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

The ridicule of their fellow citizens is far more effective than any other means which might be adopted [to control pedestrians]. EB Lefferts, Automobile Club of Southern California (1927)

While not a 2012 release, one of my favourite reads this year was Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton. Norton is an industrial technology historian who in Fighting Traffic documents the emergence and ultimate acceptance of cars in American cities.

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In a nutshell Fighting Traffic tells the story of how traditional streets where changed from a  place of social exchange, slow movement, and even children playing to become dominated by car movement. The fascinating part of the story was that this transformation did not happen without a concerted effort by the automobile industry. When first introduced to American cities, cars and their drivers were considered pariahs and held accountable for their actions. Local newspapers articles, cartoons and editorials depicted the automobile as a purveyor of death which included macabre imagery such as gravestones, weaping mothers, and the grim reaper. This was easy to understand since even as early as 1930 as many as 16,000 people were killed in automobile accidents every year, mostly pedestrians.

During the early days, automobiles were considered incompatible to city life and this concerned automakers. Through their local automobile associations the car industry went about to change the responsibility of road safety by placing the blame on pedestrians. This was achieved by public media safety programs, school indoctrination, and even street theatre. The most effective method for shifting the public perception was by ridiculing pedestrians. One way this was achieved was through introduction of the term ‘jaywalker’ which implied derisively to a country bumpkin-type (a ‘jay’). Any person not fully respecting the new ruler of the road would be given a card by local Boy Scouts describing their action as inappropriate, and branding them as a jaywalker. This action had the effect of changing social norms, so that eventually laws could be introduced to codify this new value system.

There were two other major contributers to this paradigm shift. First, was the role of engineering of city streets for efficiency. Where once city streets were chaotic and slow-moving, engineering practices such as signalisation allowed for cars to move smoothly and at higher speeds. While good for the car, this lead to increased travel speeds which made it difficult for people to cross the street. This was bad for street life but the activities were at least conducted within the tradtional street right of way.

The second major change was the introduction of the gas tax. This action was largely resisted by the automobile industry until they realised how they could use it to their benefit. By reforming legislation to ensure that gas tax would go exclusively to road capacity, it was supported by the car industry and quicky adopted across all the states. This had the effect of not only paving over significant portions of tradtional cities, it also funded the grandiose surburban motorways, interchanges and cloverleafs that surround most cities today. Perhaps most significantly, the gas tax helped to pass assumed “ownership” of both existing and new roads to the car drivers whose taxes had paid for them.

In addition to documenting this fundamental change in the concept of streets, Fighting Traffic also describes the demise of the streetcar in places like Los Angeles (hint: it’s not as simple as the car makers buying and dismantling the tracks). Also he details how the automobile companies played a big part in selling the modern day version of cities that ultimately became idealised for public consumption in the Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Even the notion of “America’s love affair with the car” was an invention that can be traced back to a specific television show, sponsored in part by GM, where it was intentionally written into the script.

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Futurama, the 1939-1940 World’s Fair exhibit by General Motors.

Fighting Traffic challenges the modern day notion of what streets and even cities “are for”. It also raises interesting concepts of social norms, language and the role corporate interests play in framing conventional wisdom. Whenever we post something on this blog about street design you can expect that someone will comment something to the effect of “streets are for cars”– it then becomes clear how successful this orchestrated campaign was.

Note: With a bit of good timing this short safety clip from New Zealand in 1952 titled Pedestrians or Jaywalkers? was published.

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New Zealand traffic safety campaign 1952

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

  • Adam W

    Looks fascinating, I think I might have to get this book – an interesting summer read.

  • obi

    The video is so quaint. But the government is still making patronising road safety advertisements 60 years later. Will people in 2072 look back at our safety propaganda; wonder why people needed to be told to be careful at intersections (or not let friends drink and drive, or put smoke detectors in their homes, or not drive 60 in a 50 zone, or be nice to people with depression, or don’t hit people, or etc); scratch their heads about “ghost chips”; and struggle to recognise any of the buildings?

  • Re the video: I could pretty much say the same about cars now! “Always determined to get there a few seconds quicker”.

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