Perceptions of American streets before and after the Dawn of the Motor Age

In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, Peter Norton documents thoroughly the shift in popular perception of what city streets are for.  Drawing on sources cited in 113 pages of footnotes, Norton brings forth the voices of children, parents, pedestrians, police officers, motorists, engineers, politicians, and automobile tycoons of the years surrounding the 1920’s – the decade the Motor Age dawned. 

Norton’s central claim is that before American cities were physically reconstructed for the Motor Age, they first were socially reconstructed.  Prior to the 1920’s, the prevailing social construction of city streets was public space between buildings; by 1930, it was motor thoroughfares.  My purpose here is to communicate prevailing social perceptions before and after the 1920’s by quoting a few of Norton’s paragraphs.  For the story of the revolution in perception, read the book.  It significantly enhanced my understanding of why American city streets – and prevailing notions about them – came to be the way they are today.

12th and Market Streets, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

12th and Market Street, Philadelphia, in 1894 (Image credit: PhillyHistory.org)

Before the 1920’s (pg. 16):

“Centuries-old cultural and legal legacies led to answers unfavorable to automobiles in cities.  In 1920 the city street was considered a public amenity for uses considered public, such as street railway service, [children at play,] and walking.  As a public good, the street was to be regulated by experts in the name of the public interest.  Automobiles were individual, private property.  Motorists were tolerated when they did not endanger or impede other users, but wherever congestion or accidents took their toll the automobile bore most of the legal responsibility and most of the popular blame.  In the city street of 1920 the automobile was a nuisance, even an intruder.  Automobiles were extravagant in their use of scarce space, they were dangerous (especially to non-motorists), they had to be parked, and they served only a small minority of city people.  Cities, using police power delegated to them by the states, strictly regulated motorists on the ground that automobiles were newcomers that moved few people at a heavy cost to street capacity.”

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, 2015 (photo by author)

16th and John F. Kennedy Boulevard, Philadelphia, in 2015 (photo by author)

After the 1920’s (pg. 254):

“As a symbol of the transformation of the American city for the sake of the automobile, the 1956 highway act was far more prominent than any report of the Hoover traffic conferences 30 years before.  But perhaps it was less important.  The Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance of 1927 codified a new social construction of the city street.  Once a public space for mixed uses and ruled by informal customs, the street was then becoming a motor thoroughfare for the near exclusive use of fast vehicles – especially automobiles.  The Hover conferences, and especially the model traffic ordinance, recognized, legitimized, and promoted a revolution in the perception of the city street.  Though old perceptions persisted, thenceforward most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares.  As such, streets were suddenly woefully inadequate in a new way.  They were too narrow and too poorly paved, with too many points of access, conflicting paths, and grade intersections – and too many non-automotive users.  Under this new social construction of the city street, the physical reconstruction of a new kind of urban thoroughfare that addressed all these problems was striking, but not revolutionary.”

Norton’s concluding chapter relates the story to his broader field of study: the social construction of technology, and offers a hopeful fact. (pg.256) 

“The incompatibility of different constructions of a shared technology raises the stakes for relevant social groups.  In a shared system [such as city streets], when a new construction becomes dominant, one group cannot easily secede from the prevailing denomination into a dissenter group where the minority construction prevails.” … “Thomas Hughes’s work on electrification showed how such systems tend to develop a ‘momentum’ that is hard to divert.” … “In recent decades, policymakers seeking to promote alternatives to driving alone find that decades of physical and social infrastructure make their task almost hopeless.  As we have seen, however, the long-standing construction of the street as a public space was diverted, despite tremendous momentum.  The case of American city streets can therefore help us see how substantial momentum can be overcome so that interpretive flexibility is reintroduced.”

Perhaps today’s advocates for safe streets and livable cities – and the Bike Lobby – have something to learn from the overwhelming success of 1920’s Motordom. 

2 thoughts on “Perceptions of American streets before and after the Dawn of the Motor Age

  1. Pingback: ESCAPE TO THE GREENBELT – 1952 Ford Advert | Rebuilding The Rust Belt

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