The Roaring Traffic’s Boom
This weekend I chanced across the Lewis Mumford collection “From the Ground Up” on my bookshelves. The section titled “The Roaring Traffic’s Boom,” a selection of New Yorker pieces from 1955, makes for compelling reading, particularly for New Yorkers in light of some of the recent efforts (Times Square, etc.) by the NYC DOT.
Just recently, I was talking with someone about who had first quipped that the idea of trying fight congestion by building more roads was like trying to fight obesity by loosening one’s belt — a refrain I’ve heard from more than one person — and I think the answer has arrived, in Mumford’s essay “Renewed Circulation, Renewed Life.”
Most of the fancy cures that the experts have offered for New York’s congestion are based on the innocent notion that the problem can be solved by increasing the capacity of the existing traffic routes, multiplying the number of ways of getting in and out of town, or providing more parking space for cars that should have been lured into the city in the first place. Like the tailor’s remedy for obesity—letting out the seams of the trousers and loosening the belt—this does nothing to curb the greedy appetite that have caused the fat to accumulate. The best recent book on the subject, Urban Traffic, by Robert B. Mitchell and Chester Rapkin, takes quite another view—that traffic is but one “function of land use,” which is to say that streets and highways should not be treated as if they existed in a desert inhabited only by motorcars. How different that attitude is from the prevalent conception, as succinctly summarized by a one-time city-planning commissioner: “The main purpose of traffic (surely) is to enable a maximum number of citizens to derive all possible benefits from the use of automobiles as a means of transportation, for business, convenience, and pleasure.” It is because this second conception of traffic is dominant that our cities have become a shambles.”
While some of Mumford’s cures (e.g., the ‘city for the motor age’) have not aged well, his diagnoses are always spot-on and the entire suite of essays is worth reading.
This entry was posted on Monday, March 16th, 2009 at 8:04 am and is filed under Cars, Cities, Congestion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.