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

July 22, 2012 at 22:06 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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Image‘Fighting Traffic’ is a kind of social history of the street. It covers the time from around the turn of the century through to the 1930s – three decades in which the automobile went from unwelcome intruder into a mixed streetscape of pedestrians, children, hawkers, market sellers, horses and trams to dominate its every aspect – overturning literally thousands of years of tradition and custom.

It is an extraordinary story. How, in such a short space of time, did motordom impose such a hegemony on street use, pushing out all other road users and claiming the space as their exclusive right?

Norton’s book documents exactly how this was achieved; the re-framing of safety issues to remove the blame for pedestrian deaths from motorists, the rise of the professional road engineer for whom success was measured by the faster flow of automobiles, the lobbying and political manoeuvres that enmeshed the motor agenda into both state and federal policies. A co-ordinated and polished attack on the status quo that not only forced others from the road (in both the figurative and literal sense) but also quickly became accepted as the norm.

Not every step was perfect, and the motor lobby made mistakes along the way, but it is extraordinary how in such a short space of time American cities went from erecting large monuments in memorial to those killed by motor vehicles, unveiled to passionate speeches about the dangers of the motor car and their reckless drivers to welcoming more and more cars on ever larger and wider roads whilst other road users were pushed to the very margins, demoted to second class citizens and even blamed as the cause of the road toll whilst the motorist sped past obliviously.

It is a paradigm that we still live with today. Reading this book is a reminder that the current state of affairs, far from being the norm, is a recent invention. For most of human history, the street has been a shared place, a common resource for all to use. And if we wish to return to something more similar to this, then it is instructive to understand how we got to where we are today. There is more I intend to write on this topic, as I think there are lessons in this history for us all, and certainly for cycling advocacy.

Notwithstanding the extraordinary story and the impeccable research, though, I have to say this is not an easy book to read. It is very dry, very academic, and written as lots of short essays and episodes. This means it lacks narrative flow, is often repetitive and frankly rather dull to read. This is a real pity. There is an extraordinary story in here, one that needs to be told. Just think what an author such as Wendy Moore or Adrian Tinniswood could do with this material, to bring it to life and arrange it for a more casual reader!

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