Did cars kill urban life?
You can’t have cities without civility
When motor vehicles were first invented it was widely assumed that, while they would be wonderful for travelling between cities, you obviously wouldn’t let people drive them inside cities. These great steel machines would be too dangerous and menacing for pedestrians, hence laws such as the hugely restrictive 1865 Red Flag Act which set the urban speed limit at 2 mph.
But the car industry was too powerful, drivers loved their new autonomous vehicles too much, and so a type of transport with massive negative externalities was allowed to dominate and, in many cases, destroy urban life. The heart of Birmingham, England’s second city, was ripped out to make it more convenient for drivers, but the devastation wrought on American cities by car-loving town planners was on another level, and put to shame the feeble efforts of the Luftwaffe in Britain.
There has since grown an increasing awareness of what was lost for the sake of the car, and the rise of a new urbanist movement. Walkable cities are incredibly good for your physical and mental health, and as some have pointed out, Americans spend vast amounts in order to enjoy three or four years where everything can be reached on foot or bike, and their friends are nearby, when this should just be normal human existence. Cars are often destructive of civic life, and even the counter arguments, that restrictions of vehicle use would damage small businesses, have mostly been proven incorrect.
However, enabled by the expansion of car ownership, Americans after the War fled to suburbs in huge numbers, exurbs which urban planners Andres Duány and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk described as the ‘last word in privatisation, perhaps even its lethal consummation and... the end of authentic civic life’. The growth of car-dependent suburbs drives loneliness and isolation, the underlying issue behind the greatest of American dramas, The Sopranos. David Chase’s epic is essentially about the misery of suburban loneliness (and if he objects, well, death of the author and all that). Tony Soprano has a huge mansion in the middle of nowhere where he spends his days looking at ducks and getting depressed and neurotic, while his parents in The Many Saints of Newark lived in modest homes within close reach of all their friends. Which of those two lifestyles is going to make you happier? (Admittedly the Soprano family were never models of contentment.)
So why did the Sopranos and extended clan move out of Newark? Crime, ironically. The film takes place during the Newark Riots of 1967 and over the course of that decade violence there and elsewhere in America exploded. In New York City murder rates quadrupled in just over a decade, in Chicago they trebled. The overall US homicide rate increased by 44% between 1960 and 1970, rape by 92% and robbery by 146% (and the latter tends to become underreported as crime rises).
This decivilising process was concentrated in urban areas, so that Mrs Soprano was three times more likely to be a victim of crime in Newark than in the surrounding suburbs — so, like millions of urbanites, they moved out and became dependent on their cars. By the end of the 1960s, over 50,000 Americans were being killed by motor vehicles each year, while the homicide rate would break through the 20,000 mark in 1974, where it would remain for two decades.