Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Which came first -- good roads or the automobile?

From Out of the Mud to On the Open Road
“O public road, you express me better than I can express myself.” – Whitman1
            In any careful analysis, the highway is inseparable from the automobile. While these two technological systems are quite different in terms of engineering expertise, materials and construction/production techniques, they intersect in critical respects. For example, the design of the modern automobile’s – in terms of power plants, suspension, and safety features – was largely determined by the highways on which it traveled. Automobiles are engineered either to transmit the “feel” of the road (a more recent American priority forced upon us by the Europeans), or eliminate it (the living room ride of Detroit iron during the 1950s, for example). Similarly, highway construction, in terms of width, grade, surface, drainage, and layout, is planned only after taking into account the nature of the vehicles that will traverse the land. Safety is a major point at the intersection of these two systems, although sadly that has not always been the case.
Which Came First: Good Roads or the Automobile?
            The interrelated topics of adoption of the automobile and the construction of good roads in America have been the focus of a “chicken and egg” historiographical debate during the past twenty years. The central question is whether the coming of the automobile resulted in the development of improved roadways, or conversely, that existing roads in a number of cities were critical to the acceptance and growing popularity of the car. The interpretation that the car led to good roads was primarily the result of work done in the 1960s and 1970s by John C. Burnham, John Rae, and James Flink, whose interpretations corroborated reports written in trade magazines and popular literature dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Rae wrote in 1971 that, “When mass production of motor vehicles was introduced, it preceded any major improvement in the highway network. The historical principle that the highway is built for the vehicle, rather than vice versa, holds good for the automobile.”2 Later, these scholars were labeled by urban historians Eric Monkkonen and Clay McShane as “technological determinists.” Monkkonen asserted that politics had a primacy over technology related to urban transportation when he stated that “good roads are purely political creations.”3 Monkonnen was settling scores with interpretations that were far more sweeping than those written by automobile historians. Yet to extend his analysis to the sphere of America both urban and rural, Monkonnen was traversing dangerous ground.

            Clay McShane, whose previous work had been on urban infrastructures, followed Monkonnen’s lead in Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City. McShane also took a position contrary to that of Rae’s, remarking, “The decision of American municipalities in the closing decades of the nineteenth century to adopt asphalt and brick pavements played vital roles in the emergence of the auto. Policy conflict over the regulation of vehicles and the provision of smooth pavements provides the crucial background for automobilization.”4 In particular, McShane, who has taken a position as a “social constructionist,” argued that bicyclists and their influence on the improvement of urban highways should not be ignored, nor should the fact that the automobile had its roots in a number of cities, especially New York City. To some degree, this scholarly spat is the result of discussions concerning moving targets. One’s answer concerning whether politics or technology drove road construction depends specifically on when and where. Circumstances were quite different in 1903 than in 1910 or 1920 or 1930, and what held for explanations concerning the automobile and the road in New York City is hardly similar to that what took place in Mississippi, Louisiana, or for most of America.5 That said, it would be an egregious omission to avoid tackling the topic of the history of roads in twentieth century America in any serious study of the history of the automobile.

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