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



By Peter D. Norton.


Published 2008 by MIT.


Review by Dom Nozzi


This book is provocative, exceptionally enlightening, and a must-read for all pedestrian and bicycle professionals, urban designers, traffic engineers, elected and appointed officials.


Another title that the author could have considered to accurately describe the message of this book is “The Fall of the Pedestrian Street.”


The book is an analysis of how the American street, its perceived purpose, and its design paradigm has been transformed over the past century. Up until the dawn of the 20th Century, the rights of and sympathy for the pedestrian were supreme. Street rules (to the extent that any existed) and street design were focused on pedestrian travel.


The emergence of the motor vehicle, however, radically changed all of this.


Motorists and auto makers united and organized in the first few decades of the 20th Century to overthrow the prevailing paradigm of the street. As motor vehicles started to be found on streets, they were quickly seen as inefficiently consuming an enormous amount of space. And combined with their horsepower, weight, and high speeds, motor vehicles were soon killing an alarmingly high number of pedestrians—particularly children and seniors.


Huge numbers of citizens at this time rallied to fight against the motor vehicle. There was a consensus that in a crash, the motorist was always at fault and the pedestrian (particularly children) were innocent. The media regularly faulted motorists for being “speed maniacs.” And “murderers.” Particularly in Cincinnati, there was a strong campaign to require cars to have “governors,” which would not allow a car to be driven over 25 mph. “In 1916 an authority on the auto industry wrote…’the auto is today a juggernaut, a motoring speed monster, intent on killing and maiming all who stand in its way.’…An insurance executive…described the auto as a juggernaut…that had left its record in the blood of men, women and little children…The Washington Star commented in 1924 that newspapers often published [accounts] which reveal the motor car as a death-dealing monster.”


“[In the first few decades of the 20th Century], the most commonly accused suspect [for traffic problems]…was the auto…One engineer argued that the car’s arrival in the city constituted an ‘emergency.’” 


The growing number of motorists and auto makers became alarmed that the “freedom” and speed of car travel was being threatened by these nationwide campaigns. “Motordom” united, and in the course of a few decades, completely transformed the American transportation paradigm.


First, they succeeded in convincing the public that the car itself was not to blame for crashes. Nor was the problem due to speed. Instead, the motorist lobby succeeded in (falsely) convincing Americans that the problem was entirely due to “reckless” motorists. The lobby also achieved another crucial victory: No longer were pedestrians always innocent in crashes. Increasingly, the lobby convinced us that “reckless” pedestrians were often at fault.


Instead of motorists being vilified as speed maniacs, the new villain became the “jaywalker,” a derogatory term that assigned blame to pedestrians who were irresponsibly crossing streets in unexpected locations (as they had done throughout history). Unexpected, carefree walking had become an incompatible public safety threat in the age of high-speed car travel. It was essential that uncontrolled pedestrians not using their designated crosswalks be seen as irresponsibly unsafe and immoral.


“[George Graham, chair of the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce]…objected to the depiction of pedestrians as innocent victims, claiming that ‘in many cases the driver is a much-to-be-pitied victim.’ …”


So the paradigm shift managed to reshape our thinking. Cars and car speeds are not a problem. What is needed, instead of slowing cars, is to vigorously prosecute “reckless” motorists and be vigilant in urging pedestrians to be careful. Comprehensive public safety education campaigns must teach all of us (particularly children) to be careful near roads. “McClintock said that a new age justified new ways. ‘The old common law rule that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation’…His ordinance included strict pedestrian control measures, with fines for jaywalkers. In downtown streets pedestrians would have to keep within crosswalks. Where there were no signals, they would have to raise a hand to halt oncoming motorists…willful pedestrians were obstructions and thus a threat to the efficiency of [car travel].


And to insist that pedestrians (and playing children) be kept out of the way of cars by keeping them off roads—or at least confined to intersection crosswalks. “[In 1923], the Chicago Motor Club began buying space in the Chicago Tribune for periodic ‘Traffic Talks,’ where it publicized findings purporting to show that the ‘reckless pedestrian’ caused ‘almost 90%’ of the collisions between autos and people. The solution? ‘Don’t jay walk.’”


Thus, the “forgiving street” (what the author calls the “foolproof street”) was born. Dominating street design for nearly 100 years, this paradigm strives to design streets not to be safe and convenient for all users (including bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users), but to keep all non-motorized travelers out of the way of freedom- (and speed) loving American motorists. Streets are to be designed for safe driving at high speeds. And because forgiving street designers assume we will always have reckless drivers, streets must be designed to forgive reckless, inattentive driving. Grade separated intersections are needed. As are pedestrian skywalks. Move street trees and buildings and pedestrians away from the street.


“Such highways [using ‘foolproof’ design], built expressly for motorists, promised finally to allow the auto to go full throttle in and near cities…Paul Hoffman of Studebaker…spoke of the need…to ‘make fast travel safe for modern cars,’ because ‘the motoring public is…demanding speed and more speed.’… The absence of pedestrians from motor highways would rule out pedestrian casualties, regardless of the competence of drivers or the carelessness of walkers. Hoffman admired Mussolini’s new autostrade, not least because among them ‘pedestrians are barred by strong fences.’ Overpasses and underpasses exclusively for pedestrians were planned.” 


The ultimate result, after several decades of this new motorist speed paradigm, has been an annual roadway death rate that remains extremely high. High levels of speeding and inattentive driving. Streets that are designed and safely usable only by cars, instead of being Complete Streets accessible to all. Unimaginably high levels of car dependency, heavy and worsening congestion, plummeting quality of life, a near absence of pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users, endless suburban sprawl and strip commercial, and declining downtowns.


I’m certain the author would agree with me that an essential task for safety and quality of life is to return our communities to a lower-speed environment. And this must largely be achieved not through laws against speeders or speed limit signs, but through the design of streets that effectively ratchets down urban travel speed via such tactics as human-scaled traffic calming—and Monderman’s “shared space” concept (what I like to call “attentive” streets). High-speed car traffic is simply incompatible with the human habitat.


I strongly urge you to read this book.


Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

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1 Comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

One response to “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City

  1. vidyadhar date

    very enlightening, humane article.

    my very best wishes to the writer.

    vidyadhar date

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