The Windshield Perspective, Same As It Ever Was


From the way back machine comes this remarkable essay, "The Last Traffic Jam," about the blind spots that plague the motoring mentality. The anonymous author, writing for Time Magazine in 1947, delivers observations about road rage and the endemic violence of driving that still apply today.

The most striking passage, perhaps, is the writer’s take on the futility of adding capacity for cars:

…though postwar motorists were gradually becoming
horn-blowing neurotics with tendencies toward drinking, cat-kicking and
wife-beating, there were few who did not believe that the traffic evil
would soon be corrected. This enormous delusion has been a part of U.S.
folklore since the day of the linen duster, driving goggles and the
high tonneau.

Congress and state legislatures had appropriated millions to build super
highways on which speeders could kill themselves at higher speeds. The
traffic light, the yellow line, the parking lot, the parking meter, the
underground garage, the one-way street, the motorcycle cop and the
traffic ticket had all blossomed amid the monoxide fumes — and traffic
had gone right on getting thicker and noisier year by year.

Sixty years later, the notion that we can build our way out of congestion persists. But as parts of the country like northern Virginia bump up against the limits of that mentality, the author’s metaphorical last traffic jam — which I take to mean the moment when the absurdity of expanding roadways becomes impossible to refute — may well be within sight.

Photo of U.S. 59 in 1962:

  • This is an amazing find. The only part I don’t agree on is this:

    provides mobile shelter for rakes intent on seducing his daughters

    Maybe I should see if it works at the next Community Board meeting, though!

    Actually, at a 1998 hearing I attended on a proposal to expand the bus system in Albuquerque, one City Council member – who probably wasn’t much older than I am now – said that he was concerned that if his teenage daughter could ride a bus home from the mall, then some creep could get off the bus behind her and attack her.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (he was concerned that if his teenage daughter could ride a bus home from the mall, then some creep could get off the bus behind her and attack her.)

    Actually, two of the four or five significant crimes in Windsor Terrace in the past two decades have been just that — attacks after being followed home from the subway, one rape at 4 am, one push-in murder. I tell my daughers to beware of people following them, and push-in attacks.

    On the other hand, there have been at least two widely publicized auto accident deaths in my hood that time as well, in addition to someone struck by lightning nearby in Prospect Park and some 9/11 deaths.

  • Larry Littlefield

    By the way, if Time/Life wants to go back to the history of the auto, it should look to its ads, not its articles.

    I was once given (and unfortunately threw away) some old Life magazines from the same era. What struck me was a bunch of two-page ads from the Ford Motor Company, presenting the automobile (and the suburbs) as an escape to a new, better way of life.

    You weren’t just buying a means of transportation. You were buying a way of life and a dream.

    One of them was titled “escape to the greenbelt” which talked about how kids in the cities went bad, until the first automobiles changed things by allowing families to escape to a more natural environment (which looked nothing like Hempstead Turnpike).

    Would make a great project for some young, artistically capable folk to collect and duplicate — with a different message. Our values are shaped on Madison Avenue, not in our churches, schools and homes I’m afraid.

  • Dan

    I just have to tell people to read The Power Broker to truly get a sense of the scale of the delusion that is road building in the US. It was and is widely known by both traffic engineers and planners that increasing capacity and building new routes would not and does not make a difference in congestion. It’s truly absurd that we have spent so much time and energy trying to pave our way out of this problem. There are a lot of people who should be ashamed at having emptied the public treasury to build roads that they knew would barely ease congestion for drivers.

  • john

    The DOTs are NUTs.

  • Mark Walker

    I read The Power Broker just a few years ago when two different friends said in different conversations, almost word for word, “if you want to know why New York is the way it is, you have to read this book.”

    I think the most destructive part of Robert Moses’ legacy, even more than what he did, is what he didn’t do. He effectively stopped federal and other money from flowing into mass transit for generations. Imagine how history might have been different if this brilliant man had been interested in multimodal transport instead of just cars and roads. It practically makes me cry.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The Power Broker contains a lot of good points, but as a piece of social science it lacks quite a bit.

    It reads as if Robert Moses had the power to singlehandedly foist the shift to auto dependence on an unwilling public. And that shift to auto dependence was the sole cause of NYC neighborhoods previously occupied by the middle class becoming occupied by the poor.

    I think Moses had power because he did what many people wanted, not people did what he wanted because he had power over them. At the time there were rich people who had cars and aspirational people who wanted them.

    When the consequences kicked in, highway building virtually stopped in this country. People still wanted more and bigger cars, but not highways in their neighborhood. Now other consequences have come along.

    Moreover, NY stopped building transit lines because it started rebuilding the existing system, something that is still not finished. Until the 1970s, when infrastructure investment in the NY area stopped entirely, road and transit.

    And neighborhoods with no highways anywhere near them became poorer, such as Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant and Browsville, while those with highways sometimes did not, like Windsor Terrace. His argument that highways caused neighborhood change is based on the timing of white flight in one location — East Tremont.

    Moses was important, and did many things that turned out to be good and many things that turned out to be bad. But let’s not ignore the individual decisions of millions of people and tens of thousands of business and other organizations when discussing what caused change.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • dbs

    Yeah Ben, the headline says it all.

    Same as it ever was. (Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads, 1980)

    And you may ask yourself
    Where is that large automobile?
    And you may tell yourself
    This is not my beautiful house!
    And you may tell yourself
    This is not my beautiful wife!

    The main portion of the lyric is said to be based on a preacher heard on the radio by Byrne and Eno while they were DRIVING through New York!


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