Home > Complete Streets, Cultural Movement, Design the Details, Safety Issues, Traffic Calming, Transportation Education > The history of the automobile’s dominance over the last 100 years

The history of the automobile’s dominance over the last 100 years

How we came to our present situation is important.

The struggle was difficult and sometimes fierce. In motordom’s way were street railways, city people afraid for the safety of their children in the streets, and most of the established traffic engineering principles of the 1920s. Motordom, however, had effective rhetorical weapons, growing national organization, a favorable political climate, substantial wealth, and the sympathy of a growing minority of city motorists. By 1930, with these assets, motordom had redefined the city street.”

And, streets as places for the widest public good, based on centuries of “cultural and legal legacies”, was to take a radical hit in the 1920s and 1930s. This is the history the introduction to Fighting Traffic – The Dawn of the Automobile in the American City lays out in first 18 pages.

It is a history mostly forgotten, and sounding almost conspiratorial, but 100 years ago automobiles were widely seen, and treated, as intruders on the city landscape. As their presence became inevitable, communities tried to confine and regulate their impact rather than create entire municipal economies to serve their use. On their side, was the historical right to the street by people moving under their own means.

Rather quickly, however, groups like AAA, Chamber of Commerces, and engineering departments began to remove emotion (remove the public) from the discussion and “professionalized” traffic control. And, also very quickly, “public interest” became defined less about quality of community, including safety, to relieving congestion and designing for speed–focused on our new motoring habits. They did this by claiming the primary urban medium: the city street.

They were largely successful with campaigns employing fear tactics targeted at the most vulnerable.

Ride of Death, 1940s

The battle over the right to the street is only the foundation of a deeper look into how the American city evolved over the last 100-plus years. Once we really start to look at the landscape with a critical eye, we see the dominance our automobile habit has on our economy–almost everything is in some way tied to the rise of the automobile. In addition to highlighting the landscape of the land, Fighting Traffic examines democratic processes, cultural and historical legacies, and the rise of the city manager form of government that all have a connection to the rise of the automobile.

Fighting Traffic is thick and despite having been reading it for over 3 weeks, I’m barely half-way through it. Almost every page deserves further reflection and a look back at a previous section. It feels like an important history to know.

Too often, providing for our driving habits, at huge public and private investment, is treated as unquestionable. It is empowering to know that the history was not so straightforward. There were choices made and there are choices yet to be made; communities need to value that they do indeed have choices.

I’ll certainly be returning to this book in the near future.

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Fighting Traffic is just one of the many books on the MyWHaT R&D reading list. 

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The Pedestrian Ninjas need your help…thank you.

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  1. March 5, 2012 at 9:35 am

    This is a great book.When you’re done reading it, you may ask “Where were the bicycle advocates during this time?” They’re not mentioned in the book. The author told me he couldn’t find any references to them. The League of American Wheelmen had folded which let motordom, and to a lessor extent, public transportation redefine the values and designs of our streets.

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