Reflecting on “Wishful Thinking: Downtown and the Automotive Revolution” by Robert Fogelson

Transportation is a very difficult animal to understand. People always need to get from one point to another as quickly and efficiently as possible in order to conduct business as usual. In the modern age, the centralization of cultural, economic, and social opportunity in the great urban centers of America caused this movement to become focused in a single direction for those within reach from the hinterlands. Essentially, as resources and opportunities became more centralized transportation became faster, more available, and directly focused on getting to the center as often as possible. So the belief, held by men like G. Harvey Porter, that accessibility would stifle decentralization of of people and capital just doesn’t cover the complexity of the transportation model. The main issues of traffic, public transit, and leisure travel revolve around physical city building, travel conditions, and sheer population volume. Though many major cities had the public transit infrastructure intact, they didn’t provide comfortable, clean, or appropriate conditions for the travelers. Mainly due to cutbacks from the depression, these systems were reduced to bare bones and lacked necessary upgrades. They also caused traffic congestion as they shared the streets. Streetcars, trains, horse drawn carriages,and autos all co-inhabited the roads of these cities. Simply, the physical landscape didn’t accommodate travel routes, traffic control, or the large volume of diverse modes of transport. Another strong factor in the trouble with transport, is the emergence of the personal automobile as the dominant mode of transportation. Americans were convinced by great marketing and the national sense of individual freedom that they themselves should have their own, roomy, and stylish car and the freedom to decide where and when they migrate. This lead to a boom in traffic congestion and along with it, an increase in traffic collisions. Driver’s ed wasn’t something that young drivers had to sit through in those days and speeds and signals were yet to be regulated. According to Fogelson the number of vehicles on the road increased from, “8,000 in 1900 to 500,000 in 1910…23 million by 1930” (Boehm 340). Just imagining what the roads must have looked like with that many vehicles about and no traffic laws is mortifying. I see nothing but hundreds of clones of Mr. Magoo in model T’s tearing across the boardwalk, but I digress. Thankfully, city planners and regulators, rather than banning autos altogether, became innovative instead. New laws and regulations were brought into existence along with the traffic light, traffic courts, a new branch of the police department, and transit authorities. Without the boom of transportation technology, we very well may have never implemented such foresights and safety measures. Though historian Clay McShane may have said that traffic regulations were” unwarranted intrusions on personal freedom” (Boehm 343) inspiring a generation of FOX news reporters, the moves were essential in maintaining the city as a functioning economic and social center. Though a transition to better public transport and greater utilization of the technologies is more in tune with common sense and ecological good, convincing Americans to do just that is a greater task than one may think.

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