Take It To the Streets

Written by Aaron Naparstek on . Posted in Posts.

A new mode of transportation is muscling its way onto city streets. Politicians, editorial boards, cops and business groups consider it a nuisance and a threat. The public is angry and confused. Suddenly, this popular new urban transportation option is challenging New Yorkers’ longstanding traditions and ideas about what a street is for, who gets to use it and how. Used by a relatively small number of New Yorkers, this new mode of transport makes its presence felt in a big way. Local politicians insist that something needs to be done. Editorial boards vilify it. The cops are cracking down. War? Housing? Education? Poverty? Who cares! Some days, if the local press is any guide, it seems like the No. 1 issue on the civic agenda is this new form of transportation on New York City streets.

This is a story about the Great Bike Backlash of 2011, right? Nope. I’m talking about the Automobile Backlash of 1920.

The tabloid ravings, harsh police tactics and political posturing aimed against bikes and bike lanes may seem intense today. In a historic context, however, the Bike Backlash of 2011 is nothing compared to the battle that took place during the decade after World War I when organized “motordom” carved out its place on New York City streets. (Yes, that’s how the automobile interests actually referred to themselves: They were “motordom.”)

University of Virginia professor Peter Norton details the early history of the car and the city in his wonky but fascinating book, Fighting Traffic. He describes the “blood, grief and anger in the American city” and the “violent revolution in the streets” of New York and other U.S. cities as automobile owners bullied their way on to city streets, literally, leaving a trail of mangled children’s bodies in their wake.

In the 1920s, motor vehicle crashes killed more than 200,000 Americans, a staggering number considering how many fewer cars actually existed in those days. These days, 35,000-or-so Americans are killed in car wrecks annually. Most of the dead are drivers and passengers on highways and in rural places. In the 1920s, most of the dead were kids living in cities. In the first four years after the Armistice of World War I, more Americans were killed in car wrecks than had died in battle in France.

New York City residents of the 1920s, by and large, despised the automobile with a passion that makes today’s bike backlash look like a friendly disagreement. Norton recounts stories of mob attacks on reckless motorists. In 1923, speeding car thieves mowed down and killed a 20-year-old woman, a popular church choir singer, while she was waiting for a streetcar in Philadelphia. A “menacing crowd” of 2,000 citizens surrounded the vehicle and threatened to lynch its occupants. On a single spring day in 1927, eight children were run over and killed by cars in and around New York City and police struggled to rescue one of the drivers after he had been attacked by an angry mob. In more intellectual circles, “critics often called the automobile a pagan idol demanding sacrifice,” according to Norton. Newspaper editorials described the automobile as “a machine age Moloch to which motorists sacrificed generous offerings of child victims.” Cars were a nuisance and intruder on city streets and drivers were seen as “tyrants that deprived others of their freedom.” City streets were places where kids played, pushcart vendors sold goods and a wide variety of vehicles and traffic moved and intermingled mostly at human-scale speeds. New Yorkers and city people all across America “saw the car not just as a menace to life and limb, but also as an aggressor upon their time-honored rights to city streets.”

Yet by 1930, the backlash was largely over. The automobile had secured its place on city streets and motordom had won. Rather than conforming to the demands of the American city, the city began its decades-long process of conforming itself to the needs of the automobile. This is the city we live in today: the automotive city.

In the automotive city, the streets are primarily the domain of motor vehicles. In the automotive city, we design and manage our streets to move cars and trucks as quickly and efficiently as possible. We allow the owners of private motor vehicles to store their massive pieces of personal property for free or, for just a few quarters, in a parking meter. It’s the best deal in town.

The Automobile Backlash of last century turned around with remarkable speed. Though they seemed to hate other people’s automobiles, it turns out that a lot of streetcar commuters viewed themselves as future motorists. While traffic engineering and city planning played a role in getting New Yorkers to accept the automobile (Car lanes? How dare they!), it took decades to retrofit New York City’s infrastructure for the automobile, a project that is only just now winding down thanks to bankrupt state and federal budgets.

Norton argues that the great Automobile Backlash of the 1920s wasn’t so much a fight between different modes of transportation, it was a turf war over New Yorkers’ shared public space: the street. The sudden arrival of large numbers of private automobiles in the 1920s forced New Yorkers to face new questions about who the streets were for and how they were to be shared and used. Today, the sudden arrival of a rapidly growing number of bicycles is forcing New York City to face these questions once again.

Changing a city’s infrastructure takes decades. Changing social mores can happen much faster. “Before the city could be physically reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where motorists unquestionably belonged,” Norton writes. By 1930, that social reconstruction was largely complete. New Yorkers had mostly accepted the automobile in their midst, despite the fact that 10 years earlier, many considered it to be nothing more than street-clogging, exhaust-spewing, horn-honking, child-killer owned and operated by a small number of wealthy elites.

Bikes don’t cause gridlock, pollute the air or make lots of noise. And it’s extraordinarily rare for a cyclist to kill a pedestrian. But if the irrational bike-hate spewing forth from the New York Post and the mansions of Prospect Park West are any guide, the Department of Transportation’s construction of bike infrastructure has gotten ahead of the “social reconstruction” of New York City streets.

Minds will change and the Great Bike Backlash will soon come to an end. Future generations of New Yorkers will look back at this moment with a sense of wonder and amazement at the foolishness of it all. New York City will be a great biking city. It already is. We’re just waiting for the culture to catch up to the infrastructure. 

Aaron Naparstek is teaching a summer course on the politics and planning of sustainable streets at the New School this summer. For more information visitwww.newschool.edu