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.
BOOK REVIEW – 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 ends 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 police men, 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.
Efficiency vs. Freedom
To deal with congestion, chambers of commerce first invited municipal engineers to study streets and recommend design changes to reduce congestion. Municipal engineers, with their focus on efficiency, came up with the doctrines of traffic control which would maximize passenger throughput in existing rights-of-way. Innovations to make parking more efficient (parking meters) and traffic smoother (coordinated signals) ensured that traffic control engineers stayed in the favor of motordom for a while. However, very soon, motordom began to find these measures too limiting. Motordom responded by funding engineers to advocate their chosen model for congestion relief – which consisted of creating additional space for cars.
The automobile industry thus tried, for a time, to work with these other groups to ameliorate the problems created by the increasing number of automobiles. However, the industry soon realized that no such collaboration is possible because these other groups consider cars to be either intrinsically unsafe because of their speed, or intrinsically inefficient because of the space they occupy. In 1923, a slump in the sales led to fears that the market for automobiles might have peaked, and urban congestion and traffic safety were cited as reasons. To increase sales, motordom began a campaign to spread the message that speed can be safe, and that walking out of turn could be just as reckless. Further, it opposed the limits imposed by traffic control engineers and instead campaigned for increasing floor space. The gasoline tax played an important role in building support for this argument – auto clubs were willing to pay a gas tax in return for investment in new roads and highways. This resulted in streets being viewed not as public spaces but as commodities demanded and bought by automobiles through the gas tax. The Route 1 highway and the Woodbridge Cloverleaf junction are cited as some of the earliest examples of this movement towards car-dependence.
Planners, politicians and interest groups
While all these different perspectives are described in great detail, the book does not do an equally good job of explaining why motordom’s perspective gained prominence. It does offer some hints though. One definite factor was the growing influence of planners, who at that time favored wide boulevards and sparsely populated neighborhoods. Automobiles made these plans possible, and Radburn, one of the first planned suburbs, was explicitly designed for the “motor age”. Similarly, the first explicitly pro-automobile street plan promulgated in Los Angeles in 1925 provided for widening of streets, and it was drafted by some of the leading planners of the day, including Harland Bartholomew and Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.
These liberal ordinances regarding street traffic were initially restricted to states like California and Michigan. It was Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s National Conference on Street and Highway Safety that gave these ordinances a national character. Knack, Meck and Stollman describe Herbert Hoover’s Department of Commerce as the first activist federal agency, aimed both at improving conditions for businesses and the general public. Hoover’s conferences around this time were also responsible for the management of USA’s radio frequencies and the drafting of a model zoning enabling legislation aimed at that time to increase housing stock of decent quality. Norton argues that Hoover attacked the biggest problems of his time from a new perspective. He encouraged associations based on common interests to advise his department on policy matters – a compromise between individual and collective decision-making. And just as economists began to explain zoning as a “collective property right” rather than governmental regulation, they also began to see streets as goods for the exclusive use of automobiles collectively purchased through the gas tax, rather than public goods for the use of all. The traffic conference had a large representation of automobile interests and produced a model ordinance for city traffic very similar to the California and Michigan ordinances. Several states directly adopted this ordinance by the end of 1928.
Finally, the automobile industry also invested heavily in propaganda in the form of GM’s Futurama exhibition and in the creation of safety “experts” who would toe its line. None of the other groups were as organized as the automobile industry, and were therefore unable to catch the eye of key decision-makers like Herbert Hoover. The streetcar industry in particular suffered from a lack of popular sympathy because many riders saw themselves as future car-owners. These explanations are used to explain the complete redefinition of streets as motorways and commodities of purchase between 1920 and 1930.
Street vendors and alternative historiography
While these explanations do help explain the rise of the automobile, I believe that several possible factors have not been included in the analysis. I found it particularly striking that women, the elderly and the poor all seemed to share a technological frame that Norton describes using the word “justice”. For all these people, the street was primarily a public walking space. Neither the perspective of the municipal engineers, nor that of the automobile industry seems to have taken their needs sufficiently into account. Motordom’s victory must be attributed at least in part to the fact that these large segments of the population had no independent voice.
One particular segment of street-users – street vendors – seems to have been victimized both by the motordom and by the municipal engineers. Even Norton’s book does not mention street vendors directly. He does however say this: “One legacy… was that sidewalks in 1925 or 1930 were recognized as more nearly exclusive channels of pedestrian travel – and thus roadways, by default, were more exclusive channels for vehicles. This sidewalk reform was therefore a small step towards the automotive city.” In essence, engineers viewed streets as public utilities meant for travel alone, rather than public spaces meant for a variety of purposes. Going by this definition, street vendors had no legitimate claim to streets.
And even today, street vendors remain on the margins of legality. While popular perceptions regarding the rights of pedestrians, cyclists, children and the elderly have improved over the past 30 years, street vendors continue to be harassed by municipalities. NYCDOT’s attitude towards street vendors becomes evident when one finds that the New York City Street Design Manual has only two passing references to street vendors. It is quite obvious that there is a deep-rooted conflict between transportation planners, who see streets as places of travel, and street vendors, who see streets as public spaces. And yet, while Norton expends a great deal of effort in sketching the conflicts between motordom and other groups, the conflicts between these groups is not even acknowledged.
I found it extremely disappointing that Norton’s book does not study the question of street vendors in any level of detail. The removal of street vendors from the streets of American cities must have no doubt been a fiercely contested affair, even if the displaced population had no voice in the elite media. A creative historian might have been able to unearth material that could have given us hints as to how this conflict played out – even if the story was not narrated in the words of the displaced people. Indeed, a general complaint is that Norton makes very little effort to bring to his readers voices of people who were not white middle/upper class males. The book has neither the elements of marxian nor feminist historiography, and this in a subject where women and the poor were to certain to have very different opinions than their white male counterparts.
Howsoever that might be, the book does provide answers to several questions that transportation planners have heretofore had no answers for. It tells us how it came to be that automobiles were allowed almost unchecked on city streets, even before cities could be rebuilt to suit the automobile. It also sheds light into the politics and political economy of bringing about change in transportation systems. However the book does not presume to use the insights it provides on the events of the 1920s to make recommendations for today’s transportation planners. Given the vastly different context, the author’s reticence is quite understandable. It appears that after several decades, transportation planners now subscribe to the view of traffic control engineers in the 1920s. It remains to be seen whether we will ever return to the still older view of streets as public spaces first.
The book is also extremely useful to activists in developing countries, where the battles for legitimacy of different street-users are still being fought. In India, for instance, street vending is considered a valid occupation and a national policy requires cities to demarcate hawking zones on streets. In practice, however, most policies and infrastructure projects favor the automobile, and largely conform to the “technological frame” of motordom. Personally, the lesson I learnt from Norton’s work is that the automobile’s dominance cannot be challenged by opposing large projects and investments alone. The large investments, as we find in urban America in the 1930s, begin to happen only once the automobile has established its dominance on city streets. The real battle is thus fought on the small, narrow streets, where the automobile daily tries to push out existing users to make way for itself. It is by making these streets more desirable for street people (pedestrians, bicyclists, street-vendors and pavement-dwellers) that the automobile can be most effectively challenged.
 Ruth Knack, Stuart Meck and Israel Stollman, “The Real Story Behind the Standard Planning and Zoning Acts of the 1920s”