● How cars gained control of the streets.

I just finish reading “Fighting Traffic” by Peter D. Norton. It is a fascinating book about how automobiles gained control of city streets in the US, and by extension, in Canada and much of the world. The book provides a detailed history of what happened when cars first started showing up in increasing numbers in American cities.

Although it may seem strange to us now, until the early 1900s, streets were for people, not cars. Streets were considered public spaces where people gathered, interacted with one another, and walked around to go about their business. Streets are also where children often played, as playgrounds were non-existent or very rare at that time. (Playgrounds only became popular after cars started to dominate the streets.)

Needless to say, the introduction of relatively heavy and fast moving cars was largely incompatible with how people had been using city streets in the early 1900s. It wasn’t long before cars started hitting more and more pedestrians, and in the process, killing and injuring a great number of people. It soon reached a point where some cities erected huge downtown monuments dedicated to the large number of children who died as a result of automobile accidents. In those days, motorists and their cars were held in very low esteem by the general public, the police, city officials, merchants, and newspaper editorialists.

It is interesting to note that because it was the cars that started using the street in a manner that endangered people, motorists were generally held responsible whenever they ran into someone. This was widely reflected in public opinion, newspaper reports, and how the police and courts handled traffic accidents.

The book also documents what automobile clubs and the car industry did to counter the bad publicity and to gain control of the streets during the early 1900s. They introduced the term “jaywalker” for someone who would walk onto streets and got in the way of cars. When accidents did happen, they placed the blame on pedestrians for failing to keep off the streets, or for not looking out for cars. Initially, none of this was accepted by the public (and even the courts), but the automobile industry and clubs were relentless in hammering home their message in schools and through organizations such as the Boy Scouts.

Automobile groups also made a strategic decision to take over responsibility for promoting traffic safety. Up to that point, safety movements had been directing their message towards motorists, urging them to slow down and exercise greater caution when driving among pedestrians and children. However, once the automobile clubs and industry took over, the messages started focussing on the need for pedestrians to take responsibility for their own safety.

At one point the car industry event set up a central news service, which used its own criteria for determining who was at fault for various accidents, and then reported statistics to the newspapers. Apparently, the tone of newspaper coverage changed within months, and 70 to 90% of all accidents were now being blamed on jaywalking. Moreover, the car industry would sometimes withdraw advertising dollars from newspapers that failed to take the proper perspective when reporting accidents where a pedestrian was injured or killed.

The industry’s attitude towards gasoline taxes is also very revealing. Initially, they were against the tax as a means to generate revenue to improve and expand streets and roads. However, they soon changed their tune on this when they realized that by paying this tax, motorists could now claim ownership of the streets and roads.

The book indicates that by the time the 1930s rolled around, the automobile interests had largely succeeded in changing the public’s perception about the use of streets by cars. Streets were now viewed as thoroughfares for automobiles rather than a place for people, and when there was an accident, the motorist was often portrayed as a victim of careless jaywalkers. From this point onwards, it was generally accepted that people were not allowed on the streets except for brief intervals, at intersections, on narrow crosswalks. In fact, some of the early traffic lights and signals barely gave pedestrians enough time to make it safely across the street.

When reading this book, it becomes obvious that many of the attitudes that cyclists have to contend with today were implanted in people’s minds by automobile clubs and the car industry in the early 1900s. How often do we hear that streets are for cars, and that bicycles should stay out of their way. When there is a collision, there’s a tendency to blame the cyclist for simply being on the street. And of course, cyclists are often portrayed as freeloaders because they don’t pay fuel and other automobile related taxes (even though general taxes provide much of the funding for local roads).

Although the book is very interesting, some readers may find it has a couple of shortcomings. For example, the book only considers street use in terms of automobiles and pedestrians. As a result, it only makes passing reference to bicycles, and not in the context of any substance. The book is also an academic work by a associate professor at a university. The author carefully lays the groundwork for many of the points that are developed in the book, which can make for some slow reading in a few places. On the other hand, this academic approach means that the book is not based on fluffy opinion or conjecture. In fact, it is supported by over 100 pages of explanatory notes and citations.

(orginally published on old blog April 13, 2011)

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