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“The Story of Highways”

Posted in Research by Ferne Edwards on August 7th, 2008

The section below is republished with permission from the Going Solar Transport Newsletter #70, 29 July 2008, compiled by Stephen Ingrouille. Going Solar, This newsletter provides an excellent commentary on local sustainable transport issues in Melbourne.

This article is a excerpt of the transcript taken from ABC Radio National program Rear Vision: “The Story of Highways” produced and presented by Annabelle Quince, 20/7/08, See:

The Story of Highways
Annabelle Quince: Throughout the first part of the 20th century, Freeways were seen as the epitome of modernity, but by the end of the century this began to change. The motor car first arrived in Europe and the US at the end of the 19th century. But according to Peter Norton, historian of technology, engineering and society at the University of Virginia, the car wasn’t welcome on the city streets when it first appeared.

Peter Norton: A hundred years ago of course roads were not for cars, because cars were rare, and to make roads places where cars could go, they had to be redefined. It helps us understand what the street was like to city people then, if we think of what a city park is like to us today. It’s a place where we think of everybody as welcome, provided they don’t get in the way of others, don’t make a nuisance out of themselves, and don’t endanger other people. And it was in the nature of cars to be nuisances and dangerous, and so the early response was to blame the car and to restrict the car.

<!–more–>This started to change partly because people, who had an interest in selling cars and in a good future for cars, saw that this would really limit their future, this attitude would limit their future and that they would have to change it. And to do it, they had to do a number of things at the same time: one is to try to teach children to stay out of the streets. They could not rely on parents to do this because parents at that time thought of the street, at least residential streets, as proper playgrounds for children. So auto dealers and auto clubs did things like promote the construction of playgrounds, they got involved in school safety education where they taught children to look both ways before they crossed; they started sponsoring school safety patrols where the children would guide each other as they crossed the street, and most importantly, would teach children that the street is a place for cars and not for children.

They also had to get adults to concede the street to motorists as well, and reaching them was harder, and they did it in a number of ways, but I think the most effective and most interesting was a campaign to redefine walking in the street as an inappropriate thing to do, an inappropriate use of the street. And one way they did this was to invent a new term of ridicule, and direct that against pedestrians walking in streets. They used a mid-Western American term ‘Jay’ which was an insult; it meant that you were uneducated and rural, and they connected it with ‘walker’ and invented the term ‘Jay walker’ and it was used as a term of ridicule against pedestrians.

Annabelle Quince: The other way car companies and car associations changed our understanding of the road was to promote the construction of car-only roads. Thomas Zeller is a historian of Technology and the Environment at the University of Maryland.

Thomas Zeller: When we talk about roads exclusively for cars, sometimes they were called cars-only roads, there was a precedent in the United States in the 19-teens and 1920s, roads that were called ‘parkways’. Those were roads that were built exclusively for shall we say pleasure drives, and they were designed in such a way that the people who drive on them experience lovely views and then once those parkways are built in the countryside, they’re built so that they touch on the vantage points, and they go to the hilltops, and there are rest areas so people can enjoy the scenery. But then what we see in the ’30s especially, is that two European dictatorships take over this idea of highways exclusively for cars, and those are Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and in both of these countries you had lobbies, lobbies made up of middle-class car owners and the construction companies who would benefit from building those highways, the automotive clubs, their companies that would sell tyres, so there’s a whole coterie of interest that pushed for these automobile-only roads in the inter-war period.

'Highway Insomnia' by Nrbelex

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