Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City by Peter D. Norton

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Posted 2023-04-28

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

Otherwise cool, sane people might become agitated when told that a parking space will cost them a fee to occupy. A plan for a new public transit system might be met by a chorus of rage because precious street space and parking might be lost. Funds to widen a highway are cast as wise investments, but public transit is held to different standards. Why are attitudes in favor of the primacy of automobiles so deep-seated? Peter Norton's book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, provides a historic account of the answer. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the rest of the century, the city street was transformed, through rhetoric, regulation, and routine, from its status as "public property" (p. 1) to (** spoiler alert **), the very last words of the book: a "motor thoroughfare." (p. 262).

What Norton found was that an environment of multi-modal travel cooperating on streets in the early 1920s quickly became a polarized conflict. Automobile drivers started as humble participants looking for ways to cooperate for the common good. However, the physics of speed, space, matter, and time placed users of the street in conflict, with resulting crashes. Often, automobile drivers became the target of blame. Early automobile safety efforts in the 1920s began to advocate for holding drivers responsible. Safety advocates launched a campaign to place limits on the speed cars could travel--a speed governor system (p. 96). This raised the attention of automobile manufacturers and clubs who realized that they were at great risk of restriction and culpability. This awareness gave rise to "motordom," a term self-coined by the automobile industry to describe the interests of car manufacturers and drivers. Motordom campaigned against speed governors (p. 98) and was successful.

Motordom, fully aware now, did not stop with its victory over the speed governor system, but began a century-long effort to flip the public perception of the street entirely on its head. In the American city early in the 20th century, cars started as rather humble, bit players cooperating with other transit modes on the street. But after motordom became self-aware, cars were promoted to star status as the one and only, natural and rightful, owner of streets. Moreover, enforcement of this belief did not have to come from motorodom entirely, as the general public was brought up to believe in and protect the dominance of the car as the natural state of affairs. Made dependent on cars by urban planning and transportation efforts (Kay, 1997; Kenworthy, 2017; Newman & Kenworthy, 2021), the general public guarded automobiles as both the givers and protectors of their way of life.

Public attitudes quickly embraced the car as the greatest giver of "freedom" and the ultimate travel mode. This "car as king" attitude played out not only in terms of street space and traffic, but in urban planning and parking, housing, resistance to public or active transit, and even the mindset of urban leaders, planners, or developers who still hold the car as king of the road (see various accounts).

Fighting Traffic patiently explains this century of effort, starting in the 1920s, to transform thinking about the American city and its street space. It documents the construction of a mindset and common belief system that transformed the city. Norton divides his book into three non-chronological sections:

  1. Justice. This historic change resulting from the introduction of automobiles affected five social groups: parents, pedestrians, educators, motoring interests, and the police (p. 19). These groups interacted to deal with traffic injuries and death. The motoring interests became self-aware, taking on the title "motordom," and consisted of automobile clubs, dealers, and manufacturers. Although Norton defines motordom with those three groups, there were many others aligned with motordom. For example, the petroleum industry was just starting at the start of the 20th century and sought outlets for its products which had become so plentiful and inexpensive that they sought to find more and more ways to get people to consume them. As a result, a vast set of interconnected interests--gas station owners, automobile dealers, automobile manufacturers, car clubs, oil product makers, auto parts and repair services, road building and maintenance, highway departments, real estate speculators, and many others, could also be considered to be part of "motordom." This also extended to land use, suburban real estate, and political groups whose interest was in propping up and gaining benefits from a car-dependent population. Norton describes these groups as interacting at first for safety with the hope that cars, other modes, and people could share the street. Later, when motordom took over control of this effort, the street was ceded to automobiles, controlled by motordom. The goal then became to keep the peace by separating the automobile domain--the entire street--from everything else.

  2. Efficiency. Once the streets were ceded to motordom, the rest was easy: simply optimize the street to provide the fastest flow of as large a volume of automobiles as possible, everywhere, at all times, and at all costs. Engineers could do this, much as they could design a system of pipes to carry water. This optimization was "progress" (p. 103). Anything else was backward and a "return to the 19th century" (p. 103). The enemy under this formulation of efficiency was "congestion," and thus anything that could be done to alleviate this--destroying neighborhoods, businesses, public transportation, parks, or places where people could walk--was fair game. The goal was to just keep traffic flowing in large volumes. There was no thought to anything else--such as the health or wealth of the community, or the equity or livability of the transportation choices. By the 21st century, many cities that had been vibrant and successful at the start of the 20th century were hollowed out. Traffic spread to cover more and more and more lanes of freeways and streets--which filled up soon after it was widened. So it was widened some more ( Litman, "Generated Traffic and Induced Travel").

  3. "Freedom." The most perverse outcome of the transformation of the street in cities was the Orwellian redefinition of "freedom." George Orwell, in his dystopian novel 1984 described an authoritarian government that ruled by slogans, and one of the slogans was "Freedom is slavery." The slogan intended to discourage any variance from obeying the rules set out by the authoritarian government. A citizen seeking "freedom" or a self-determining goal outside the authoritarian state, was told that freedom would instead be slavery. Motordom, once aware, quickly filled in the power structures at all levels of government and acted as an umbrella organization over cities and towns, spreading the "efficiency" and "justice" that held cars as king. The resulting car dependency became, as many by the 21st century realized, far from freedom, because choices for other means of travel, including transit or walking, became very scarce and the fabrics of the city other than the automobile fabric were largely destroyed. But motordom redefined this slavery of widespread automobile dependency as "freedom." Under motordom, "Slavery is freedom." The general public is told that having driving as the only choice for mobility is the ultimate in "freedom."

Norton's structure from the viewpoint of justice, efficiency, and "freedom" covers the book's thesis.

When reading the book, I could see another structure that encompasses a roughly chronological order of these same themes in three steps--the three R's:

On reading this book, I think that significant findings are:

Norton's book offers valuable insight into the thinking behind car dominance. Like recent research in motonormativity, or bias in favor of automobiles (Walker, Tapp, & Davis, 2022), there might be such a thing as "car brain," and Fighting Traffic is a close examination of its roots.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms © johndecember.com