01 February 2011

The Anti-Automobile Age - and what we can learn from it

Broadway, West Side. 34th to 37th St.

I've continued reading the excellent Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City by Peter D. Norton. It's a digestive book. I find myself reading a few pages at a time and then putting it down, finding it necessary to reflect.

Norton has divided it up into three parts and the first part deals with the way automobiles were regarded in the public eye between 1900 and up through the 1920's. To put it mildly, automobile traffic was not popular.

Almost a century on it seems that certain myths persist. That apart from some growing pains at the beginning, cars were always just a given in cities. I've been quite amazed to learn how massive the resistance to them was. Norton writes about the 'street' and the perception of what the street was for.

The public at the time regarded the street much in the same way as people had since cities were first formed. It was a space for people. A place to walk, a place to play, a place to alight from a streetcar. Cars were regarded as violent intruders in this common space.

The challenge of Motordom, as it was called, was quite simple. It was a question of re-branding the street as a place for cars and the whole marketing angle was instrumental in achieving this goal. Amazingly, at the end of the day it was down to clever marketing and spin to change 7000-odd years of percieving the street as a place for people, not machines.

But first, the resistance. Norton highlights in the first part the massive public uprising against the automobile. The carnage caused by cars and trucks was enormous.

"In the first four years after Armistice Day more Americans were killed in automobile accidents than had died in battle in France. This fact was widely publicized and the news was greeted with shock."

It says a lot about the victory of Motordom in changing the mindset that the current annual toll of 40,000 deaths in the US - not to mention the injured - doesn't even register in the public consciousness.

"... before the mid 1920's, cities were not at fault for failing to provide safe accommodation for motorists. To frightened parents and pedestrians the problem was far simpler: they blamed automobiles and their drivers, regardless of the circumstances. City people were angry. Their anger is shown in mob attacks on reckless motorists, and in newspapers that played up automobile accident stories when the victim was easy to represent as innocent (a child, a young woman, an old person), the victim of an unambiguous 'villain' (the motorist (...) the 'speed maniac', the fleeing criminal, the drunk)."

Here are some examples that Norton presents showing the public reaction.

"In 1920 the Philadelphia Public Ledger found that 'any time an automobile collides with a post, a pedestrian, or other obstacle the crowd that gathers always displays prejudice against the driver...' The newspaper advised readers who wished to be 'in the height of fashion' that if a pedestrian is 'hurt or annoyed' in an encounter with a car, 'don't ask whether the victim was wholly or in part to blame. Suggest that the driver of the motor-car be lynched'."

"One pedestrian, nearly struck down at a streetcar stop, published a threat: 'I am now ready for this brute, and if he ever makes a similar move where I am concerned it will be his last one, and there will be no court costs either'." St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1923.

Letters to the editor often featured the rage of city dwellers.

"'After reading advice in the newspaper to look both ways when crossing streets, the writer sent a letter signed Sic Semper Tyrannis: 'When you get to the crossing, look to your left, pull out your automatic from the holster, step into the street and level the gun at the chauffeur coming. When in the middle of the street level it at the nearest chauffeur coming the other way'." St. Louis Star, 1923.

"The more intelletual critics often called the automobile a pagan idol demanding sacrifice. The car was, for example, a juggernaut: a wheeled object of idolatry which crushed lives out under its wheels. (...) In 1916 an authority on the automobile industry wrote: 'In the view of the press, the automobile is to-day a juggernaut, a motoring speed-monster, intent on killing and maiming all who stand in its way'."

"In 1923 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized that, even in the case of a 'child darting into the street' in 'the excitement of play,' the 'plea of unavoidable accident in such cases is the perjury of a murderer' and the St. Louis Star called motorists involved in pedestrian fatalities 'killers'. The City Club of New York published and distributed large 'municipal murder maps' showing where children had been killed in traffic accidents'."

The concept of Strict Liability was in place, it seems, in America at this time. The general opinion in the early 1920's was that the responsibility lay entirely with the motorist. Much of the campaigning and focus was on children who were killed in traffic.

"Especially in the 1920s (...) Like fallen soldiers, children were publicly memorialized; their mothers, like mothers of the war dead, were honoured as 'white star mothers' or 'gold star mothers'"

Letters to the St. Louis Star in 1923:
"Most accidents are due to fast, careless driving."
"If accidents are to be reduced, speed must be reduced also; this is, unless speed is more essential than human life."
"The only way to prevent so many accidents is to force motorists by severe punishment to drive slow."

"The Balitmore Sun explained that 'motor-car psychology' turned even normally prudent prople into deadly menaces; other diagnosed 'gasoline madness' or 'gasoline rabies'."

Norton tells the tale of one Charles Price, an Iowa shoe salesman who went on to become a leading safety campaigner.

"Price appealed to angry pedestrians. 'Each year', he explained, 'it becomes more and more dangerous for a person to walk the streets.' Like most of his contemporaries Price put the responsibility on the automobile and its driver. (...) Price urged cities to 'make their traffic regulations more and more rigid till they can point to low death rates from automobile accidents. Price recommended more pedestrian crossings (not just at corners by also 'in the middle of blocks'). He attacked 'the tendency of some writers to exonerate automobile drivers and to place the blame of accidents upon pedestrians,' which to Price revealed 'lack of full comprehension of the problems involved.'"

During city-wide Safety Weeks, there were all manner of protests aimed at automobile traffic.

"... in a parade for Milwaukee's safety week in the fall of 1920, a streetcar pulled a flatbed trailer through the city. The trailer displayed a wrecked automobile driven by the likeness of Satan."

"In 1922 the Safety Commission of Oak Park, Illinois, posted fifty large signs throughout the city warning motorists "DON'T KILL A CHILD."

Hmm, that sounds familiar if you've been reading Copenhagenize...

"The Detroit Safety Council's Safety First campaign of 1919 drew special attention to street fatalities with the tolling of bells. At City Hall, at a church, at a fire station, and at every school in the city, twice a day bells slowly tolled eight times on any day in which a life was lost to a traffic accident. Teachers or police officers announced the names of the dea and the manner of their deaths to the school children."

In 1922 Baltimore erected a temporary monument to memorialize the 130 children killed in traffic accidents.

"In New York's safety week in 1922 a procession of 10,000 children was 'the most spectacular feature of the week'. Among the marchers was 'Memorial Division' of 1054 children, each representing one of the 105 children killed in accidents in the city in 1921. (...) Three days later, in the safety week's main event, a procession of open cars carried children maimed and disabled in accidents."

"In the autumn of 1923, (...) the St. Louis Safety Council unveiled an impressive monument inscribed "In Memory of Child Life Sacrificed on the Altar of Haste and Recklessness."

"In 1925 the Memphis Safety Council began displaying a black flag of mourning at sites in the city where children had been killed."

All quite amazing. More than two decades of human resistance to the automobile in cities. Hard resistance. By around 1930, things started change. Motordom started applying unique spin techniques to adjust behaviour and public perception of 'the street'.

Norton describes a popular character of the age that featured on many industrial safety posters in factories, named Otto Nobetter. He 'stumbled over tools, smoked near explosives, and generally flaunted his ignorance of elementary safety precautions. He invariably paid dearly for his mistakes.'

This approach seems sensible, perhaps, but as Norton points out, 'Compensation laws gave industry responsibility for workplace accidents, but Otto Nobletter gave it back to the workers.'

This is a key development. It would be later used by Motordom in their counterattack to claim the streets as their own. Caricatures of bumbling pedestrians who didn't look before crossing the street. The whole invented concept of jaywalking. Placing the responsibility on the individual pedestrian or cyclist and exonerating the automobile driver. Sound familiar and frightfully modern?

The transformation from the anti-automobile mood of the early 1900's to the perception of streets as space for motorized traffic was quick and efficient, once Motordom figured out how to crack the code. They started portraying the resistance as 'anti-progress' and 'old-fashioned'. Thanks to this spin, the scales tipped around 1930.

The recent anti-pedestrian initiatives like proposing fines for pedestrians wearing headphones at crosswalks and whatnot are merely the result of cleverly-designed marketing that persists from its launch in the late-1920's. Pedestrian and cyclists are still at the mercy of old-school car-friendly cultural spin.

At least knowing the origins will help us re-transform our cities into places for pedestrians and cyclists and speed the implementation of traffic-calming initatives so badly needed, all while using the same techniques to reversing the perception of the automobile in our cities. Turning motorists into Otto Nobetters.

Fighting Traffic - The Dawn of the Automobile in the American City, by Peter D. Norton is published by MIT Press.