcing it. His ambition was not merely to deliver a history of the city’s driven evolution, but to examine how opposing social groups overcome one another in the political sphere, using modes outside the law — like the clubs’ use of organizations like the Boy Scouts to shame pedestrians for not obeying their new signal masters, and of course the newspapers. The scholarly bent makes it slightly daunting for lay readers, but it’s worth digging into.
- Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, Peter Vanderbilt
- Getting There: The Epic Battle Between Road and Rail, Stephen Goddard
- Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay