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Down the Asphalt Path: The Automobile and the American City.

Down the Asphalt Path is an important contribution to the social history of urban technology. Exploring the relationship between improved street pavements and faster transit vehicles, it also examines their impact on urban life and how cultural assumptions shaped their design and implementation. McShane's thesis, based largely on a study of New York, where the car culture first emerged, is that the triumph of the automobile had less to do with the refinement of the internal combustion engine than with the transformation of urban culture.

Making excellent use of an array of sources bearing on law, public health, popular and material culture, city planning and municipal government, McShane's argument unfolds in three parts. In his first chapters he retells the familiar story of improvements in urban transit and the suburbanization this made possible, adding a focus on street pavements that reveals the disruptive impact of rapid transit on the city. In a culture that viewed streets as sources of light and air and as public space for sociability, recreation, petty commerce, and politics, in short as an integral part of local settlements, the view of the street as a traffic artery met considerable resistance. Although inner-city residents managed to prevent the use of steam railways on their streets, between 1850 and 1870 the horse-drawn street railway began to produce profits for operators and realtors and suburban lifestyles for wealthy commuters, winning ardent and powerful supporters for improved transit.

After 1870 the growth of the industrial city popularized the desire for a suburban haven from its turmoil and generated the demand for cheap rapid transit. So did the new concern with public health and the environmental explanation of disease. The miasmic vapors of decaying organic material, public health officials warned, concentrated in dense urban neighborhoods; detached single-family dwellings in open, suburban spaces promised the best pvotection. Distrust of municipal government prevented aggressive land-use and housing policies, but cities encouraged suburbanization through liberal franchises to private street railways.

In the 1890s faster transit speeds became a near obsession. Elevated trains and cable traction appeared but enormous fixed costs limited their applicability. The electric trolley provided the first widespread, commercially and culturally viable form of rapid transit. At speeds of twelve miles per hour the trolleys opened extensive suburban tracts, fueling their adoption nationwide and (along with bicycles) familiarizing urbanites with fast vehicles in their streets. A fascination with speed also contributed to the building of limited-access speedways for carriages, usually located in large, outlying public parks designed to anchor fashionable suburban neighborhoods. A desire for faster transit spurred the search for "a cheap mechanical substitute for the horse." The intensification of urban commerce had increased the demand for horses to make local deliveries, adding cross-town delivery costs nearly as high as interstate costs. Manhattan alone had 130,000 horses in 1900, a source of power that was not only slow and unwieldy but prone to disease and a major polluter. The trolley, the speedway, and the truck suggested that public support for mobility-enhancing technologies could improve the quality of urban life.

The revolution in street pavements, central to improved transit, awaited the reorganization of municipal government. At mid-century decentralized municipal governments financed street paving through assessments of abutters, who favored wide sidewalks, narrow roadways and the cheapest pavements most discouraging to heavy traffic. The post - Civil War political

machines provided a measure of centralization and launched ambitious public works in the name of mobility, but inefficiency and corruption discredited their programs. Fiscally conservative structural reformers, while creating the independent boards that gave municipal engineers a base of power, limited spending and reinforced the tax-paying abutters' control over pavements. Ironically it was social reformers, self-styled champions of the inner-city poor, who transformed the traditional street into the traffic artery. Promoting cheap, rapid transit as a panacea for the poor, empowering professional engineers, and financing paving costs from general revenues while dictating the choice of pavements, social reformers literally paved the way for the era of automobility.

In his middle chapters McShane describes the failure of the steam automobile and the rise of the internal combustion automobile. The history of the steam automobile well illustrates the thesis that cultural change rather than technological innovation explains the rise of automobility. In 1805 a workable steam vehicle chugged along Philadelphia's streets. Experimentation continued throughout the century; despite technical problems, steam vehicles could have replaced horses in many tasks. But exaggerated fears of boiler explosions and opposition to fast-moving machines in the streets led to stringent municipal regulation. Not even the politically powerful street railway companies secured permission to switch to steam.

Optimistic visions of the internal combustion automobile's impact limited restrictions on its use and underwrote lavish public subsidies. The automobile inherited and benefited from the unsatisfied expectations generated by the rapid transit trolley. Sullied by financial manipulation and political corruption and crowded with ill-behaved riders, the trolley failed to deliver on the dream of an escape from urban problems. The automobile seemed finally to promise physical and psychic liberation from the city. Although initially identified with an arrogant leisure class, the automobile became a key element in the culture of the new middle class and enjoyed a prestige that emboldened its proponents, who offered it as the solution to everything from pollution to nervous disorders, and overawed its opponents.

The automobile also contributed to the redefinition of gender roles. Finding the traditional male role of independent proprietor undermined, men redefined masculinity in terms of assertiveness, an aptitude for science and technology and mechanical ability. Purchasing, driving, and maintaining cars provided a means of displaying these traits (surviving registration statistics reveal an overwhelming majority of cars registered to men). Fantasies of status, power, and conquest - of both nature and women - were used to sell automobiles. As Sinclair Lewis's portrait of Babbitt suggests, the automobile also promised men a liberation from domesticity. Men tried to seal women off from a dominant role in the car culture. Too weak, nervous, and vulnerable, the woman driver (as one Bronx traffic judge had it) was likely to "lose her mind" (p. 157). The condemnation of "fast" women reflected the application of the double standard to the sexually liberating aspects of the car culture. While the popular Motor Boys series of books celebrated the automobile as a spur to the inventiveness, daring, and romantic inclinations of the robust male, the Motor Girls stories offered an ambiguous portrait of rough and ready girls who were nevertheless not above charming men into doing their repairs. The Motor Girls' penchant for chaperoned romance was a respectable version of younger women's participation in the car culture through "dating."

In his final chapters McShane explores the efforts of municipal governments and city planners to accommodate the rising number of automobiles. These chapters also describe a bitter war for control of the streets, a war that automobiles and suburbanites decisively won and pedestrians and inner-city residents decisively lost. Before 1905, however, motorists were losing on the public relations front. Accidents, usually involving children, sparked frequent assaults on motorists and occasional riots. The struggle against motorists had overtones of class warfare, but even the New York Times and Princeton's Woodrow Wilson expressed sympathy for crowds that shot at reckless speeders. With the help of the automobile industry, motorists nevertheless avoided most regulation; the New York State Superior Court struck down a hit-and-run law on the basis of the constitutional protection against self-incrimination.

The motorists' ultimate victory came not in avoiding regulation, but in shifting its intent from safety to mobility. The tide turned when the mass production of automobiles enlarged the commuting classes and exacerbated traffic and parking problems. The police had long experimented with one-way streets, traffic lights, rotaries and parking restrictions. But once mobility won out over safety, engineers were free to work out more sophisticated solutions to the traffic problem. New attitudes about playing in the streets and the prohibition against jaywalking suggested the advice to pedestrians: adjust your behavior or suffer the consequences. Today American motorists kill fewer pedestrians than do Europeans but kill themselves and each other at higher rates; the street has become purely a speedway for motorists, depriving inner-city neighborhoods of a crucial public space.

Traffic regulations were not enough. Both visionary planners and practical engineers sought to remake the city in the interests of automobility. City Beautiful planners imagined auto-friendly yet traffic-free cities. Unrealistic in dealing with the problems of traffic, they were irresponsible in providing for the needs of inner-city residents. It was left to municipal engineers to deal with the problems that the expanding market for automobiles created. Unimpressed with planners' boulevards that were quickly clogged with cross-traffic and parked vehicles, they revived the limited-access parkway, added toils as a means of financing construction, improved pavements and widened streets at the expense of sidewalks, and provided playgrounds in neighborhoods left with little other public space.

Hard political choices, involving downtown traffic bans, strict limits on the heights of buildings, and the decentralization of workplaces, were universally avoided. Business leaders, eager both to build tall buildings and to speed home in automobiles, refused to confront the dilemma that taller buildings meant traffic jams. Social reformers, who recognized the negative impact of the car on inner-city neighborhoods, still could not resist promoting automobility, even when their own evidence on low wages, long hours, and irregular employment suggested that their "empty the slums" rhetoric was a chimera. That rhetoric might have made it easier to join with working-class groups, but it disguised policies that promoted the interests of the commuting middle class.(1)

For all the persuasiveness of McShane's thesis his study ultimately suggests that the triumph of the automobile involved more than a shift in cultural values. It also involved political victory and defeat. In the 1890s, he argues, most urbanites "for the first time saw mechanical vehicles in favorable terms" (p. 119). The explosive street railway strikes of those and following years argue otherwise. But so does much of McShane's own evidence; on the page facing the quotation above he describes the resentment Lower East Siders felt toward commuting bicyclists, still sharply recalled by a resident eighty years later. Planners, McShane shows, soft-pedalled the automobility that underlay their plans for fear of political opposition. But somehow this opposition failed to prevent the automobile's triumph; McShane's work points to a partial explanation. One of the public uses of the traditional street, Michael McGerr's The Decline of Popular Politics (1986) makes clear, was a stage for political debate and organization. The appropriation of the street for rapid transit - and of dozens of public spaces for parking lots - made it more difficult to mobilize political opposition.

The larger explanation, as McShane shows, is that advocates of automobility promoted public policies as mere technical or engineering responses to individual decisions, reflecting cultural preferences, made in the private market for automobiles. Thus McShane helps to resolve an apparent contradiction in recent work on the automobile. Troubled by the social ills of urban life and its corrupt politics, Americans embraced the automobile as a panacea, James J. Flink argues in The Car Culture (1975), precisely because it appeared to rely on individual initiative and private technologies rather than political action. But Paul Barrett, in The Automobile and Urban Transit (1983), and Kenneth T. Jackson, in Crabgrass Frontier (1985), have shown that public policy relating to the car underwrote suburbanization at the expense of the inner city. What McShane helps us see is that the triumph of the automobile was a political victory disguised as something apolitical.

Some readers may find McShane's book somewhat less coherent than this brief summary suggests. The book has been marketed as a good read, which it is (although general readers may be turned off by the repetitiveness of what is more a collection of essays than a book-length narrative). But it too often frustrates careful analysis. He is sometimes confusing on the big issues, especially as to how much the automobile's victory was cultural as opposed to political. He is also confusing on the details. Consider the paragraph that begins by stating that "public suppression" more than "mechanical inefficiency" explains the failure of the steam automobile, then points out that cities eventually allowed both internal combustion and steam automobiles, and concludes that steam car makers failed "because they chose an inferior technology" (p. 98). The quest for a general readership is laudable, but it should not come at the cost of analytical clarity and precision.

McShane does, however, have some terribly important things to say to a general audience. The designers and builders of the modern city, he argues, "assumed the possibility of reconciling traditional cities with automobility" (p. 203). His study casts considerable doubt on that assumption. What was worse was that Americans embraced the automobile "to solve problems not reconcilable by a machine" (p. 228). McShane does not explicitly state what those problems were, but they were the same ones Charles Cooley perceived in his 1894 panegyric for the trolley. There is "a permanent conflict between the needs of industry and the needs of humanity," Cooley wrote, which it "is the office of the city railways to reconcile."(2) The industrial mode of production brought with it a host of problems, from noise, stench, and pollution to poverty and intensified social conflicts, that made the city as settlement problematic. Rapid transit in all its forms added up to an unseemly rush to escape the troubled city. McShane's study suggests it is time we turn back and see what we can make of it.

1. This is a powerful challenge to my own argument, in The Mysteries of the Great City (1993), that social reform provided the foundation for a democratic alternative to professional city planning. But it should be noted that the social reformers were far more enthusiastic in their support of mass, public transit than the private automobile. Moreover their programs were often linked to the single tax - Henry George's confiscatory tax on speculative land values - as a means of substituting orderly settlement for financial legerdemain as the principle of land use. Part of an effort to revitalize the public sphere, single-tax revenues were designed to provide funds for free public transit and a host of other public amenities.

2. Ibid., p. 83.

John D. Fairfield, Department of History, Xavier University in Cincinnati, is the author of The Mysteries of the Great City: The Politics of Urban Design, 1877-1937 (1993). He is currently working on a history of public life in America.
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Author:Fairfield, John D.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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