Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

The automobile as a death dealing instrument was unanimously decided upon as the greatest present day menace to public safety.” These words were not written in 1960s Holland or 1970s New York City but in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1920.

This fascinating book chronicles the early chapters of the anti-car movement in the United States between 1915 and 1930. It is written with the dry competence of a dissertation yet the examples of anti-car activities shimmer through the dense paragraphs.

• When a child was killed by a car, bells would toll eight times in Detroit while in Memphis, a black flag was placed at the site of the crash.
• Monuments, resembling war monuments, were erected in cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh in memory of all the children killed by cars.
• Mothers of those kids were called “white star mothers” and publicly recognized at memorial services and in parades.
• On streets in Philadelphia, Cincinnati and New York, mobs of outraged citizens surrounded cars that hit pedestrians, trapping the driver inside until the police arrived.
• A proposition to mechanically limit cars to 25 miles per hour made it onto the ballot in Cincinnati.
• In cartoons, posters and parade floats, car drivers were depicted as Satan and the Grim Reaper.
• Citizens were deputized as traffic officers in Berkeley, Minneapolis and Newark to arrest “speed maniacs” and other reckless drivers.

Of course while all of this was going on, there were other people working to increase the rights and enhance the reputation of car drivers. One approach was to label pedestrians as careless and discipline them into conforming to auto traffic. In Syracuse, New York, a man dressed in a Santa Claus costume walked the sidewalks in December 1913 with a megaphone, taunting any pedestrian who freely crossed the street. In San Francisco in 1920, mock courts were staged on sidewalks with pedestrians pulled aside and lectured, before a crowd of onlookers, about the dangers of jaywalking. In various cities, boy scouts handed out anti-jaywalking cards. The term “jay walker” originally referred to people who didn’t keep to the right when walking on the sidewalk. Its meaning shifted to apply to people who didn’t know how to walk amid motorized traffic. The pejorative term suggested an unsophisticated, backwards person who didn’t know how to behave in a modern city. Pedestrians were cast as getting in the way of progress if they caused cars to have to slow down. By 1924, the word jaywalker had entered the American English dictionary.

The giddiness I felt reading about early anti-car actions gave way to a simmering dread since I knew what was coming: cars would come to rule take over the streets and overshadow the landscape. Auto clubs, organized under the American Automobile Association, promoted cars as necessary and indispensible. Safety campaigns instructed mothers to keep their kids out of the streets. By 1930, when the first clover leaf highway exchange opened in New Jersey, the motor age had arrived. Ad campaigns by Shell Oil and General Motors displayed the “city of tomorrow” and “futurama” as having thick thoroughfares of cars with not a pedestrian in sight.

Norton, a professor at the University of Virginia, has compiled an impressively comprehensive history of the competing forces and interests during this time period before the streets became the domain of cars. His book does what all good histories do: it shakes us out of seeing the world only as how we have experienced it. The book reminds us that things can be different, things can change.

There was a time in the U.S. when the automobile was not seen as a necessity. There was a time when the streets belonged to pedestrians and cyclists first and cars second. There was a time when slow was the only speed cars could go. There was a time when the freedom to cross a street at any spot was seen as a constitutional right. There was a time when cars were seen as depriving others of their freedom.

— By Kelly Nelson

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
Peter D. Norton, MIT Press, 2008, 396 pages


  1. jonathan p sutcliffe
    Posted 3 August, 2011 at 18:33 | Permalink

    car busters is fine by me - but why are the so-called alternative movements run by the same folk (who, in turn, are psycho nut jobs) with more ego than sense…????
    the only ego-less cyclist left….

  2. Jeff
    Posted 25 July, 2012 at 20:38 | Permalink

    This is an excellent book! It’s refreshing to read something about urban planning that delves deeper into the contexts of the time. I find that so much of what we do now, in urban planning, only goes back the past 100 years in urban design. Everything before that time is completely ignored. This book offers a glimpse into what the streets were like and the resistance that came (at nearly all levels) to cars taking over what used to be pedestrian space. Excellent book! I highly recommend it.

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