Sunday, May 4, 2014

Romancing the Automobile a Historical Perspective


"Let HERTZ put you in the Drivers Seat"
Baby boomers remember the 1959 jingle “Let Hertz put you in the drivers seat" because of their enduring love-affair with the automobile. In Los Angeles the slogan goes “nobody walks in L.A. The car gave Americans freedom of mobility; it allowed them to work in the city but commute privately from the suburbs. The car held a particular attraction for Americans who by now had a century-long love affair with them, we live in a nation where urban design was conceived and designed around cars because Americans wanted them.
We grew up with versions of this story, but it’s an invention. It’s not all wrong but the omissions distort the history of the so-called love affair with the automobile. Groucho Marx explained to television viewers that the history of the automobile in America was the history of a “burning love affair”—a “romance” between American men and “the new girl in town.”’  By 1961 the automobile was enduring intense criticism for eroding American cities, for killing tens of thousands in pedestrian and vehicle accidents and the cause of smog.  The Groucho story defended the automobile not so much by denying these costs but justifying them.

It wasn’t always like this, early automobile use and trend setting policy came from New York City.  Streets in 1900 were public spaces. They were not the special province of any single class of street user. While pedestrians preferred sidewalks, they strode freely into the street wherever they pleased. The tracks of street railways followed the centerlines of streets. Cyclists, pushcart vendors, and children used streets freely.
 
By prevailing norms, the car, used as intended, was a misuser of streets. Car crashes made these norms plainly visible. Given the complex mix of street uses of a century ago, it is no surprise that cars were often involved in crashes, by 1928 the pedestrian death toll reached 26,000. What’s more surprising is the allocation of blame. By far the most common serious crash was a motor vehicle striking a pedestrian, No matter where the pedestrian was, however, the driver was almost automatically blamed. “Juries in accident cases involving a motorist and a pedestrian almost invariably give the pedestrian the benefit of the doubt,” a safety expert explained in 1923. 

Vested interests in car infrastructure perceived a threat. If frequent auto accidents persisted and drivers bore the blame for all pedestrian fatalities, these interests could not improve the car’s image. In an effort to prevent crashes, auto clubs auto dealers and taxi companies urged motorists to drive with caution, but these efforts could not legitimize their hidden agenda to claim the street for automobile use. 

The campaign to claim the street from the pedestrian began in 1910.
  •  The term “Jay-Walker" compared free-roaming pedestrains to boorish fools
  •  In 1920 Charles M. Hayes President of Chicago Motor Club said to fend off “unbearable restrictions” to automobile penetration, people would be taught “the streets are made for vehicles to run upon.”
  •  The Jay-Walker epithet became a tool in an effort to redefine what a street is for
  •  1922 Boy Scouts were recruited to serve pedestrians with “Jay-Walker” cards
  •  In 1923 Cincinnati, 42,000 people petitioned for an ordinance to compel drivers to install a mechanical speed governor that would limit cars to 25 mph.
  •  Vested auto interests partnered with the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce to crush the ordinance.
  •  According to NACC’s George M. Graham, and auto manufacturer, the lesson of Cincinnati was that “pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights.”
  • The NACC begins to launder automobile accident reporting prior to newspaper printing
  •  By 1924 the magistrate of New York City’s traffic court deemed it fashionable to “ascribe from 70 to 90 per cent of all accidents to jaywalking.”
  •  In 1924 Auto Club of Southern California and allies secured passage of a new traffic ordinance regulating pedestrians, in effect outlawing jaywalking
Excerpts from these references: “Joy Riders and Jay Walkers”, Peter Norton, Transportation Alternatives, NYC
"Pedestrians", National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

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