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National Transportation Week III

Today is the last day of National Transportation Week. We kicked off the series with a post by Joseph DiMento and Cliff Ellis co-authors of Changing Lanes. The second part featured a Q & A with Car Crashes without Cars author, Paul Leonardi. Our final feature is a Q & A with Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic.

Where did your interest in the rise of the automobile age, and more specifically, the social impact of the automobile age come from?

Go to Google Maps, select "satellite view," and zoom in on any American city.  Most land is committed to cars—which, in theory, are only a means to end—they get you where you want to go.  But in the mid twentieth century, Americans began destroying their own cities to accommodate cars—as if cars were ends in themselves.  Long before Google satellite view, I began to be disturbed by the extent to which we destroyed our own cities to make room for cars—and in the process made it very hard to get around by any other means.  This hit me forcefully when I had a job classifying historic photographic negatives in a historical society in downtown Wilmington, Delaware.  I spent all day in a windowless basement looking at smelly nitrate negatives of a thriving city crowded with pedestrians and streetcars.  Most of the pictures were from the 1920s to the 1950s.  When I left work at 5:00, I'd find myself in the same city, then much quieter.  Vast surface parking lots had replaced shops, schools and churches.  I wondered what had happened.

It is hard for present-day Americans to imagine streets that are not mainly used for cars. What were some of the initial difficulties that car owners and the automobile movement as a whole had to overcome in streets that, up until then, were dominated by pedestrians?

Yes, you're right.  Today "streets are for cars" almost sounds like a timeless, self-evident truth, like "things fall because of gravity."  If you want to get some sense of what attitudes were like 100 years ago, think of a city park.  If you were strolling on the grass and a car came at you at 30 mph, you'd be alarmed, then angry.  This attitude is much like the attitudes people had about city streets a hundred years ago.  People who wanted a future for cars needed to change that attitude.  Pedestrians strolled into city streets wherever they wanted—often without carefully looking.  Most of them believed that the faster a vehicle was moving, the more it bore the responsibility for everyone else's safety.  Speed was linked directly to danger.  People used the word "speeding" to mean going fast—anyone going faster than a streetcar was ipso facto "speeding," and bore responsibility for everyone else.  In cities most traffic accident victims were pedestrians, and about half the pedestrians hit were children.  Almost no one blamed these children's parents.  They blamed cars and drivers.  In city newspapers, caricatures of drivers as the Grim Reaper and of cars as the Reaper's scythe of death were about as common as depictions of Uncle Sam.  That gives you some idea what drivers, car dealers, auto clubs, and others with a stake in the future of the car were up against.

How long did it take for the automobile movement to overcome these previously held conceptions of street use and become accepted as the primary means of transportation in city streets?

Some pedestrian resistance has persisted, even up to the present.  But the big change was in the 1920s.  At the beginning of the 20s, the old attitudes still predominated.  By the end of the decade, most people—even people who did not own cars—agreed that streets were mostly for cars.  During the 1920s, groups interested in an urban future for cars organized to characterize many long-accpted uses of the streets by pedestrians as "jaywalking."  They got city traffic ordinances changed to confine pedestrians to crosswalks or to right-angled crossing of streets.  The got traffic signals timed for motorists—to the disadvantage of pedestrians.  Maybe the most important thing they did was take over school safety education.  Through AAA, millions of children learned that "streets are for cars."

In your opinion, what was (and is) so alluring about automobiles to the American public?

I don't agree that Americans have a distinctively strong attraction to cars.  The attraction is worldwide, and has some pretty obvious causes.  In the United States this has been compounded by the poor alternatives to cars, compared to the alternatives in many other wealthy countries.  Cars look especially good when no expense is spared to accommodate them nearly everywhere, while there may not even be the most rudimentary accommodation of alternatives.  For 50 years the claim that Americans have a "love affair with the automobile" has been accepted almost as if it's a fact.  It's been invoked with amazing frequency by critics and defenders of cars alike.  I find this explanation completely unsatisfactory.  For one thing, if you go back to American cities in the 1920s you see more evidence of a hate affair.  It turns out that the love affair thesis was invented in 1961 by the auto industry.  Millions saw it on television in an episode of the Du Pont Show of the Week.  At the time, the show's sponsor (Du Pont) and General Motors were closely connected.  This particular episode, called "Merrily We Roll Along," presented the history of the car in America.  The host, Groucho Marx, explained that Americans would do anything for cars because of this "love affair," and compared the car to the woman in the affair and the driver to the man.  This way of telling the story tended to remove automobility from rational assessment—this was, after all, love.  Why should we talk about excessive accommodation of cars, if it's a love affair?  "You can't live with her—and you can't live without her," Marx explained.  The phrase "Americans' love affair with the automobile" was practically nonexistent until that show—but ever since, it's been treated as a legitimate explanatory term.  I don't see it that way.  But no one seems to know where the phrase came from.

How did invocations of personal and economic freedom enter the social debate surrounding the automobile movement?

The "freedom" trope is a much older variation on the "love affair" trope.  In the 1920s defenders of the automobile did not have control of the debate.  Cars were depicted as evil killers.  Even engineers criticized them for using up too much space in crowed cities.  The prevailing terms of the debate were disadvantageous to cars: some of the most common rhetorical frames were justice, order, and efficiency.  Cars seemed like the offenders by all three rhetorical standards.  In the mid and late 1920s, defenders of the automobile organized.  They sometimes called themselves "motordom."  They realized they couldn't win on their opponents terms, so they came up with their own.  The favorite was "freedom."  In using this word, motordom invoked political freedom and free markets in ways that harmonized well with prevailing American values.  For example, at first motordom had opposed gasoline taxes.  But once they got state legislatures to agree to commit the revenues to road construction and maintenance, motordom backed gas taxes.  They could then claim that roads were a commodity in a free market, bought and paid for by motorists and therefore for their exclusive use.  Where state highways entered cities, you could now have urban motor highways—sometimes called freeways.  And on such roads, cars promised personal freedom in the form of speed and independence from schedules.  It doesn't look like freedom when you're stuck in a traffic jam with no alternative means of getting to work, but nevertheless we've associated cars with freedom since the 1920s.

  • Posted at 09:58 am on Fri, 17 May 2013 in


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