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Watching the Traffic Go By

Watching the Traffic Go By
Transportation and Isolation in Urban America

A timely, interdisciplinary look at the politics of transportation history through the lens of popular culture.

March 2007
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254 pages | 6 x 9 | 19 b&w illus., 3 figures |

As twentieth-century city planners invested in new transportation systems to deal with urban growth, they ensured that the automobile rather than mass transit would dominate transportation. Combining an exploration of planning documents, sociological studies, and popular culture, Paul Fotsch shows how our urban infrastructure developed and how it has shaped American culture ever since.

Watching the Traffic Go By emphasizes the narratives underlying our perceptions of innovations in transportation by looking at the stories we have built around these innovations. Fotsch finds such stories in the General Motors "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, debates in Munsey's magazine, films such as Double Indemnity, and even in footage of the O. J. Simpson chase along Los Angeles freeways.

Juxtaposed with contemporaneous critiques by Lewis Mumford, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, Fotsch argues that these narratives celebrated new technologies that fostered stability for business and the white middle class. At the same time, transportation became another system of excluding women and the poor, especially African Americans, by isolating them in homes and urban ghettos.

A timely, interdisciplinary analysis, Watching the Traffic Go By exposes the ugly side of transportation politics through the seldom-used lens of popular culture.


2007 Jane Jacobs Urban Communication Publication Award
Urban Communication Foundation

2008 Goffman Award for Ecology of Social Interaction
Media Ecology AssociationErving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Social InteractionMedia Ecology Association

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Stabilizing Mobility
  • I. Transportation as Antidote to Modern City
    • 1. The Trolley, the Automobile, and Autonomy
    • 2. Townless Highways and Highwayless Towns
  • II. German Critical Theory Meets American Cartopia
    • 3. The Building of a Superhighway Future at the New York World's Fair
    • 4. Film Noir and the Hidden Violence of Transportation in Los Angeles
  • III. The Public's Fears of Urban Gridlock
    • 5. Stories of the MTA: Contesting Meanings of Subway Space
    • 6. Urban Freeway Stories: Racial Politics and the Armored Automobile
  • Epilogue
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Paul Mason Fotsch teaches in the Communication Studies Department at California State University, Northridge.


In the fall of 1991 I moved from Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, to University City on the northern edge of San Diego. In Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago is located, many people walk to campus, local coffee shops, or grocery stores. In University City, adjacent to the University of California, San Diego, people largely travel by automobile, even when going shopping at stores only a few—albeit long—blocks from home. University City is a classic example of what Joel Garreau (1992) calls an "Edge City": it contains central elements of a city—shopping centers, office buildings, and homes—but is at the periphery of an older city. These new cities are designed to accommodate the automobile with wide roads and large parking lots, and this accommodation can make walking inconvenient, even hazardous. A large number of Americans live in neighborhoods of this sort, and a large majority rely on the automobile as their form of transportation. For me, the landscape felt sterile and, without a car, isolating. It seemed odd to me that people would choose to spend so much time in their vehicles.

During my first spring in San Diego I watched television when every news station in Los Angeles and San Diego broadcast via helicopters an uprising that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten an African American motorist. During this uprising, certain exits of the Harbor freeway were closed to shield drivers from the violence erupting in surrounding neighborhoods. This event revealed a link between the individual isolation provided by a transportation form and the isolation of a group. On the one hand, the attack on Rodney King indicated a penalty for African Americans who travel outside predominantly black neighborhoods. On the other, the closing of the freeway evoked the separation of these neighborhoods from drivers passing through Los Angeles, and the broadcast of the Reginald Denny beating warned whites of what could happen if they failed to bypass these neighborhoods.

Like the individual isolation of the automobile, the social isolation of low-income African Americans and Latinos/as has become naturalized for a large part of America. The idea that one segment of the population has rates of unemployment and poverty significantly higher than average is a distant problem for most of the United States—a problem that briefly became salient in the aftermath of the uprising (Williams 1993). These disparities are tolerated because they are seen as unconnected to the lives of those who inhabit the "edge cities" or suburbs of the United States. Narratives that promote a reliance on the automobile support this disconnection.

This study focuses on the narratives that built and continue to sustain support for the automobile-centered city in the United States. I answer the question of why it was popular to allow freeways to restructure cities, while allowing mass transit to decline, by considering examples of popular culture—from turn of the century magazines to contemporary television—that reveal the dominant attitude toward developments in urban transportation. By "dominant" I do not simply mean the attitude held by most city residents; the key is that this attitude was held among those who had the most power to implement changes in a city's infrastructure. This group varied in its size and composition over time, and the struggle to construct and maintain these changes varied in its difficulty. The political and economic history of urban transportation is central to understanding which discourses surrounding urban transportation had the most power, and I draw extensively on many excellent histories of the automobile's rise. However, my question is not primarily who bought the cars and how they built the roads, but why these choices were appealing.

The answer to this question begins by recognizing the historical and geographical context out of which new transportation forms arose. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the American city has been a place of dramatic change for longtime residents and new arrivals. These changes have been enabled in part by innovations in transportation and communication that evolved with each other's aid. The telegraph increased the efficiency of the railroad by allowing rapid notification of trains or other problems down the track (Carey 1989: 215). The railroad in turn provided the right of way for construction of telegraph lines. Trains also dramatically increased distribution efficiency, making large-scale factory production more economical (Trachtenberg 1982: 59). This accelerated the demand for industrial laborers, and the establishment of steamship service across the Atlantic meant that a large number of these laborers could be brought from Europe (Daniels 1990: 185-186).

Economic growth had physical and social impacts on the industrial city. Pollution and overcrowding strained municipal resources. Established residents of the city were forced to confront a large foreign-born population speaking different languages and following different traditions. Immigrants not only encountered a foreign language but also a strange environment and new daily demands. Those coming from rural backgrounds were now required to work according to the factory clock rather than the demands of the agricultural season. Moreover, frequent downturns in the industrial economy led to periods of unemployment (Trachtenberg 1982: 90-91).

For both new and longtime residents of the city, the modern economy's transformation of consumption could also be disorienting. The new ready-made form that commodities took in the nineteenth century proved mysterious for urban residents familiar with purchasing goods directly from producers (ibid.: 122). When the railroad carried commodities to the city, it concealed the locale and conditions under which the commodity was produced (Schivelbusch 1986: 40). In addition, the telegraph conveyed information on the quantity and price of a commodity independently of its arrival, so the cost of an item became separated from the wage of the laborer who produced it. The near-simultaneous communication between cities along with the rapid distribution of goods by the railroad permitted the development of a national trade in commodities. As James Carey (1989) points out, the decontextualization of markets from space allowed by the telegraph is a primary element in what Karl Marx called "commodity fetishism." For the urban consumer, this meant goods were dramatically severed from their conditions of production, adding to the unfamiliar nature of the nineteenth-century city.

Industrial capitalism also brought tremendous disparities in wealth that marked themselves upon the city. They could be seen in the difference between the overcrowded and poorly maintained tenements near the factories and the fashionable apartment buildings at a distance from the noise and smoke of industry. As Gunther Barth (1980: 20-21) notes, the city provided a place for those who had become rich in the new economy to display their newfound wealth, and stories of how people suddenly became rich fueled the poor's belief that social mobility was possible. At the same time, the disparity in wealth along with poor working conditions inspired frequent social unrest among the working class, and strikes often led to violence.

After such discord peaked at the turn of the twentieth century, the modern city remained a place of rapid change. National policy dramatically limited immigration in 1924, but cities continued to grow from internal migration, especially by southern blacks escaping the violence of Jim Crow and searching for economic opportunity. Industrial cities faced economic decline during the Great Depression from which they never really recovered. With the economic boom sparked by World War II, industry began to locate primarily on the urban periphery, and many middle- and working-class whites moved along with it. Excluded from the suburbs, people of color remained in central cities, which continued to decline and became associated with crime and hopelessness (Beauregard 2003; Sugrue 1996). Since the 1980s, cities have gone through yet another major transformation: improved transportation and communication have allowed the global decentralization of production and centralization of business services in a few large cities such as Chicago and New York. The growth in both high- and low-skilled service jobs has attracted the greatest immigration wave since the turn of the century (Sassen 1991).

In all these transformations of the modern city, mobility has played an important role. Immigration and improved distribution fed the industrial city's growth, and the relocation of industry to the suburbs led to its decline. The globalization of production fostered the increased diversity of urban populations as well as the inequalities among these populations. Urban planning emerged in the late nineteenth century in response to the physical and social problems this mobility created for cities. Transportation's concrete connection to daily life made it one element of planning that was easy to grasp. Thus, new transportation forms became popular because many viewed them as helping to calm the instabilities of the modern city. In this narrative, as a form of mobility, transportation could help stabilize the turbulence of modern mobility.

As will become clear, the narrative resolutions found in these transportation plans affirmed inequalities of race, class, and gender, and the implementation of these plans helped sustain these inequalities. In the most striking example, freeways became part of federally subsidized postwar suburbanization that drained central city resources while largely excluding people of color and isolating women. Yet it is important to emphasize that transportation forms did not by themselves have specific impacts. Rather, it was the way these forms were used, symbolically and physically, that encouraged particular social consequences. It is the malleability of technology—the fact that its impact is not predetermined—that makes the discourses surrounding it important.

No claim is made that the texts studied here manipulated the public and policy makers into transforming the urban landscape. However, it is assumed that changes in the social world cannot be understood apart from discursive struggles. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (1989) still provide one of the best elucidations of this view. They argue that elements of the social cannot be predefined or given a specific causal effect because they do not exist outside the symbolic. Being part of the symbolic means that elements of the social "lack an ultimate literality which would reduce them to necessary moments of an immanent law" (98). Since social elements are also symbolic elements, there is no separation between the discursive and the material realm: "Every object is constituted as an object of discourse, insofar as no object is given outside every discursive condition of emergence" (107).

For example, in the view of a traffic engineer, a behavioral law can be formed through observation that determines when the installation of a traffic signal will improve the flow of automobile traffic through an intersection. The argument is not that the traffic engineer lacks predictive capacity but that the logic behind a signal's installation relies upon discursive elements. The engineer views one of these elements, the intersection, as a space to speed cars through. But it could also be viewed as a place to speed bicyclists and pedestrians through or as a meeting place for individuals, as in William Foote Whyte's Street Corner Society (1981). The street intersection—a material part of the built environment—is a part of multiple contested discourses. Thus, the logic of the traffic engineer rests upon meanings that are unstable and contested.

The value of studying cultural forms is found in their ability to provide a window into how some people make sense of the world. At the same time, to the extent the ideals presented in these texts correspond to how the city is constructed, they also reveal how its construction is legitimized. The texts studied here were chosen in large part for their consistency with how urban transportation evolved. Especially in the early chapters, the focus is on popular representations of urban transportation. These representations resemble closely—even predict—major elements of transportation design. For the later chapters, the focus is less on the representation of transportation as imagined than on transportation as built, and the texts studied make salient an element of urban life that has become naturalized, taken for granted—in other words, hegemonic.

These hegemonic narratives are also unstable, and the meanings that are linked to urban plans and urban forms are continually being contested. In part this is because a discourse can never be complete; there will always be gaps between narrative constructions of the world and the world as experienced, leaving open the possibility for struggle. In his essay on "Walking in the City," Michel de Certeau (1984) notes a gap between urban space as designed and as used. Within this gap can be found the failures of strategies constructed by professional planners and politicians to resolve the problems of the city and a space for resistance to the hierarchy inscribed in these strategies. For example, in an attempt to attract middle-class riders back to the New York subway, the Metropolitan Transit Authority instituted policies to eliminate the "chaos" of panhandlers and graffiti writers; but the homeless continued to find spaces to sleep in subway tunnels, and graffiti writers began scratching their tags into fiberglass windows instead of using felt-tipped pens. Struggles over the use of urban space impact the narratives constructed around cities, just as the narratives inspired the strategies used to control urban space: graffiti came to epitomize the subway's decline, which inspired an obsession with its elimination.

This study explores the evolution of urban transportation through the interaction between the discursive and the material. As suggested by de Certeau, what makes the study of discourses surrounding urban forms fascinating is their material embodiment in the city. Walking, driving, or taking a train through the city becomes like reading a book. The form of transportation does not dictate its use or how it is understood, just as the words of a text do not dictate their interpretation. However, one can argue that particular uses and interpretations are encouraged.

Challenges to transportation systems may appear in clearly linguistic forms such as in films or books, but they also may take place through practices that are equally symbolic, such as gathering a crowd on a freeway or spitting gum on the floor of a subway car, which in itself can be linked to political change. The hope is that the wide-angle perspective taken here encourages others to pursue what might be called an urban dialectic. This is an approach to the study of the city that telescopes from the micropractices of surviving in the city to the macropolitics of national policy—a telescoping enabled by their commensurability as symbolic actions stabilizing or destabilizing urban narratives.

While my intention is to infuse urban space with political and cultural meaning, in this project I do not attempt to analyze space at the subtle and complex level imagined by Lefebvre in his influential The Production of Space (1991). At the same time, like Lefebvre, I emphasize how the built environment is simultaneously symbolic and material. Furthermore, following Lefebvre I argue that the symbolic and material construction of space is a product of and a response to particular histories—in this case, the histories of U.S. industrial cities. Lefebvre suggests that space includes the interaction of the perceived, "spatial practice"; the conceived, "representations of space"; and the lived, "representational spaces." By this he means first, that space plays functional roles, which members of society perceive and negotiate. Second, professionals or others seeking to legitimate the dominant social order conceive the rationale for particular spatial developments. Finally, people create ways of living in space that may or may not conform to the way space is perceived or conceived (38-39).

While these three elements are always simultaneously interacting with one another, the present study focuses primarily on two dynamics. First, I consider how representations of space, the dominant conceptions of how transportation should serve the modern city, are translated into spatial practices, the roads and transit systems that become part of the everyday operation of U.S. cities. Second, representational spaces, the activity of artists, writers, and residents, are examined as a response to the conceived ideals, the representations of space, and the material workings, the spatial practices, of urban transportation.

To put it in slightly different terms, the organization of this study follows loosely the evolution from the revising of ideal models to the resistance against built environments. The chapters are grouped into three parts corresponding to three historical time frames and, more importantly, different moments in this process of revision and resistance. Part I concerns the period of the automobile's initial rise to prominence at the turn of the twentieth century. Models are first being conceived of how new forms of transportation will benefit the twentieth-century city. The automobile emerged at the same time that trolley lines were being constructed throughout American cities. In Chapter 1 I argue that the popularity of both the trolley and the automobile must be understood in the context of their appearance in the late nineteenth century, at a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. These factors led to suburbanization and its potential restorative aspects; transportation developments succeeded for parallel reasons. By looking at magazine articles from the turn of the century I find the eagerness to ride on the trolley and drive an automobile was about not just a desire to travel from city to country but also to control an increasingly mechanized world. Ultimately, the choice of the car over the trolley better served to stifle the radicalism provoked by this world.

When automobiles surpassed trolleys as a form of transportation, traffic congestion became a problem that new plans for the city had to address. In Chapter 2 I look closely at Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford's (1931) description of "townless highways" and its embodiment in Radburn, New Jersey. This description and this town influenced the way automobiles would be incorporated into future suburbs. Although Lewis Mumford is best known as a critic of the automobile, some of his early writings show a desire to have it resolve urban problems that he, like other supporters of decentralization, saw as the root of American cultural decline. Ironically, MacKaye and Mumford's design inspired suburbs that developed in a manner antithetical to their garden city ideals. Furthermore, the influence of their plans possibly hindered the type of democratic participation they hoped to encourage.

Part II follows the entrenchment of the urban highway at midcentury accompanied by artifacts of the highway's popularization and a few voices of dissent. Chapter 3 looks at Futurama, an exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair sponsored by General Motors and designed by Norman Bel Geddes. The Futurama exhibit, perhaps more than any other promotional event, helped to popularize the concept of an interstate highway system that was realized with the passage of the 1956 Interstate Highway Act. An exploration of the exhibit finds not only resonance with the earlier narratives about escaping signs of the modern city but an attempt to address increased fears of social and economic instability. The context of greater government intervention in the economy and the rise of European fascism provide part of the logic behind applying the pessimistic cultural analysis of Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944/1989) to GM's Futurama exhibit. Equally important, GM's utopian exhibit epitomized what Horkheimer and Adorno considered the dangerous parallels between the methods of U.S. capitalism and fascism.

Chapter 4 follows the critical theory of Horkheimer and Adorno from the freeway vision of the Futurama to the freeway reality of Los Angeles. While GM exhibited a plan for a future designed around the automobile, this future was already taking place to a large extent in Southern California. Since the automobile-designed city was to become the standard, it is interesting to look at its prototype in 1940s Los Angeles. Horkheimer and Adorno wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment after shifting their exile from New York to Los Angeles, and I argue that their book's pessimism has parallels to the pessimism found in two examples of film noir directed by Billy Wilder, a pessimism that can be read in the rise of the automobile's dominance in Los Angeles.

Part III concludes with two studies of the dominant transportation form's contemporary legacy and moments of resistance to this legacy. Chapter 5 turns back from Los Angeles to New York to find the history of U.S. abandonment of public transportation—and by implication of central cities—marked on the New York subway system. Yet in the 1990s, the subway became one element in a story of New York's revitalization. The revitalization took place in the context of an increasingly global economy; thus New York's subways can also be read as a reflection of the economy's impact on urban space. The politics of New York's transformation have entailed new forms of erasure and repression but also new forms of resistance and gaps for expression. I will look at the renovation of the New York subways both as embodying the urban politics that have helped form what has also been called a "dual city" and as a site where older forms of public interaction and public discourse have the potential to take place.

Los Angeles is an appropriate setting for the concluding chapter because it contains the quintessential U.S. urban transportation landscape. Moreover, by focusing on the freeway chase of O. J. Simpson in the summer of 1995, I show how the interaction between the dominant urban transportation system—the freeway—and the dominant medium for public discourse—the television—helps to articulate the deeply racialized politics that exist in the United States today. These politics are exemplified by the success of large capital interests in aligning themselves with the white working and middle class to form what Edsall and Edsall (1991) call a "top down coalition," or what might be seen in Gramscian terms as a hegemonic bloc. Significant to enabling this coalition was the postwar subsidization of the suburban white lifestyle, including the construction of interstate freeways. Thus I return to the themes that began this introduction to show that the naturalization of the automobile might be linked to the naturalization of racial privilege.


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