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Origins of Motordom: When there really was a ‘war on the car’

April 18, 2013

From Washington CityPaper:

There was the 1908 Baltimore Sun piece about a Rockville Town Council resolution to authorize the bailiff to stop all cars violating its 6-mile-an-hour speed limit by any means necessary. (“Bailiff Hewitt is an excellent pistol shot and he says he will use his revolver on the tires of all machines whose drivers ignore his commands to stop. If he finds he is not a good enough shot to puncture the tires as the machines rush by, he says he will use a shotgun.”)

And there was the 1909 New York Times article on Seney, Ga.’s ordinance prohibiting cars within city limits and allowing the marshal to arrest anyone entering the town in “such ‘engines of destruction.’”

Yes, in the early days of the automobile, when the technology itself was being questioned and few rules existed to govern traffic and parking, there really was a war on cars. Driving could get you arrested in some places, whacked with stones in others, and actually shot by gun-wielding police in at least one. This wasn’t a philosophical debate over parking or bike lanes. It was a real, knock-down, drag-out battle.

Once cars were well established, however, the car war largely died out. News clips show scattered uses of the phrase over the next century, mostly things like “the sheriff has declared war on automobiles found without licenses” (Milwaukee Journal, 1925) and “Sheriff Jack Dunkley declares war on automobiles without sufficient lights” (Lawrence Journal-World, 1932). No grandiloquent exordium, no guns, no blood, no real war.

Except …

… there was a car war. It was just in reverse: Cars were declaring war on cities across the country.

This excellent piece by Aaron Wiener then goes on to describe Washington in the Motordom age – and eventually arrives at Post-Motordom, which critics of current policy describe as a “war on the car.’  Guess what, it involves bike lanes. 

But the reality is more straightforward:

The city isn’t so much masterminding the change in transportation uses as responding to a generational shift in who lives in the densest parts of the city and how they get around.

The people flocking to the District recently—more than 30,000 just since 2010—are largely 20-somethings who don’t see car ownership as a top priority. Some are children of the recession who simply don’t have the money for a car, preferring Metro and bus. Others started driving in the Zipcar era and see no need to own a car when they can rent one on demand.

Close to 40 percent of D.C. residents don’t own a car, compared to 8 percent nationally, according to the Office of Planning.

The lesson?

… the real war on cars, that one with the flying rocks and shooting bailiffs a century ago, didn’t end with a bang; it fizzled out when people got used to cars. They figured out how to drive them, how to dodge them, how to regulate them. The same will happen with bikes, and with bike lanes and bus lanes, and with transit-oriented development.

Full story here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rowan permalink
    April 18, 2013 12:39 pm

    I suggest checking this fascinating podcast on Motordom’s war on the city.

    See episode 76:

    http://99percentinvisible.org/

  2. January 16, 2014 5:21 pm

    To get a sense of the “war” in cities between car owners and the rest (mostly pedestrians), read “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” by Peter D. Norton (2008), a professor at U. of Virginia. Dissects the shift from 1915-1935 or so, during which drivers hitting pedestrians were first vilified, and later exonerated by ‘rules of the road’ that put pedestrians onto sidewalks or, where lacking, road shoulders.

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