Wednesday, March 18

From public space to motor thoroughfare

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)
When automobiles grew in numbers, an obvious conflict arose. Motorists used the public space in a very different way than everyone else did, as a place to pass through as quickly as possible. The number of fatalities grew considerably as these two functions clashed more and more. In most cases, a majority of those killed were children. This naturally lead to widespread outrage among citizens, earning reckless drivers the names "road hog" or "speed demon." A political cartoon depicting the car as a grim reaper was not at all unusual. Almost unanimously, blame was placed on the driver for violent incidents, not at all on careless pedestrians or negligent parents.

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.


LH said...

Daniel, this is interesting. Thanks for sharing!

Unknown said...

Props to UVA Student Planning Organization for organizing this lecture!

The Urbanophile said...

I've you've read Lewis Mumford's "The City in History", he actually traces this phenomenon back to the baroque city. The development of the straight avenue, designed for wheeled transport, was a major departure from the winding, narrow medieval city.

Ari said...

It's interesting/fun to look at old news stories about jaywalking (which I did in some depth). In the 1920s it was a new phenomenon, from the 1930s-50s it was a menace, from the 1960s to the 1990s it was ignored, especially in the northeast and Chicago. Rudy Giuliani tried to enforce it in 1998 and failed. And now more and more people realize that it's rather, uh, silly to try to ban it.