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Reviewed by:
  • Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City
  • Bruce Epperson (bio)
Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. By Peter D. Norton. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008. Pp ix+396. $35.

In Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton extends Clay Mc Shane’s Down the Asphalt Path (1994), an examination of how social and technical forces at the close of the nineteenth century changed urban streets from generalized public spaces to specialized transportation corridors. Focusing on the years from 1920 to 1933, Norton seeks to explain how streets further evolved into the exclusive domain of motor vehicles. He argues that, initially, urbanites and city officials responded to an alarming surge in automobile fatalities, mostly among pedestrians, by tightening regulations on cars and trucks. But after 1924 a powerful coalition of industry representatives and elite automobile clubs that Norton labels “motordom” hijacked a series of urban transportation-safety conferences convened by Commerce secretary Herbert Hoover. The result was a set of model traffic regulations that favored automobiles by excluding pedestrian and transit users from streets outside of small, inconvenient, and highly regimented places such as crosswalks and streetcar boarding zones. [End Page 235]

Norton eschews systematic quantification in favor of an anecdotal approach. He asserts that in the 1920s “the scale of death and dismemberment on roads and streets in America grew fast,” with victims predominantly being young pedestrians (p. 21). However, the data exist, and, while not perfect, are far better than Norton claims. Vehicle fatalities increased throughout the decade at an annualized rate of 9.9 percent, from 12,155 in 1920 to 31,204 in 1930.Was this “fast”? Well, it depends. Deaths per mile of road did increase at an annualized 9.2 percent, and per capita fatalities rose at a similar 8.2 percent rate, from 11.5 per 100,000 persons in 1920 to 25.4 in 1930. (In comparison, deaths in 1930 from falls and suicides were 14.7 and 15.6 respectively.) But from behind the wheel, things improved, as fatalities fell from 132 per 100,000 vehicles to 117.

Urban transportation was indeed more hazardous, but this was not new or uniquely American, as indicated by 1926 fatality rates per 100,000 cars: London, 298; Berlin, 257; Chicago, 200; New York, 170; Paris, 112; and Los Angeles, 65. (Paris banned jaywalking in 1925, and the marked crosswalk was invented not in L.A. but in Berlin.) In 1867 more than 200 pedestrians died on the streets of New York from collisions—with horses. While auto deaths per hundred million miles fell from 25.2 in 1920 to 15.1 in 1930, transport historian Maxwell Lay estimates the fatality rate for equestrian use around 1900 at 290 per hundred million miles.

Norton points to a widespread “mother’s revolt” against child fatalities in the 1920s, but consider another vulnerable group: the elderly. In 1914, vehicle fatality rates per 100,000 members of the age cohort for those under 5 and those 5 to 14 were 2.5 and 5.7 respectively. For those 65 to 74 it was 9.3. By 1920 the children’s rates increased to 8.6 and 14.6, but this was outpaced by elderly deaths, at 27.0. In 1930, the infant rates leveled off at 13.0 and 14.7, but for the seniors it was an incredible 72.5, about the same as the all-ages death rate for tuberculosis. If the carnage in the streets was creating a populist movement to “save the kiddies,” why wasn’t anyone marching for granny?

Norton examines a highly unstable period in urban development. Downtown Chicago covered the same area as it did fifty years earlier, but now supported a city six times larger. The central business districts of Boston, Detroit, and Saint Louis were all less than a mile square. The transport marvel of the Gilded Age wasn’t the streetcar, but the Otis elevator. The vertical downtown was at a physical and economic dead end, however, and the relief valve was suburbanization. Starting in 1920 American suburbs grew faster than core cities, and a decade later the growth...


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