Friday, February 17, 2012

Fighting Traffic

Continuing on the theme of suburbia, I found an interesting review of this book: Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City:
How did this happen? Norton covers the whole cast of characters: dead children, grieving parents, schools, safety councils, police, auto clubs, auto manufacturers, pedestrians, street railways, planners, traffic engineers, and highway engineers. In chronologically overlapping chapters he depicts the ebb and flow of the decade’s battles. One turning point came in 1923-24, when two events galvanized automobile partisans into united action as “motordom” (an awkward coinage that Norton revives). First, auto sales declined in those years, suggesting that the market for automobiles might have become saturated. Second, Cincinnati held a referendum on a proposal to require speed governors on cars. {153f., 95f.}

The forces of motordom united in response to these threats, turned them back, and then went on the offensive. They adopted the rhetoric of “freedom,” and to back it up, they bought the necessary engineering expertise (although Norton doesn’t put it so bluntly).

To engineers, the problem with street traffic looked a lot like water, gas, sewage, and other urban public utilities for which they had successfully devised “ways to manage heavy loads on city service networks of limited capacity.” {105} Streetcars were far more efficient at moving people around town than the equivalent number of private automobiles could ever be. As a result, writes Norton, “In most cities for most of the 1920s, engineers fought traffic by restricting the private automobile,” treating it “as an abuse of the street as a public service.” {125} Traffic control expert Miller McClintock said in 1925 that “all traffic accidents can be reduced to one cause, that is, too great speed under a given set of conditions.” {234-5} His book, Street Traffic Control, opposed widening streets because they would just fill up and remain equally congested. Building a separate set of elevated streets would be too expensive. Instead, he wrote, “it seems desirable to give trolley cars the right of way under general conditions.” {163-167}

Then automobile manufacturer Studebaker created the Albert Russel Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research, funded it, hired McClintock to run it, and in 1926 ensconced it at Harvard University as a seemingly disinterested expert authority. Norton doesn’t explain this last trick, but he knows what happened next: “McClintock’s traffic control principles soon evolved; his definition of efficiency changed and he began to attack the ‘floor space’ problem” – no longer seeking ways to use existing streets most efficiently, but ways to remake the city to suit the automobile. By 1930 McClintock was advocating elevated streets and proposing that speed limits be abolished altogether – and educating a new generation to think likewise. {234-235} “Engineers no longer manipulated traffic demands in the name of efficiency, as their predecessors had sought to do,” concludes Norton. “Their job was to identify demands and supply them.” {243}

Streets had quickly evolved from public spaces into commodities, with only one legitimate customer. In 1927 a committee met to draw up a model city traffic ordinance. Chicago street railway engineer E.J. McIlraith proposed that it include the previously standard phrase that cities seek “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The motordom-dominated committee rejected his proposal. Henceforth efficiency would be measured by the greatest good for the greatest number…of cars.

In the decades since, traffic and highway engineers have been much scorned for their single-minded devotion to automobility. Norton’s careful work reminds us that the best engineering judgment, pre-purchase, was quite otherwise. That judgment was quietly dropped, not refuted.
I think there's a good analogy to be made to the economic landscape of the past forty years. When deregulation and deindustrialization first started gathering steam in the late Carter/early Reagan era, there was much opposition from unions, the public, etc. Then, wealthy and powerful business interests started foundations and hired intellectuals to flog their views and come up with justifications – in essence to turn political policy to their advantage through lobbying. There was a massive PR campaign to promote the idea that globalism, outsourcing and deindustrialization would be to everybody's benefit, and that the "service economy" was the wave of the future. They assured us that globalization was inevitable, could not be stopped, and represented progress. The economists of the "Chicago school" were the main intellectual smoke screen for this sleight of hand. The beginning of this movement is often dated to the Powell Memorandum. The history of that is here:

Bill Black: My Class, right or wrong – the Powell Memorandum’s 40th Anniversary

He issued a clarion call for corporations to mobilize their economic power to further their economic interests by ensuring that corporations dominated every influential and powerful American institution. Lewis Powell’s call was answered by the CEOs who funded the creation of Cato, Heritage, and hundreds of other movement centers.

Like the declining auto sales and Cincinnati referendum that galvanized motordom, the Powell Memorandum galvanized the Chamber of Commerce. After Reagan's election they transformed the entire economy, dismantling the middle class that had been built in the post-war years, and issuing in a new Gilded Age.

Now, we are living with the consequences. Things are falling apart. We forget that there ever was opposition; that there was ever another way, just as we forget that there was once a time where the streets were not built for cars and nothing else. Globalism, just like the dominance of cars, was not a fait accompli, despite Thomas Friedman's insistence; it was a deliberately designed policy. There were many alternatives, just as there were with streets. Just like engineers and city planners, economists were not always united in defense of globalization, deregulation, financialization, deindustrialization, laissez-faire, union-busting, monopoly, low taxes on wealth, and the “service” economy. In the post-depression years, many of these ideas were seen as toxic (as subsequent history proved) or silly. Today, economists march in lock-step, with anyone outside the mainstream seen as cranks (e.g. Michael Hudson, Steve Keen, Herman Daly, etc.), just as traffic planners are now united behind making urban areas safe and convenient for cars alone.

Now, in both instances, we’re stuck and can’t go back. We just plow forward - more suburbanization, more road-building, more globalism, more deregulation. We can’t even see another way, because the “experts” have all been bought off. We're told that there is no alternative by the forces that benefit from the current arrangement. Truly a sad state of affairs. And just like with the traffic engineers, the original judgement of economists has been supplanted, but not refuted.

A final note: it seems that the rhetoric of “freedom” has been hijacked to do just about every destructive thing in America by the rich and corporations.

RELATED: Parking Maked People Insane (BoingBoing)

Writing in the LA Magazine, Dave Gardetta visits the thinking of the world's top parking theorists, who believe that parking causes people to go insane: "I truly believe that when men and women think about parking, their mental capacity reverts to the reptilian cortex of the brain. How to get food, ritual display, territorial dominance—all these things are part of parking, and we’ve assigned it to the most primitive part of the brain that makes snap fight-or-flight decisions. Our mental capacities just bottom out when we talk about parking."

The whole feature is fascinating, tracing the grim history of urban parking, where neighborhoods were blighted and jobs and businesses destroyed in the rush to add places for cars; up to recent political wrangles over parking in southern California's car-centric metro areas.

1 comment:

  1. I only heard about the Powell Memorandum through the comments on JMG's blog a little while ago. Always wondered where all those nasty "think tanks" which are quoted in the news daily came from. Secret and pervasive, they're today's Inquisition -- nothing but destructive power.

    ReplyDelete