Fighting traffic : the dawn of the motor age in the American city

Norton, Peter Daniel, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Balogh, Brian, Department of History, University of Virginia
Carlson, W. Bernard, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

By 1930 American cities were committed to accommodating motor vehicles. Yet just ten years earlier, most experts and city people agreed that motorists would have to conform to the city as they found it. The change was only in part an evolutionary adaptation to the growing use of automobiles. Those interested in a future for cars in cities did not believe it would come unassisted. They fought for it.

The obstacles were formidable. The leading traffic experts of the early and middle twenties, backed by downtown business associations, regarded the street as a city service to be regulated for efficiency. Traffic engineers condemned the car as a waster of scarce street space. Pedestrians resented the car's intrusion on their rights to the street. Safety reformers attacked cars in cities as a needless threat to pedestrians' lives. Their publicity gave the automobile a bloody reputation and often assigned sole responsibility for pedestrian casualties to the car itself.

In 1923 and 1924 car sales fell, especially in cities. Diverse auto interests blamed the slump on definitions of traffic congestion, of traffic safety, and of the street itself that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the car in the city. In attacking these definitions, auto interests began to cooperate. They funded new traffic institutions, directed by experts of their own choosing. Through them, automotive interests appealed to American ideals of political and economic liberty to fight restrictions on cars. They questioned the right of traffic engineers to discriminate between transportation modes. They claimed that streets are a kind of private property collectively purchased by motorists, to be supplied as demanded, like other commodities in a free market. They fought to move the burden of responsibility for pedestrian casualties away from the car itself to a minority of reckless motorists and pedestrians. They paid for new kinds of safety education in schools. Automotive interests agreed to support gasoline taxes to fund the accommodation of cars in cities. By 1930, state highways, paid for mostly by gasoline taxes, were entering cities in the name of safety and traffic flow. The future of the American city was automotive.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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