Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

The author of this careful and quite extensive book review of the battle for America’s streets is Karthik Rao-Cavale, a graduate student at Rutgers University and an associate editor of our sister publication, India Streets. He writes: “This review was originally written for a class I am taking with Prof. John Pucher here at Rutgers University. I am putting up this review here even though the book reviewed talks mainly about the United States, because I feel that the lessons learned are most immediately applicable to developing world. It is a lengthy read, but I hope you will enjoy it.”

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, by Peter D. Norton

The study of transportation tends to be a particularly ahistoric affair. Transportation planners remain focused on how we might extricate ourselves from the mess we have landed ourselves in, and on these questions, there might even be agreement within the profession. But few seem to be interested in seriously looking at how we got here in the first place, and as a result, this subject of quite full of myths and conspiracy theories of all varieties that end up clouding our understanding.

We do happen to know quite a bit about highway planning and suburbanization in post-World War II America, and also about the dismantling of the streetcars beginning in the 1930s. But all these put together do not quite add up. By the time the streetcars were dismantled, ridership was down and their finances had taken a beating. By the time highway planning began in earnest, the automobile was already entrenched in the transportation systems. While these developments did increase automobile use, the automobile was already dominating urban transport by this time. In the absence of convincing explanations for the rise of the automobile, we begin to accept the assertion that its ubiquity was indeed inevitable and merely a result of new technology asserting its natural superiority.

Peter Norton takes up the challenge in his book, and comes up with the missing piece of the puzzle that will allow us to claim that the automobile’s complete victory over the pre-existing transportation system was not inevitable. He starts with the question – “How did the American city become an automotive city?” and to answer this question, Norton takes us back to the American city of the 1920s and meticulously looks at the evidence that comes out of newspapers, magazines and other sources of historic information. Based on his study, Norton argues that “before the city could be physically reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where automobiles unquestionably belong”. This social reconstruction, Norton finds, happened in the 1920’s and this paved the way for America’s auto-oriented transportation system. By 1930, this process was almost complete.

The theoretical basis of Norton’s work is the idea of social constructivism, a field of study that lies at the intersection of science, technology and society. The basic premise is that new technology always disrupts the old way of life, and brings into existence new customs and new social organization, which might be resisted by large sections of the society. These conflicts end in a phase that Norton describes as “stabilization” or “closure”, and the prevailing construction at this time gets rigidified, even if it is undesirable in many respects.

Here, Norton examines various social constructions of streets by various competing groups from the perspectives of their own time. This was a time when automobile ownership was rising – the number of persons per automobile in the United States reduced from 30 in 1916 to 7.4 in 1923 – and this resulted in problems of safety, order and congestion on the streets. The solutions for these problems that different groups came up with reflected their “technological frames”. For pedestrians and parents whose children played on the street, the street retained its old status as an urban commons. For them, the automobile was inherently dangerous, and whose numbers had to be limited and whose destructive powers had to be curtailed. Norton sums up their technological frame with the word “justice”.

For policemen, the overarching goal was “order”. Their solutions included the streamlining of traffic and the minimization of conflicts. Engineers, on the other hand, placed importance on efficiency. They saw streets as public utilities for transportation and sought to maximize societal utility. Engineers in this period, supported by streetcar companies and chambers of commerce, saw automobiles as wasteful consumers of space (especially due to parking) and causes of traffic congestion.

Automobile manufacturers and clubs (“motordom”) were most interested in maximizing their freedom. They saw old customs regarding the use of streets as outdated and unfit for the “motor age”. Their solution was to rebuild the city to suit the automobile rather than controlling the automobile to suit the city. According to Norton, the manner in which these problems were framed and resolved in the 1920s paved the way for the future dominance of the automobile in the American transportation system.

Pedestrians vs. Automobiles on American Streets

The activities and opinions of these interests groups are discussed in painstaking detail, with one or two chapters devoted to each group. Pedestrians and parents reacted to the safety threat posed by automobiles by forming traffic safety councils and demanding more stringent control over automobiles. They mourned the deaths of children in accidents, erected monuments in their memory, and demonized the automobile that would take the lives of innocent children. Policemen promoted order by installing posts and traffic signals at intersections around which turning vehicles had to pass – ensuring that pedestrians were at right angles to turning vehicles.

Motordom responded to these threats by insisting that in the “motor age”, pedestrians were also partly responsible for safety. The term “jaywalking” was used during this period to describe pedestrians crossing mid-block or diagonally at intersections. However, pedestrians were accustomed to being allowed to cross anywhere on the street, and did not easily accept this new definition, as it altered the balance of rights on the streets to the detriment of pedestrians. It was through outreach in safety programs at schools that motordom managed to instill the idea that pedestrians must limit themselves to designated places. In this manner, motordom appropriated the safety movement and used it to achieve its goals.

. . .

* * * Click here for the full text of this article.

About the author:

Karthik Rao-Cavale writes: “I am currently working towards a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Previously, I got a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but I found that making cars is not as much fun as getting rid of them – that’s my excuse for making the shift. I work part-time at Voorhees Transportation Center, on a project that seeks to quantify the carbon footprint of capital projects for the New Jersey Department of Transportation. My interests include planning history, environmental planning, housing, historic preservation and tourism, though my academic focus is on transportation. In my spare time, I listen to Hindustani Music, read Jane Austen novels, and visit cities. I like travelling alone, and I like walking in cities with just a map for a guide.” This article appeared last week in his blog “India lives in her cities too”.

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