A History of Traffic Safety in the United States: Part One

Image courtesy of    Shorpy

Image courtesy of Shorpy

Vision Zero. Complete Streets. Safe Routes to School.  “Awareness Weeks”.  Each of these initiatives highlight the interest of many governmental agencies and advocacy groups to provide safe transportation networks for motorists and active transportation modes alike.   Such initiatives regarding traffic safety in general, and the reduction of traffic fatalities in particular, are not new but in fact part of a broad history of traffic-related safety reforms.  What can we learn from safety reforms of the past, particularly between motorists and pedestrians?  In what ways did the efforts of administrative, political, and professional interest groups shift societal perceptions of the risks and responsibilities associated with driving or walking?  Given the persistency of complex, multimodal transportation networks in urban settings, a larger question exists: Who are streets for? 

This is a four-part series on the history of traffic safety in the United States. The overview will focus on the safety conflicts that emerged during the proliferation of the automobile in the early- to mid-20th century.  Each post will analyze the evolution of traffic safety paradigms from the early 1900s to present as described by Peter Norton.  Side note - most of the images have been sourced from research that Peter Norton has done over the years.  His work serves as the inspiration for this series. A consideration of how historical traffic safety reforms can inform contemporary dialogue on automated vehicles is also included. 

“Safety First” Paradigm: 1900s-1920s

“It is quite generally understood that roads are for the common use of all and not the private property of a few rich enthusiasts…[these rights] come to him through no statute law.  The doctrine that streets are for the public is part of our common law and is so old that we may safely hazard a guess that it is coeval with the existence of highways themselves…” 

 -John Farson, President, American Automobile Association, 1906

The first recorded traffic fatality between a vehicle and a pedestrian occurred on September 3, 1899 in New York City.  Arthur Smith, the driver of a new “electric carriage”, attempted to pass a streetcar on the right when he hit New York realtor H. H. Bliss who was exiting a streetcar. The incident exemplifies the nascent conflict between motorists and non-motorists; whereas Mr. Bliss would have considered his presence in the roadway as normative behavior, Mr. Smith may have tacitly understood that streets are for moving traffic.  Bliss’ death was not an outlier but rather the beginning of a trend of traffic fatalities involving motorists and pedestrians.  In 1906 the U.S. Census included motor vehicle collisions as a significant cause of death in the fifteen states that were reporting. 

The phenomena of vehicular collisions continued in the 1910s and became especially acute in the 1920s when over 20,000 people were killed in that decade. Some common characteristics emerged.  The majority of fatalities involved non-motorists, specifically pedestrians and children, and they occurred in dense urban areas. In fact, pedestrians comprised over two-thirds of traffic fatalities in municipalities with a population of 25,000 persons or higher.

The responses of both rural and urban dwellers alike included anger, accusation, and grief.  Brian Ladd shares accounts of rural residents retaliating against what they perceived as a mis-user of roads.  Folks were known to throw stones at drivers, plow up roads, and even tie ropes and wires across the road to prevent drivers from crossing. Examples of sanctioned enforcement within towns and cities abound as well: Seabrook, New Hampshire was one of the first communities to set up a “speed trap” for motorists while municipalities such as Glencoe, Illinois installed a speed bump across its primary road.   Non-motorists characterized automobile owners as an elite group of “joy riders” whose leisurely pursuits disrupted the in-common character of the street.  Municipalities and organizations in particular conducted a range of public displays during this paradigm to mourn the dead and call attention to the issue.  Cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis erected monuments to honor those killed in traffic collisions, namely children.  Local safety movements often constructed more macabre displays; for example, in 1920 a float in the Milwaukee Safety Week parade included a crashed car driven by a character resembling Satan.  City newspapers amplified this, characterizing the automobile as the Grim Reaper or the “Modern Moloch”.



These local safety events were initiated by member affiliates of the National Safety Council (NSC). Established in 1913, the NSC was the first nationally organized effort to counter the problem of traffic accidents.  Its slogan, “Safety First”, was adopted by motorists and non-motorists alike; both groups initially subscribed to the notion that a commitment to safety would foster positive outcomes for all users of the roadway.  

The NSC was particularly known for how it operationalized the ‘Three E’s’ of education, engineering, and enforcement to its local chapters. Educational campaigns made up a large portion of the organization’s efforts; these campaigns included the recruitment of older children to serve as crossing guards as well as the encouragement of families to spend playtime in parks rather than in streets.  Municipalities used educational campaigns and regulatory tools to curb children playing in the streets as well.  In his book “Down the Asphalt Path”, Clay McShane notes that the New York Police Department spent a season arresting children who were caught playing in the street.

Engineers were viewed as playing an instrumental role in the reduction of traffic accidents.  The idea that roadways existed for the utilitarian purpose of moving traffic emerged in the late 1800s.  Engineering periodicals began referring to select streets as ‘arteries’ for traffic movement, while one engineer declared that the “facility of communication” was critical for human progress.  In this regard, a street became less of a multi-activity public realm and more of a public utility of which movement, not mobility or accessibility, was the primary aim.  Ostensibly, the enhancement of auto-mobility would reduce traffic congestion and yield improvements in traffic safety.  Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover highlights this potential during the 1926 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety when he says, “…if we are to find a permanent solution for the problem of traffic accidents we must at the same time discover a permanent solution for the problem of traffic itself.”  

The ‘enforcement’ element of the ‘Three E’s’ was largely performed through trial-and-error experiments by municipal police departments.  Long before federal funding mechanisms or engineering designs were in place, police officers worked to move, calm, and prohibit vehicle traffic within existing urban constraints .  Notably, police officials employed different materials or products to assist with traffic control and vehicle speed in particular.  Posts placed at the center of an intersection were referred to as “silent policemen” and encouraged drivers to make wide left turns instead of cutting corners.  Some cities used the “Milwaukee Mushroom”, an illuminated steel dome that was placed in a roadway to guide and calm traffic.  

The emphasis on vehicle speed reduction met a potential technological solution: The installation of mechanical governors on automobile engines.  Such an innovation, when paired with street infrastructure solutions like silent policemen, could phase out the need for traffic police attempting to reduce vehicle speeds in urban settings. In 1923, nearly ten percent of Cincinnati residents signed a petition to establish a local ordinance requiring all motor vehicles to have governors that would limit speeds to 25 miles per hour.  Pro-motoring interests in the city responded with a successful local opposition campaign, and the prospect of further legal or mechanical restrictions influenced auto advocates to organize regional and national campaigns beyond the efforts of the NSC. 

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

The tools deployed by what Peter Norton calls “motordom” were markedly similar to those of non-motorists in years prior.  Whereas the elite motorists were characterized as “joyriders”, city dwellers who walked in the street were called “jaywalkers”, people whose walking habits were out of place in a motorized city.  Jaywalking campaigns were conducted across the country; the Boy Scouts distributed anti-jaywalking leaflets, and parades with floats of so-called jaywalkers called attention to the unsafe practice. Automobile interest groups began leaving the NSC to establish their own safety organizations, many of which were funded by the automobile industry. These organizations, along with automobile touring clubs, created their own publications that aimed to redistribute the responsibilities of safety on public roadways.  Touring Topics magazine argued for all pedestrians to take “a personal course in automobile driving” to rectify the practice of jaywalking.  The Automobile Club of Southern California used radio airtime to promote “pedestrian control” practices prior to a bond measure to fund pedestrian tunnels in Los Angeles.  The press release for the 1924 National Conference on Street and Highway Safety states that “pedestrians are often as flagrant offenders” as drivers . Such examples illustrate that the “Safety First” paradigm was primarily one of social, not physical, reconstruction.

Image courtesy of Peter Norton

Image courtesy of Peter Norton



The Traffic Circulation Plan: Elements, Implementation, Effects.

This is part two in a three-part series on the history of the Traffic Circulation Plan (TCP) in Groningen, Netherlands. Part one is here, and part three is here. The content was originally an assignment for History & Theory of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a master’s candidate in the College of Urban Planning and Policy.  I’d like to thank Lennart Nout and Chris Brundlett at Modacity for their input and resource-sharing.  I’d also like to thank Vincent Ziols who also contributed to the paper.

The main objective of the TCP was to create barriers for cars in order to block access to the inner city streets. This would substantially increase the right-of-way for pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders while minimizing safety conflicts with automobiles.  The TCP would effectively divide the city into four sections, and, along with the rerouting of city streets, prohibit automobiles to cross over between sections. Cars would be limited to few access points into the city, but would be offered an expanded road way that encircled the outer neighborhoods of the city. Figure 1 illustrates the evolution of the ‘ring-road’ network, which was intended to mitigate the traffic created by the block of access through the city center. 

Arterial road structure for car traffic, approx. 1964, 1980 and 2000. Image courtesy of    CROW Fietsberaad.

Arterial road structure for car traffic, approx. 1964, 1980 and 2000. Image courtesy of CROW Fietsberaad.

Upon the council adoption of the TCP in September 1977, Van Den Berg and city staff were ready to move forward with implementing the plan. On the night of September 19th all 5,000 steps of the TCP were implemented; such a strategy may have arisen out of the need to thoroughly execute the plan, if not to mitigate conflict or opposition. City staff presented flyers and flowers to confused commuters who could no longer cross through the center of the city. After the initial implementation, new bicycle paths were created, trees were planted in now open streets and other development measures of the TCP took place which helped to bolster the effects of the new network system.

A city official distributes flyers and flowers to motorists, September 1977.  Image Courtesy of Groningen ImageBank.

A city official distributes flyers and flowers to motorists, September 1977.  Image Courtesy of Groningen ImageBank.

Overnight implementation resulting in a substantial neck-down of motorized traffic.  Image courtesy of Pellenbarg, 2003.

Overnight implementation resulting in a substantial neck-down of motorized traffic.  Image courtesy of Pellenbarg, 2003.

According to the PvdA the TCP and its implementation were largely supported by residents, especially among voting district members. Van Den Berg remarked in a recent article that residents living downtown and in adjacent neighborhoods were “enthusiastic about our ideas”, as “[t]hey saw we were changing things on a great scale.” 

Although many businesses in the central city were vehemently opposed to the TCP, a number of cooperative efforts were conducted in order to facilitate the plan’s rollout, such as participating in a municipal guiding committee and distributing maps to customers. However, after the near-instantaneous application of the TCP, shopkeepers began to organize and rekindle their opposition to the plan. A local newspaper published an open letter written by the “Group of Duped Businesspeople” to the PvdA which stated that “because of the lack of participation by true experts…this Plan not only works poorly, but also seriously undermines the employment and viability of our city.” 

Business owners react to the TCP rollout.    Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Business owners react to the TCP rollout.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Reports were produced indicating a loss of business, and proposals to modify the TCP were submitted. Additionally, central city businesses submitted a suspension request with the Council of State which included proposals to revert elements of the TCP-affected streets back to their previous condition. The council overruled the suspension request, stating that the shopkeepers did not provide sufficient evidence of a decrease in sales.

Citizen Participation:  inspraak or participatie?

Van Den Berg was one of many young PvdA members who initially advocated for improved accessibility, transparency, and responsiveness between citizens and municipal administrators. He once proposed the creation of neighborhood councils and the appointment of city officials to assist citizens through municipal policies and practices. Despite such participatory concepts being espoused by Van Den Berg and other PvdA members, there is little evidence to support the notion that citizens were actually involved in either the creation or implementation of traffic policy reforms.

Shinji Tsubohara and Gijs Van Maanen distinguish between the use of the words inspraak and participatie in PvdA plans. Inspraak is used to denote situations where citizens are merely asked to provide input on a specific topic, whereas participatie describes the citizen as actively involved and integral to the decision-making process. The PvdA’s 1982 Residential Traffic Plan gives further application on the concepts; Inspraak occurs through a series of public hearings and written submissions on the plan, while participatie can happen as the plan is developed in the context of one’s specific neighborhood. Although these concepts appear to align with the objectives of the PvdA in general and its younger members in particular, they become arguably inconvenient or irrelevant to Van Den Berg through the development and implementation of the TCP.  

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.  Courtesy of Arnstein, 1969.

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation.  Courtesy of Arnstein, 1969.

Shinji Tsubohara places the PvdA’s citizen participation efforts within the ‘tokenism’ rungs of Arnstein’s ladder. The mandated public hearings scheduled with little time for plan review could be construed as ‘informing’, a one-way attempt to disseminate plan content with little opportunity for citizens to contribute. Inspraak aligns with Arnstein’s concept of ‘consultation’; although the opportunity to give input may exist, the likelihood that such input will be considered or acted upon is minimal.  

Given the strong opposition of the central city shopkeepers and the advent of such concepts as communicative planning, the prospects of implementing a large-scale plan like the TCP today is unlikely.  


Limiting Cars, Privileging Bicycles: A History of the Traffic Circulation Plan in Groningen, Netherlands

This three-part series is about the history of the Traffic Circulation Plan (TCP) in Groningen, Netherlands.  Part two is here, and part three is here. The content was originally an assignment for History & Theory of Urban Planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I am a master’s candidate in the College of Urban Planning and Policy.  I’d like to thank Lennart Nout and Chris Brundlett at Modacity for their input and resource-sharing.  I’d also like to thank Vincent Ziols who also contributed to the paper.

Image courtesy of    The Guardian

Image courtesy of The Guardian

The northern Dutch city of Groningen stands as a model of how policy intervention and implementation can incubate a society centered on bicycling. Highlighted among the other major cities of the bike-centric country of the Netherlands, Groningen boasts that sixty-one percent of all trips made by their population (200,000) are with a bicycle. This high rate is largely due to the efforts of political and municipal interventions on the city’s built environment for over forty years.  The city’s latest efforts to enhance and expand the bicycle network include heated paths, smart traffic lights, and a new train station parking structure that holds over 15,000 bicycles. Such developments reinforce the primacy of the bicycle within the city’s culture, and place the bicycle as an integral element of the city’s identity.

Image courtesy of Hellemeier and Soltaneihha, 2010

Image courtesy of Hellemeier and Soltaneihha, 2010

Groningen’s bicycle-forward strategy and culture has evolved from a central point in 1977 when the city implemented the Traffic Circulation Plan (‘TCP’), a car-limited traffic plan developed by Max Van Den Berg. In the course of one night the city changed routes of inner city roads, blocked access to the city center for cars, and created a network of streets that gave pedestrians and cyclists free and safe access. This plan to mitigate automobile traffic away from the compact urban core of Groningen has grown and developed to the entire metropolitan region. The principles of the TCP have had an immense impact on the transportation equity of the area’s population, which has led to better multimodal access, healthier lifestyles and a more sustainable way of life. 

Image courtesy of    Modacity

Image courtesy of Modacity

Vismarkt, 1968.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Vismarkt, 1968.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Groningen’s bicycle-oriented transportation efforts began in the mid-1960s as part of a larger municipal response towards the proliferation of the automobile. Like many European cities, Groningen experienced considerable transportation challenges brought on by the influx of automobile users–congestion, air pollution, parking, and high vehicle speeds–and municipal administrators considered a revision of the traffic policy to either accommodate or limit the automobile. 

Central City, 1970.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Central City, 1970.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Citizens were reportedly divided on the issue; while some believed that an automobile-friendly city would tailor to regional consumers, others maintained that the mode choices of local residents (namely, walking and bicycling) should take precedence. It is this latter sentiment that was embraced by the Partij van de Arbeid (hereby referred to as ‘PvdA’), the prevailing political party throughout Groningen’s traffic policy reforms in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In the late 1960’s the leadership of the PvdA was characterized by young academics who championed civic engagement and participation, particularly within the fields of urban land use and transportation planning. Among those leaders was Max Van Den Berg.

PvDA party members, with Van Den Berg at center.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003

PvDA party members, with Van Den Berg at center.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003

 In 1970 Van Den Berg was elected by the PvDA party as their political executive of urban planning. Van Den Berg believed a city should be vibrant, lively, and largely absent of the automobile. He wanted to restore city neighborhoods, which he believed were adversely affected by the automobile, and give priority to pedestrians, bicycles and public transportation. Van Den Berg saw Groningen to be a perfect place for his plan, as the city was relatively small, compact, and had the political support of the PvdA and the city residents. 

By the early 1970s, Van Den Berg began developing the TCP with helpful insight from the principles outlined in the 1972 Objective City Center Groningen Plan report. The latter plan’s focus was on the city center having a ‘good function’ of activity, where a large number of people could visit and use the right-of-way of city streets. This plan also recognized the utility of car travel as a way for people to visit Groningen, but called on drastic limits to most disruptions to the built environment. Development plans such as the widening of traffic lanes and extensive parking facilities would be kept at a minimum, so as to keep city streets safe from the ‘space-consuming’ effect of cars.

Zuiderdiep.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

Zuiderdiep.  Image courtesy of Karsijns and Schilt, 2003.

The PvdA continued to gain power as its traffic plans took shape. During the 1974 municipal elections, the party published the 1974-1978 Municipal Programme which provided the initial framework for the TCP. An excerpt from the Programme underscores the car-limited objectives of the PvdA’s plans: 

“Keeping out through traffic in the inner city and residential neighborhoods must be continued…Public transport and bicycles will acquire a clearly privileged position.  It must be examined which measures…can contribute to a safer and more livable environment for residents.  We will implement subsequently with the help of residents.” 

Despite these claims, there is little evidence to show that public participation in general, or citizen-informed traffic plans in particular, actually occurred. The PvdA remained the largest political party after the 1974 elections, and used their political capital expeditiously on plans included in the Municipal Programme, not least the TCP. The environment was highly politicized and polarized; plan-making was neither a neutral endeavor conducted solely within the municipal administration, nor was it a collaborative endeavor among the other political parties.  

The creation of the TCP happened behind closed doors. Although the administration may have helped shape the plan, members from other parties and the general public did not contribute to the plan. The completed TCP was published in May 1975, just one day before a scheduled public meeting. Not surprisingly, attendees criticized the insufficient timeframe for providing public comments, to which the Mayor responded, “The minister [Van Den Berg] has put us on the spot concerning the available time. We must submit the scheme quickly; otherwise the subsidies come in danger.” The requisite national funding for the TCP was actually put on hold from 1975-1977.  

Selwerd neighborhood protests, courtesy of Tsubohara 2007.

Selwerd neighborhood protests, courtesy of Tsubohara 2007.

During that time frustrations grew from a poor municipal response to traffic congestion particularly in neighborhoods adjacent to the central city. Public outcry evolved into petition and protest. In October 1975 a group of mothers and PvdA district members from the Selwerd neighborhood blocked a major intersection from vehicle traffic while they collected support signatures for safer streets. This event was certainly not lost on the PvdA and Van Den Berg, who recently completed the TDP months earlier. The first phase of the TCP was not adopted by the city council until September 1977.

Check back this Wednesday, July 11th for part two!