Thursday, May 29, 2008

Peter D. Norton's "Fighting Traffic"

Peter D. Norton is Assistant Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, and reported the following:
Ford's doctrine is a species of bibliomancy that is new to me. Testing it on my own book, Fighting Traffic, I am tempted to declare him a minor prophet. Then I recall something I once heard about sample sizes.

My case is that the automotive city was not the product of highway engineers or city planners, but of an earlier redefinition of what a street is for. A hundred years ago a city street was something like a city park: open to all comers on condition that no one needlessly obstruct or endanger others. This definition made cars and their drivers unwelcome intruders. Page 99 captures the moment when champions of the automobile first perceived that the traditional conception of the street was a threat to the car's urban future, and began to work together to reinvent the street as a motor thoroughfare.

In 1923, when the people of Cincinnati were distressed by the number of pedestrians (especially children) who were struck by cars, their response was NOT like ours would be today. Living in the motor age, we would discourage jaywalking and increase safety education in schools. But in 1923 all blame was directed at motorists, and the result was a petition--signed by 42,000 people--to install speed governors on all cars in the city. The governor would shut the engine off if the car reached 25 mph. This solution was logical to those who defined streets as public spaces, but it would also have deprived motorists of their cars' chief advantage--their speed. So it was in Cincinnati in 1923--and exactly on p. 99 of the book--that automobile dealers, clubs and manufacturers first organized to redefine streets as motor thoroughfares, where pedestrians (and especially children) do not belong.
Read an excerpt from Fighting Traffic, and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Peter D. Norton's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue