13 January 2011

Fighting Traffic - 01

Reforma Sunday Skate n Ride
Just got a book in the post today. "Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City" by Peter D. Norton.

It's looking good already. Under 'The Social Reconstruction of the Street' I can read that:

"Until the 1920's, under prevailing conceptions of the street, cars were at best uninvited guests. To many they were unruly intruders. They obstructed and endangered street uses of long-standing legitimacy. As a Providence newspaper editor expressed the problem in 1921, 'it is impossible for all classes of modern traffic to occupy the same right of way at the same time in safety.'"


"Today we tend to regard streets as motor thoroughfares, and we tend to project this construction back to pre-automotive streets. In retrospect, therefore, the use of streets for children's play (for example) can seem obviously wrong, and thus the departure of children from streets with the arrival of automobiles can seem an obvious and simple necessity.

Only when we can see the prevailing social construction of the street from the perspective of its own time can we also see the car as the intruder. Until we do, not only will we fail to understand the violent revolution in street use circa 1915-1930, we will not even see it.

This is why the full scale of the wave of blood, grief and anger in American city streets in the 1920's has eluded notice."


"Prevailing social constructions of the street, for example, were stable in 1900. The automobile destablized them. Social groups, such as pedestrians, parents, police and downtown business associations, organised to preserve the streets as they knew them. But their actions threatened to limit the automobile's urban horizon.

In the 1920's, automotive interests (or motordom, as they were sometimes called) proposed that customary social constructions of the street were outdated and that only a revolutionary change in perception of the street could ease congestion and prevent accidents."

And I'm only on page 2.

Wow. Motordom (great word) still reigns supreme. They succeeded in changing the perception of the street and these perceptions are deeply-rooted.

Even in bicycle circles. Just listen to the buzz that comes out of the UK lately, about how 'we don't have room for infrastructure!' Besides being silly - look at all the narrow-streeted European cities that have managed it - it reveals that these cyclists are, perhaps without being aware of it, preaching the doctrine of motordom.

Instead we should - and we are in many, many places - redefine our social construction of the streets. Placing the emphasis on people and human-powered transport instead of paying expensive tithes to the Church of Motordom, taking part in the rituals associated with it - when few of us, deep down, actually believe in it.

If we say that streets have been around since cities first were formed, around 7000 years ago, then surely our social construction of what streets should be for should be anchored in the human perspective prevalent for the first 6900 of those years.

Let's stop Ignoring the Bull in Society's China Shop, shall we?

Enough for now. I'm on to page 3 of the book.


kfg said...

It is also taken for granted that cars are inherently as they are, that, say, a Volvo station wagon or a Porsche 911 is what a car is. And yet "car" is a word that is borrowed by the automobile. It's several hundred years old, hence there were cars before automobiles, back when the streets were a social space.

Not only may the street space be redefined, so may the car itself. If you really believe that only a few really believe in motordom, try suggesting that to the Porsche owner.

ndru said...

People saying we don't have space for bicycle infrastructure in UK are repeating the tired old myth and they come from the failed cycling campaigns or have been influenced by them. They are the voice of about 2% people who already cycle - most of them for in a sporty not utility fashion.
However this is not the voice of the rest of people who want to cycle in UK - they had ben unrepresented. Yet with the establishment of Cycling Embassy of GB there is a hope that the calls for long awaited good quality infrastructure will be represented.
Many of people in UK understand that if we don;t have room for bicycles, then we don't have room for cars either.

lofidelitybicycleclub said...

When you recommended 'Culture of Fear by Frank Furedi', I could only read a couple of pages before having to put the book down and going for a walk to take in what I'd read. Very absorbing, and this latest book sounds the same.

In the UK the word is getting through via a number of beautiful bloggers and campaigners such as ibikelondon, Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest and my own wonderful, wonderful blog :-)

We have many potential beautiful town and city centres. However they are tainted by planners who still insist on playing the tired old game of 'Lets see how many cars we can possibly cram into a populous area so everyone loses out including the motorist'. It is to the UK's detriment in every way.

lofidelitybicycleclub said...

....in fact , following on from nrdu's comment, we are trying to start the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Whereas the Denmark and Netherlands look to export their best practice and knowledge, our Embassy wishes to act as a conduit and import this (and other examples from around the World) to make standards, as opposed to guidelines that are easily abused by Councils that can hide behind excuses of 'not enough space' and 'no budget' for designing dangerous, circuitous rubbish that's unfit for purpose. We wish to appeal to the 97% of people that don't know that they are bicycle riders yet as opposed to the 3% that do.
www.cycling-embassy.org.uk (you have to log in to see the volunteers discussion boards)

The start up meeting is on January 29 in London if you're interested! :-)

Peter said...

This article is a little off-base when it comes to some large cities. My relatives who grew up in New York City around the turn of the 20th century (around 1910, before the war) told me that the main streets were very dangerous even though there were only occasional automobiles back then. They were jammed with horse-drawn delivery wagons, omnibuses, street cars and carriages. They were warned all the time as children to be careful crossing the street. Apparently it was common for people to be run over by the wagons.

Mikael said...

thanks for commenting.

peter: like i said, i'm on page 3 of the book and there are many references to New York City. I'll be surely getting back to that. Alternatively, you can also read the book I am referencing.

lofi: kick off meeting on my birthday! i LIKE that!

kfg said...

Peter - They also not only had a speeding problem, but a considerable amount of Sudden Acceleration Syndrome. The bicycle mounted police force had to be invented to deal with it.

They would not only chase down the speeding vehicles, but often then leap from their bicycles to the vehicle in order to bring it to a halt. It was a pretty dangerous business.

Peter said...

Interesting you mentioned that - a grandparent told me that an occasional problem was an out-of-control horse pulling a wagon. She said a police officer would catch up with the wagon, hop on, and bring it under control. I always assumed she was talking about mounted officers, but they could of been on bicycles.

You have to admire the courage of those officers, whther on horseback or bike!

kfg said...

One of the problems of using a horse for this was they often just weren't fast enough. Mile a Minute Murphy, the first man to ride a bicycle at 60 mph (drafting behind a train) was a NYC bicycle officer.

But the biggest problem was probably that you then had another bloody horse running at speed through the city, which was even more of a threat to people in the street, and the possible behavior of the horse after the officer leapt off of it.

A bicycle can be pretty much counted on to just fall to the ground and stay there.

kfg said...

Here's a picture of the bicycle force:


Imagine what cities might be like if not only the number of cars were reduced, but if those cars that remained were reduced in power to the point that any misbehaving could be brought to heel by a sturdy man on a sturdy bike.

Todd Scott said...

Fighting Traffic is a must-read for any cycling advocate, despite the fact that it doesn't document any bicycling advocacy during that time. Wny? Because according to Mr. Norton, he couldn't find any. This lack of organized bicycle advocacy helped motordom shape the roads to their benefit and our detriment.

Gary said...

I like your analogy "tithes to the Church of Motordom" since many drivers indeed display an almost religious fanaticism towards cars. It is probably why some would like to stone to death any heretic who dares mention any other mode of transportation.

Peter Smith said...

i'd recomment this book, too:

The Motorization of American Cities

It's more about American transportation history, tho.

cbleslie said...

Non constructive post:

The kids in the photo are having too much fun. Someone needs to do something about it.

cbleslie said...

I blame this all on sidewalks.

Kiwehtin said...

Thanks for talking about this book, Mikael. I didn't know about this particular book.

About traffic deaths: yes, they happened with speeding horse-drawn carriages too – witness the early scene in A Tale of Two Cities where the Marquis' speeding coach kills a child – and Antoni Gaudí was killed by a Barcelona streetcar. But in those eras, speeding coaches and streetcars did not totally dominate the street scene everywhere in most cities the way motor vehicles do nowadays, travelling as a matter of course at speeds nearly undreamed of in those days.

Even with streetcars, old clops show the leisurely pace they moved at and how well they mixed with foot and bike traffics on the streets:


This from just over a century ago...

Kiwehtin said...

Thought I would add this clip (NOT "clop", blush...) of Vancouver, a city where according to people of a certain mindset, it is inconceivable that people could get around town as, well, people are doing here:


There are some more similar clips linked to in the sidebar on that page.

kfg said...

That's ok; before they got all electrificated streetcars clopped too.

Anonymous said...

It's good to hear the 'lack of room' view-point outed for what it really is; silly.

A mature response to what is effectively an immature argument.

Thanks for your superb blog,

pedalpusher said...

Human beings, for the most part, always choose the easiest route as opposed to the what is idealistically better for the common good, health wise and environmentally wise, especially in the US. (we, here being the exception)

Advocacy here, is a close cousin to democrats. And 'Organized' Advocacy is mostly, a dichotomy.

Oh, And mention the word 'social' anything here, and Joe McCarthy's ghost rises in a thunderous and fearful crescendo!
Ah, the reality of America!

But maybe, just maybe.....Naahhh!

(as I pedal away, dodging the stones, with my dog in my 'Mikael' inspired front basket) :)

Tom said...

Hope all is well. Just wondering how the book has been beyond page 3? Thank you...

Unseelie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unseelie said...

About horses and bringing wagons under control; a mounted officer would most likely have ridden up to the traces and once you get ahold of the bridle or reins you can begin to regain control of the wagon and stop it. There's no need to do the incredibly dramatic, foolish, and dangerous Movie Hero Leap onto the out of control vehicle or horses. Just so that's out there - life isn't all action and adventure, just as it isn't in black and white, slow and stuttery.
What i mean is that there wasn't then the officers horse running wild. And i miss-spelled reins, silly.

Peter said...

Not only may the street space be redefined, so may the car itself.

I've been thinking a lot about NEVs.

This lack of organized bicycle advocacy helped motordom shape the roads to their benefit and our detriment.

I'm pretty sure the LAB was around since 1880 and were the folks who first advocated for the paving of roads in America. Pretty much everyone and everything related to the car industry in America has roots in bicycles -- inventors, manufacturers, mechanics, etc. (Some of them were airplane folks, too.)