I’ve mentioned every so often that Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, was my source for the concept of “Motordom.” In “Fighting Traffic,” he tells the story of “one of the biggest public relations coups of all time” that led to the reshaping of cities and the car-dominant design of urban regions. Emily Badger tells the story of the story in the Washington Post:
The myth of the American love affair with cars
For decades, Americans have been in love with the automobile — or so the saying goes. This single idea has been a central premise of transportation policy, pop culture and national history for the last half-century. It animates how we think about designing the world around us, and how we talk about dissidents in our midst who dislike cars.
“This ‘love affair’ thesis is like the ultimate story,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, who warns that we need to revisit how we came to believe this line before we embrace its logical conclusion in a future full of driverless cars. “It’s one of the biggest public relations coups of all time. It’s always treated as folk wisdom, as an organic growth from society. One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign.”
… the story Norton disputes, which he has written about in the book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” is the history that says that we’ve built car-dependent cities and suburbs because that’s what Americans wanted, the story that says all our surface parking lots and spaghetti interchanges are a pure product of American preferences.
“When I actually looked into the history record, documents from the time, I found just the opposite,” Norton says. “What Americans in cities wanted in the ‘20s was to get the cars out.”
Media at the time recount pedestrians ranting against the automobile as an intrusion and an undemocratic bully. Newspapers contained cartoons portraying rich drivers in luxury cars running over working-class kids. Three-quarters of traffic fatalities at the time were pedestrians.
In 1923, 42,000 people in Cincinnati signed a petition to put an ordinance on the ballot that would have forced all cars in town to include a speed governing device to prevent them from traveling faster than 25 miles an hour.
“All of that history,” Norton says, “has been lost.”
So, too, has the history of how the auto industry responded. In the mid 1920s, Norton says, the industry began a concerted effort to fundamentally recast the problem: Cars weren’t intruding on a public domain long freely used by pedestrians; pedestrians were wandering into roads that should be reserved for cars.
The auto industry effectively codified this idea in the crime of “jaywalking,”which remains with us today.
What cars gained through sheer force — the right of way in public space — the auto industry reinforced with a model municipal traffic ordinance. The code, drafted by a committee chaired by a Cadillac salesman, further formalized the basic governing assumption, which remains with us in cities across the country today, that streets are for cars, not people.
Today, even when we grumble about the misery of commuting in traffic, the culprit, invariably, isn’t the car itself — it’s the insufficient infrastructure that can’t quite contain it. It’s the highways that need widening, the roads that demand higher speed limits, the traffic lights that could use synchronizing.
Now, about 86 percent of Americans get to work every day in a private car – a statistic that’s often interpreted to mean that the vast majority of us chose to travel that way.
This conclusion conflates preferences with constrained options. “I actually drive most of the way to work,” Norton admits. “I do it because the choices stink.” To extract from today’s ubiquitous parking garages, drive-through restaurants and busy roads a preference for cars ignores all the ways that public policy, industry influence and economic incentives have shaped our travel behavior.
“If you locked me in a 7-Eleven for a week, and then after the end of the week unlocked the door and you studied my diet over the previous seven days, then concluded that I prefer highly processed, packaged foods to fresh fruits and vegetables, I would say your study is flawed,” Norton says.
We make the same mistake, he says, with the history we tell of the car. And this popular story of that past makes it hard for us to envision alternative futures before us.
If you believe that cars are the best way to get everywhere — to the neighborhood grocer, to a job downtown, to a weekend vacation — then the prospect of driverless cars would only improve that picture. Now we can do work while we’re driving to work! Now we can plan meals on the way to buying them! If you decide where to shop or dine based on the ease of parking, driverless cars can solve that problem, too. Soon cars will do all of our parking for us – or entirely eliminate the need!
This picture, though, doubles down on all the ideas we’ve inherited about cars, without considering that perhaps we may want some other future: one where “foot travelers” regain some of their lost rights to the public way, or where we create subway systems so appealing people who can afford BMWs prefer them. Maybe in this future driverless cars serve a specific purpose, not every purpose, and we’re cautious about how we remake our cities to make way for them.
“It’s the history that gives us the assumptions that limit our choices,” he says. History reminds us the car-dominated city wasn’t the inevitable path of progress, but one path among others not taken. History also teaches us that we should be skeptical of the power of 21st century stories in the tradition of the American “love affair with cars” — like the narrative today that urban elitists who advocate for other forms of transportation are waging a “war on cars.”
Surely that phrase would be laughable to people who once feared a war on pedestrians.