A review of Peter Norton’s latest book.
Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, by Peter Norton
Fighting Traffic is an instructive account of the social reconstruction of American cities that led to their domination by motordom – the powerful collective of interests dedicated to clearing a path for the car. The most important period in the rise of motordom was the 1920s. Norton charts this transformation in terms of the insults that the competitors for road space traded with each other: motorists became “joy riders”, “road hogs” and “speed demons”, and their machines “juggernauts” and “death cars”, while pedestrians became “jaywalkers” and street cars became “traffic obstructions”. Norton explains how the road hogs won, how roads that were previously shared spaces were taken over by the car.
He attributes this victory to motordom’s awareness of the importance of shaping attitudes, the impressive resources that they had available to apply to this task, and their ultimate success in establishing that urban roads were, almost exclusively, for cars. By 1930 the battle had been won: “most street users agreed that most streets were chiefly motor thoroughfares.”
“Motordom”, Norton notes, “had effective rhetorical weapons, growing national organization, a favourable political climate, substantial wealth, and the sympathy of a growing minority of city motorists. By 1930, with these assets, motordom had redefined city streets.”
This is how he accounts for the dramatic change in attitudes, over a short space of time, about who should have the right of way on American streets: “From American ideals of political and economic freedom, motordom fashioned the rhetorical lever it needed. In these terms, motorists, though a minority, had rights that protected their choice of mode from intrusive restrictions. Their driving also constituted a demand for street space, which, like other demands in a free market, was not a matter for expert scrutiny.”
Norton’s account is not of mere historical interest. Today the five most valuable companies in the world – Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook – plus Tesla and Uber and all the major traditional car manufacturers, are promoting driverless cars. And they promise to reopen the argument over who should have the right of way on city streets.
They boast that their cars will able to respond with extreme deference to all pedestrians, cyclists and children encountered in the street, thereby liberating them to enjoy their pre-motordom freedom to venture safely into the road. But they concede that if this freedom were widely exercised in dense urban areas motor traffic would grind to a halt. So, who will command the streets in dense urban areas? The promoters of driverless cars are also the world’s preeminent shapers of public opinion.
PS: A sixth star for clear and persuasive writing.
[This article was originally published on John Adams’ blog]
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