University of Virginia engineering professor Peter Norton has been collecting old newspaper articles and pouring over AAA archives for over a decade in order to document the origin of automobile dominance in American cities. Retrofitting city streets for the private car was not only a matter of physical engineering or political maneuvering, it involved drastic social upheaval in cities across the country. This is an interesting story that is not told very often. The culmination of Norton's research is presented in his recent book Fighting Traffic: the Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.
In the early 20th century, city streets were universally considered public space, a crucial amenity in often overcrowded neighborhoods. It was simply taken for granted that children would be able to freely play in the streets. Streetcar rails ran through the center lane, meaning passengers would wait to embark right on the public street. The streetscape bustled with activity from numerous modes of travel simultaneously.
|From 1920's Pittsburgh newspaper (courtesy of Norton)|
However, Norton documents the effective campaign to convince people that they no longer belong in this public space without the necessary machinery. AAA clubs around the country, as well as the automobile industry itself, fought tirelessly for driver's rights. They campaigned against a populist movement to install speed governors in new automobiles. Automobile groups volunteered to collect accident reports from newspapers into a database, in order to exert influence on where the blame for the accident was placed. They funded "safety patrols" in every school in the country, instructing children that they would no longer be allowed to play on city streets. They would have to wait until traffic stops to cross. This was a radical and jolting transition.
The introduction of the word "jaywalker" happened more suddenly than most words filter into the English language, which can be attributed to mass publicity campaigns. Boy Scouts were enlisted to hand out flyers to "jaywalkers" when they spotted them. Physical crosswalks were painted on the streets at 90 degree angles, leading many pedestrians to believe that this was the only place they were legally allowed to cross. After a mere 20 years of marketing, city streets were virtually conquered.
The rest is history.
Today, after decades of automobile dominance there are several groups fighting again for vibrant public streets, from Seattle's Streets for People campaign to the highly successful New York City's Streets Renaissance. If we're going to untie a knot, it's helpful to know how that knot was tied in the first place. Peter Norton has done a service by meticulously recording this phase of American history.