How the cities of yesteryear reacted to the automobile
Debate over the role of the automobile is a mainstay of urban politics. A quick scan of the last few months’ headlines reveal a debate over surface parking in Minneapolis, Washington Metro’s push for more transit-oriented stations, mixed messaging from Hamilton’s downtown parking study, and Waterloo’s propensity for buying up land to build parking lots. That’s just a small taste of what’s happening today, as cities contend with the opposing forces of an entrenched car culture, and a desire to promote more sustainable modes of transportation.
The 20th century saw automobiles reshape the urban fabric of every city in the world. But what were things like at the beginning of this era? In the 1910s and 1920s, when automobile ownership started to rise, we didn’t have standards for parking lots or traffic signals or any of the infrastructure to support cars. Cities scrambled to create policies that would manage this boisterous addition to urban life.
In this blog post, I’ve compiled a short selection of news articles from local U.S. newspapers that offer a glimpse into the public reaction to automobiles at the time. (I found them while browsing the U.S. Library of Congress website, which has a fantastic searchable archive of local newspapers dating back to 1836. It’s a great way to waste an afternoon.)
This first article is my favourite one. Published in the Chicago Day Book, a publication geared to the “95 percent” of the population (ring any bells?) saw the arrival of the automobile as a class struggle.
The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — July 16, 1914
The big bugs win again
The South Park board again came to bat for the big fellows yesterday when it O.K.’d the plan to hand over to auto owners a big slice of Grant Park to be used as a parking place for autos.
They’re even going to build for the big fellows, at the taxpayers’ expense, a lovely bridge, so that the autos might not have any bother in getting to the parking place.
And then they’re going to let the big fellows have the use of a squad of their own park cops, so the auto owners won’t be troubled by ordinary folks hanging around.
Two years later, another article about car parking appears in the Day Book. It’s less vehement, but highlights the problems that autos are causing for the existing streetcar network.
The Day Book (Chicago, IL) — August 16, 1916
Would forbid auto parking near street cars
Automobiles should be forbidden to park within two street car lengths of a street crossing, according to recommendations made in the latest report of the board of supervising engineers, which has made a study of traffic conditions.
In nearly every other big city, street car loading spaces are reserved at every crossing in which vehicles may not be parked.
The board also recommended: The installation of electric semaphores at busy street crossings, to be operated by a policeman from a raised platform; a new ordinance limiting width of vehicles or burdens carried through downtown streets; stricter enforcement of vehicle parking ordinance.
Skipping ahead to 1919, Philadelphia envisions a giant, cylindrical parking garage to solve its congestion woes. (It would be another 45 years before a similar project was completed in Chicago.)
Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA) — November 17, 1919
Skyscraper garage to solve auto-parking problem
How a suggested plan by E. G. Higgins to overcome the problem of housing automobiles in congested city areas, where parking spaces are growing smaller, would look if adopted in Philadelphia. The scheme is to build a garage in the form of a tower, with a spiral driveway, from which on etiher side there could be 700 car stalls. At the center there would be a spiral leading downward, access to which could be had at intervals from the ascending driveway. The entrance is at the right-hand side.
The sleepy town of Bisbee, Arizona, came to grips with its own parking issues by converting a public plaza to a parking lot.
The Bisbee Daily Review (Bisbee, AZ) — December 25, 1919
Opens plaza for parking of autos
The plaza in front of the post office was opened yesterday to automobiles for parking only. Because of the heavy traffic along Lower Main street and through Subway street it has been impossible for the police to find parking space for the vehicles. Chief J. A. Kempton yesterday rescinded the order permitting autos to park along Subway street when City Engineer Halleck said the plaza pavement would not be damaged by automobiles parking in the plaza.
The dirt covering the pavement while it is being cured will not be removed until December 28. Shortly after that Main street will be opened.
This next article highlights the attitudes of business owners in Richmond, Kentucky, towards the automobile epidemic. Interestingly, curb parking was not seen as “good for business” — it prevented people from walking across the street and hindered access to storefronts.
Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — June 19, 1919
New parking plan seem to please
The parking of cars in the business section of the city is making access to stores on each side of the streets much easier and business men say that their customers and callers can get into the stores far easier than by the old method of parking cars at the curb. Street Commissioner Allman has nicely marked white lines, indicating the parking areas.
All motor vehicles parked on Main and First streets shall be parked in the areas herinabove set out and described; they shall be parked on Main street at right angles to said street, side by side in single file. In removing any motor vehicle from said parking area, same shall be driven forward then in the direction which shall keep the curb of the street on the side upon which operator is driving, on the driver’s right. Motor vehicles passing along this parking area shall drive to the right side of same in the direction in which they are driving.
Motor vehicles parked on First street in the area hereinabove described shall park in a position at right angles to said First Street; they may park in two ranks, where practicable. When leaving said First street parking area said vehicles must be driven forward, where practicable, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws now in force, relative to driving to the right. When it is unavoidable, motor vehicles may be backed out of said parking area, and then proceed in accordance with the traffic laws, relative to driving to the right.
It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, or corporation to stop or cause to be stopped any motor vehicle for a period of more than three minutes, at any point at, along or near the said parking areas, or the curb lines running along and parallel thereto.
The above article doesn’t say what the new parking areas look like, exactly, but this follow-up article makes things a bit more clear. The convention at the time was for cars to park in the center of the street, effectively creating a median of parked cars. Evidently, that system didn’t work so well. The city issued an ordinance to return parking to the curb once more.
Richmond Daily Register (Richmond, KY) — October 9, 1920
New parking rule to be established: Center of city streets will be kept clear as in greater cities—new plan
That there will be a new parking ordinance within a short time is admitted by members of the Richmond city council, and that the regulations of the same will be enforced is another statement that indicates a change in the city parking system that will be of unusual importance to everyone owning an automobile.
According to plan being discussed at present, there will be no center street parking, this privilege being confined to the sides of the streets, leaving the center of the thoroughfare clear. The parking at the sime of the streets will be admitted, an hour given for each parking period.
This, the officers as well as the councilmen declare, will do away with the congestion of the center of the street and cause drivers of vehicles going in either direction to pay more attention to keeping to the right and the street clear. It is the intention to arrange the matter of parking to the best adventage of all, and while the above plans have not been definitely decided upon, they are favored by many of the officials at present.
One city councilman stated this was the manner followed in greater cities, with the result that there is not the turning around of automobiles caused by center street parking, and those going one way will turn to the right, this mode being more satisfactory in every way.
The matter of parking will be taken up, it is expected, at the next meeting of the council when an ordinance is expected to be presented and the plans will be completed within a short time governing the movement. while there may be “backing out” upon the part of drivers from the gutter after parking, there will not be the turning around of the machine in the middle of the street or square, and, this is one of the dangerous practices, it has been discovered in greater cities. there will be a traffic officer provided for the up-town streets, and officers declare there will be arrests for the first violation of the new ordinance after its presentation.
In Washington, the Metropolitan Garage is trumpeted as “one of the largest and most complete” in the country. I include this little article to show how unprepared we were for the tidal wave of cars that would continue to flood our streets. The picture’s hard to see, but a single 7-storey parking garage just won’t be enough to meet future demand.
The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — May 1, 1921
The Metropolitan Garage — A large modren fire-proof garage which will be built on L street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets nearly opposite the Dewey Hotel. the greater part of the stock in this establishment has been subscribed for by Washington business men—the stock available is being handled by Donald G. Fisher, of the Vermont garage. When completed the Metropolis garage will be one of the largest and most complete in the United States.
A year and a half later, and we see that Washington is coming to grips with the sheer scale of the automobile phenomenon. The knee-jerk response? Buy up land, demolish buildings, and erect more parking garages!
The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922
Garages for parking cars considered to relieve traffic: Highways must be freed
Laid out to avoid traffic congestion, the average width of Washington’s streets being considerable in excess of that of other cities, nevertheless, traffic conditions developing during the busy hours of the day throughout the central sections are declared to be the despair of those responsible for the enforcement of regulations governing vehicles in the use of highways.
This condition, it is pointed out, is of comparatively modern development. Its incipiency may be traced back to the advent of the automobile, according to highway engineers. Hence, they say, the chief traffic problem consists in finding a solution to the question of parking automobiles in the central districts of the city.
It is estimated that no fewer than 10,000 motor vehicles are parked at times in the highways traversing or leading into the business quarter of the city. In certain blocks in that section each side of the street is lines with autos tailed in or nosed in so closely that it is impossibel for the pedestrian to cross to the opposite side without going to an intersecting street. This is not the condition of a single block. It extends generally throughout the entire downtown section, and with the increasing use of automobilesin creeping out into adjacent sections.
To park thousands of motor cars within the limits of the commercial section, it is said, is the greatest problem faces by the authorities, and that until a satisfactory solution has been found for it little improvement in traffic can be expected.
Those who have studied the auto-parking situation here closely admit that the final solution to safe, sane and satifactory parking of autos cannot be reached through any regulations prescribing the particular way in which autos must be placed in relation to curbs… It is conceded that it is no longer a question of ranking and parking. The final solution of the traffic problem involved in the presence of autos left standing in the streets rests, it is asserted, in providing parking quarters off the streets.
Free the highways of the central section of the city of the thousands of automobiles left standing along the curbs for hours each day, it is urged, and a long step will be taken toward solving the other traffic problems, especially that of reducing the number of street accidents to a minimum.
While not authoritatively stated, it is understood that consideration is being given a plan which would result in the District Commissioners acquiring sections of land within certain blocks now used by the property owners as backyards, and converting them into sites for District Parking garages. Ont hese locations, it is pointed out, it would be possible to erect fireproof, substantially constructed buildings several stories in height, each having a capacity of from 500 to 1,000 autos. The garages would be equipped with powerful elevators capable of hoisting five or ten autos at one time to the upper parking floors. These floors would be divided into a given number of spaces. Each space would be numbered and a check corresponding in number to the space given the motorist.
In addition to providing parking space, the District garages, it was suggested, could provide service, including the cleaning of cars and the making of slight repairs. This would provide additional revenue, a nominal parking charge being made. According to those favoring the District garage plan the lower floor of each garage would be reserved for motorist parking cars for a few hours only, while the upper parking floors would be used for all-day parking.
Those familiar with the parking situation express the opinion that five District garages, having parking accommodation for from three to five thousand cars, would meet requirements for the next five years, while the withdrawal from the highways of a corresponding number of automobiles would free the streets from the dangers and inconveniences incident to existing conditions and parking methods.
From the same issue as the above article, here’s a succinct description of the dangers that parked automobiles brought to crowded urban centres.
The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922
These cars are fire danger
Traffic congestion resulting from the parking of thousands of automobiles in the streets throughout the business section of the city has resulted in a general disregard of the parking rule requiring an open space of five feet between each motorcar. The illustration shows how this disregarding of the spacing provision practically results in the formation of impassable barriers along the curbs of many of the downtown streets during business hours. Fire department officials declare the condition created in this way in the streets greatly increases the work and the danger in fighting fires. District parking garages, it is said, would free the street congestion existing at present.
It’s fascinating to look back and see how cities tried to manage the presence of cars in the urban environment. Of course, now we know the failed legacy of overzealous off-street parking development — huge tracts of unproductive land that break up our downtowns and make them less appealing to live in.
The parking issues of yesteryear still remain in many cities, but we can’t keep trying to solve them with 1920s policies. A shiny new parking garage is not a panacea, it’s a band-aid solution. In the 2020s, car congestion will only be solved by making other forms of transportation attractive — and the cities that don’t will be forever mired in the past.
Oh, one last article: this one’s not about parking, but it is about automobiles and it’s hilarious.
The Washington Times (Washington, DC) — December 30, 1922
Judge tries out car; speeder loses case
CHICAGO, Dec. 29 — Hyman Miller, arrested for speeding, put up the familiar claim in court yesterday that his machine could not make forty miles an hour.
“Come on,” said Judge Schwab, reaching for his hat and overcoat. “I can drive a car a little, and we will see what your boat can do.”
Hyman and his father, a policeman and the judge piled into the car and the judge took the wheel and stepped on the gas. Half an hour later they came back. The speedometer showed forty-five miles an hour, so Hyman lost his car and the judge also imposed a fine of $50.