During the early 1960s, as the Golden Age of the automobile in America began to wane, several commentators, including Lewis Mumford, raised the critical question of whether the automobile existed for the modern city or the city for the automobile? How and when the automobile became central to urban life is deftly addressed in Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. This study is certainly one of the most important monographs focusing on the place of the automobile in American society within a historical context to appear in recent times, and interestingly supplements David Blanke’s Hell on Wheels: The Promise and Peril of America’s Car Culture, 1900-1940 (University of Kansas Press, 2007). In the process of telling his story, Norton convincingly demonstrates that it was people acting within interest groups who decided how the automobile would be used; this is not a tale of a technology having an irrepressible effect on the marketplace.
Norton, who teaches in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, blends an empirical study of a battle for urban streets with a theoretical analysis based on social constructivist theory. His effort is well balanced, clearly articulated, and fundamentally successful, with little of the dense abstract analysis that tends to drive a good number of general readers away from this kind of scholarship.
Above all, Fighting Traffic is an engaging story that pits a number of diverse constituencies in a struggle over who would control city streets. These groups included pedestrians, safety reformers, police, street railway and trolley interests, downtown business associations, traffic engineers, and automobile business interests (known as “motordom”). The drama was largely played out during the 1920s, with closure by the mid-1930s.
Norton divides his work into three main sections entitled “Justice,” “Efficiency,” and “Freedom.” He generally follows a chronological scheme, beginning with a narrative of the horrific carnage that the automobile inflicted on pedestrians, and especially children, in the period after World War I and before 1925. So many deaths occurred that some cities erected monuments to the dead, similar to those in memory of the fallen from World War I. At this point, there was no doubt in the public mind that the automobile, with its excessive speed, was largely at fault. In many respects, the “Devil Wagon,” once the scourge of country folk, was a decade and a half later unleashed on urbanites. While police and the National Safety Council did some good, the problem was far bigger than anything traditional law enforcement and traffic control remedies could handle.
Subsequently, however, the focus of the problem of the automobile in the city shifted away from accidents and discord to congestion. In this regard, “progressive” Chamber of Commerce leaders secured traffic engineers to make transportation more efficient. But this solution was fragile at best, for motordom, recoiling from a drop in sales during 1923 and 1924, an attempt in Cincinnati to place governors on automobiles, and the suggestion that streets were to be shared responded with a rhetorical drive that led to their ascendancy within less than a decade.
Ultimately, it is this public relations campaign that won the day for the automobile interests. While numerous institutions played an important part in the fight, Norton holds that Miller McClintock of Harvard University was the key to motordom’s success. McClintock was an unlikely figure, a former Chaucer scholar turned traffic expert, with the first Ph.D. in the field. Supported by Studebaker executives Paul Hoffman and Albert Russel Erskine, McClintock became the most articulate spokesperson for motordom, arguing that the automobile represented freedom and that the street should be thought of not as a public utility but, rather, as a commodity. From that point on, pedestrians were often targeted for jaywalking and assigned the blame for the majority of urban accidents. The automobile was now considered essential to the fabric of urban life and was ascendant on American city streets.