The automobile’s traction in the city started 100 years ago, but this centennial we don’t necessarily want to celebrate.
In 1899, after the first Philadelphian (Junker, Jules Junker) imported his French vehicle, it was a fast uphill ride. By 1907, there were 142,000 motors on American roads. From 1909 to 1910, when Henry Ford’s new factory began producing 1,000 Model Ts each and every day, national car sales jumped more than 4,500%. The invasion had begun.
By the end of the 20th century’s second decade, the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin reported that 1,600 cars careened around Philadelphia’s City Hall every hour. That’s 26 per minute. Center City’s rush hour was born.
This scale and pace concerned city planners, even one from Detroit, who fretted in 1916: “When the streets of the cities were laid out it was never contemplated that there would be about two million automobiles operating on the highways of this country.” Yet, “it is estimated that the number of motor vehicles is rapidly going up to five million.” Actually, by the end of that decade, there were more than 6.1 million vehicles on America’s roads.
As the number of cars increased, so did the debate about their impact. Henry Ford assured that everyone who wanted a car might buy one, but a planner from New York believed proliferation was having the opposite effect. “The coming of the private automobile suddenly divided your population practically into two classes…the barons, riding not horseback, but in automobiles, forming a kind of superior stratum, and the other class, the common people, dependent upon the common carriers.”
The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin worried the abundance of cars advanced no purpose in particular. “Automobiles have become an important utility. Soon, we are told, everyone will have a motor. The difficult question remains: What shall he do with it when he gets it?”
In 1916, city planners from around the United States met in Cleveland to consider these questions and how to best help cities welcome the automobile’s takeover. (By mid-century, Philadelphia’s Edmund Bacon still insisted the car was “an honored guest” in the city.) Planners discussed the ideal width of the urban roadbed, the ideal turning radius of the intersection, and the ever growing problem of city parking.
“The number of private pleasure vehicles left standing on the street is far greater than was the case with horse-drawn vehicles,” said Nelson P. Lewis of New York in his address “The Automobile and the City Plan.” “The motor car needs no hitching and will stay where left and it is not an uncommon sight to see the entire space along the curb occupied by motor cars for hours at a time. …the number of them so left in the streets is much greater and is increasing at an extraordinary rate.”
Lewis called for “regulations governing the parking of such cars.” He laid out the classic urban parking dilemmas. “If they stand in a line parallel with the curb and immediately adjacent to it, it is impossible for a particular car to leave its position unless there is sufficient space between them to allow them to turn out. If they are placed at right angles to the curb, the space occupied by them is so great as to seriously decrease roadway capacity.” Lewis identified Philadelphia as an exception: “Where the roadways are sufficiently wide, as in Broad Street…the automobiles are parked in the middle of the roadway in a position at right angles to the curb, thus permitting any vehicles to leave it position without interference.” But not every city had a Broad Street and not every street in Philadelphia was broad.
“There is going to come a time when this congestion of motor vehicles will be so much more serious than it is now,” warned a Boston planner, “there will be no practicable way of controlling it, except by encroaching upon existing parks and parkways.” Others at the conference bubbled with comments and ideas, hoping for “the designation of certain streets for the exclusive use of automobiles… the designation of certain streets for fast and slow automobile traffic … The establishment by the city of open spaces where automobiles may be left for the day.” One planner suggested “the city establish subway parking stations under public open spaces…” Another imagined “manufacturers producing a car that could be telescoped or at least stood on end in order that it may occupy less space when left in the public streets.”
Philadelphian Andrew Wright Crawford of the City Parks Association attended the proceedings and added his two cents as to what might come and what should: “The automobile in its best result is causing the diffusion of population.” But, “the motors must, in the center of the city be made to fit the city plan that is in existence, rather than the city plan should fit the motors.”
Sage and impossible advice from a tireless advocate of The City Beautiful.