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May
13
2017

Fighting Traffic: the next battle

Amazon Review

Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,

by Peter D Norton

5 out of 5 stars     

By J. Adams, 9 May 2017

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase

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.

1 comment

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  1. Mr B J Mann says:

    Perhaps things were different in the US?

    But I thought that there was so much horse traffic on the carriageways of New York, and they struggled so much to clear it out of the city, that it had to be stockpiled on vacant blocks in manure-heaps two or three storeys high.

    With the accompanying epidemics devastating the population.

    As I understand it London had a similar problem, which was a bit hard to deal with using hand barrows and pack horses.

    In fact, as far as I’m aware, most of the road widening in London occurred to accommodate horse drawn carts and carriages, not cars.

    (In fact, in the days of motordom they seem to prefer narrowing roads, often so much the pavements meet in the middle!)

    Of course that’s not to deny the vast demolition and destruction to allow the construction of railway lines and stations.

    Perhaps some confusion has arisen from the US use of rail “road”?

    Interestingly, London had plans for not only multiple multi lane dual carriageway ring roads, but also radial roads, distributor roads, and a grid system, to the same standard.

    To alleviate traffic congestion.

    Before the war.

    The First World war.

    To alleviate horse traffic congestion!

    Those plans were put on the back burner because of the war, Depression, war, recession…….

    Eventually plans were drawn up in the Sixties for an orbital motorway system.

    With FIVE MOTORWAY rings.

    Over half a century later London is still trying to cope with the bodge up of rings three and four into the oval of the M25.

    As for “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”:

    I’m sure I read somewhere that the road fatality figures were something like 1,600pa when people could “enjoy their pre-motordom freedom to venture safely into the road”.

    In “London”,.

    And that might have referred to just The Square Mile.

    It’s not often a car runs away, and I’ve never heard of a parked car kicking someone in the head.

    We should be careful what we wish for:

    The number of pedestrians killed by cyclists per mile ridden is in the same ball park as the number of pedestrians that die in collisions with motorists per mile driven.

    And when we’ve driven all the motorists onto buses and bikes, and lost the £50 Billion in extra additional road related taxes they pay on top of their ordinary citizens taxes each and every year: who will pay for the 50% subsidies on running public transport?

    Who will pay for the roads and railways?

    Who will pay for half the NHs?

    Is any government likely to slash the NHS budget in half to pay for buses and roads to run them on?

    Or will we be paying double the fare, plus tax, plus £50 BILLION in Road Related Taxes?

    Payable by cyclists too!

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