Peter D. Norton. Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 2008.

By 1930, Americans had registered nearly 30-million automobiles. Norton’s history examines how and when the automobile became central to urban life.

He intervenes in Clay McShane’s argument in Down the Asphalt Path (1994) which argues that “by 1910, most motorists had conceded urban crosswalks to pedestrians and most adult pedestrians had conceded the middle of the block to cars.” But Norton reminds us that in 1900, city streets had multiple uses and users, including pedestrians, horse carriage operators, men and women socializing, vendors pushing their carts, and children at play. Many of these users considered the newly invented automobile the “devil wagon” because it disrupted the multiple uses of city streets – most seriously by killing pedestrians.


In 1923 Cincinnatins, for instance, tried to galvanize support for legislation which would install mechanisms in automobiles which would shut them off at 25 mph.


But thanks to a political juggernaut  oil companies, paving firms, automobile manufacturers, local car dealers, insurance companies, and the American Automobile Association, what Norton calls “Motordom,” public transit and and safety advocates were eventually outmaneuvered by the 1930s. Miller McClintock, for instance, was a former Chaucer scholar who, supported by Studebaker executives Paul Hoffman and Albert Russel Erskine, argued that the automobile represented freedom and the street was not a public utility but a commodity. Jaywalking was a term that motordom invented to blame children, not automobiles, on pedestrian deaths.  In 1924, U.S. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover formed a National Conference on Street and Highway Safety which required pedestrians to cross only at crosswalks or at least yield to traffic when they crossed elsewhere. This decision paved the way for the interstate Highway System in 1956.