Book Review: Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton


Author: Peter D. Norton
TitleFighting traffic : the dawn of the motor age in the American city
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2008.
ISBN: 9780262141000
Summary/Review:

Everyone knows that city streets are for cars and that anyone else seeking to access the street needs to follow the rules so as not to cause traffic congestion.  Except that it hasn’t always been this way.  Fighting Traffic documents a time when the automobile was an intruder on the shared public space of the city street, and one depicted as a menace due to speeding, reckless driving, and the killer of innocents.  During the 1920s, motorist clubs, automakers, safety councils, and the newly created field of traffic engineers changed the paradigm to make the street the through-way for motor vehicles with the emphasis on as few interruptions as possible.  The  book is academic in tone, and a bit repetitive in accumulating evidence for its thesis, but it is an interesting look at a moment in time when basic assumptions shifted as well as a means of questioning the basic assumptions we have about cities and cars today.

Favorite Passages:

“Beneath the grief and anger of many safety reformers lay an old assumption: city streets, like city parks, were public spaces.  Anyone could use them provided they did not unduly annoy or endanger others.  Under this construction of the city street, even children at play could be legitimate street users, and even careful motorists were under suspicion.  In the 1920s, however, the pressure of traffic casualties divided old allies.  Some renewed their resolve to compel motorists to conform to the customs of the street as it had been, especially by limiting their speed.  Others, more pragmatic, wanted to save lives by giving pedestrians more responsibility for their own safety.  Finally, some newcomers proposed a more radical social reconstruction of the street as a motor thoroughfare, confining pedestrians to crossings and sidewalks.”  – p. 64

“The dawn of the motor age has something to tell us about power.  Like money, power is a medium of exchange between social groups. Because it comes in many currencies, it is hard to measure by any one standard. Motordom had substantial and growing financial wealth.  By the mid 1920s it was organized enough to dispense this wealth to promote a social reconstruction of the street, through a well-funded rhetorical campaign and through gasoline taxes linked to road construction.  By then it was also exercising direct political power, especially through its influence in the Commerce Department.  But drivers themselves exercised power every time they traveled at speed in the streets, resorting to the horn instead of the brake to proceed.  This exercise of power drove pedestrians from the streets and sometimes barred them from access to streets, even at designated crossings.  Horsepower gave motorists a literal, physical form of momentum that collided with the social momentum of old constructions of the street, changing their trajectories.” – p. 259

Recommended books: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ***1/2

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