THEY SAW IT COMING: The Car Was Always The Cause of All the Problems in Our City
As we start the new year, let's take a look back at how everyone knew the automobile was a menace, yet somehow let it take over anyway.
The automobile has ruined our cities — choking our streets and making our communities less livable.
But Americans who care about cities saw it coming from the very first days of the Age of the Automobile. Residents wrote to their local newspapers, begging lawmakers to not capitulate to motorists or car makers as they sought to turn public streets into free parking lots. Reporters covered the rise of private ownership of cars as a scourge on our cities. Judges decried what too many people today think is normal: streets clogged by privately owned single-occupancy vehicles in the public right of way.
It may be normal today, but it was very abnormal back then. That’s worth remembering every time some member of the car-owning minority fights a street safety plan because it would require the removal of some on-street car storage.
To kick off 2019, we decided to look back on how earlier generations of Americans viewed the coming crisis. Just as the next generation will likely wonder why we didn’t stop global warming, we look back on the clips below and wonder why our forefathers and mothers didn’t stop the carnage of cars when they had a chance. Hindsight is 20-20, even in 2019:
New York Times, Aug. 15, 1926
A reader from Los Angeles, Frank Mergenthaler, advocates for what we now call carpooling, and suggests banning parking on the entire island of Manhattan. “Streets are places of passage, not of storage (euphemistically called ‘parking’),” Mergenthaler wrote.
New York Times, July 28, 1933
This clip details a hilarious tongue-lashing a judge gave to a motorist who left his car parked on the street overnight when such an outrage was still illegal. “A man with your nerve would buy a bungalow, put it up in the street and live there rent free,” the judge said.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan. 5, 1938
This editorial praises an effort by the NYPD to ban parking on several crosstown streets in Manhattan in an effort to reduce congestion. “A good part of our traffic headaches would be eased, if not cured, if parking were ended throughout the city,” the article says.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 9, 1938
A salesman and motorist affected by the parking ban, writes that the ban has inspired him to give up driving on weekdays, and helped him save money. “It is quite a pleasant surprise to be $5 ahead on the weeks budget, and I get along just as well on foot, giving me a much needed piece of exercise,” he writes.
The Baltimore Sun, Feb 1, 1939
This article rails against the Baltimore City Council for moving to repeal a ban on all-night street parking. “In the face of a growing realization by the public that streets were made for free movement of traffic and are not garages.”
New York Daily News, Oct. 15, 1937
This letter to the editor references an anti-parking editorial that ran in the News (which alas, isn’t available on any online archives), but letter writer Charles Snyder has some good ideas himself. “I submit that the only real remedy is to prohibit all but necessary commercial parking on the more crowded thoroughfares,” he writes.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 13, 1926
This letter praises a former Washington D.C. commissioner for his attempt to ban all-night street parking. “Cars are parked on practically every block in the city and, I am told, parked there not for ‘all night’ but for days and weeks and months at a time,” he writes. “The auto traffic rules in Washington are of the worst in the country.”
New York Times, March 6, 1933
This short clipping details a plea from the now-defunct Uptown Chamber of Commerce to the Depression–weakened Police Department to enforce an enacted night parking ban instead of allowing uptown to become a “free open-air storage place for vehicles.”
The Evening Sun, Oct. 26, 1931
A letter writer claims that the best way to reduce congestion would be to reduce streetcar fares, so less people felt compelled to drive. “A 10-cent car fare almost overnight doubled automobile traffic downtown and gave birth to an avalanche of taxicabs,” he writes.
Asbury Park Press, July 7, 1927
Lastly, this letter warns that the local board of commissioners was making a grave mistake in allowing overnight parking. Reversing the ban would “increase the fire hazard, would increase the traffic hazard, and would work against the legitimate business of garages — ironic words, considering how some locals in Queens keep complaining that new bike lanes cause those very problems.