Congestion as a Cultural Construct: The 'Congestion Evil' in Boston in the 1890s and 1920s

Article excerpt

The residents of 1890s Boston complained about traffic congestion endlessly and in flamboyant language. In 1893 the city's surveying department complained about Boston's 'stupendous' congestion problem,1 and the same year Mayor Nathan Matthews referred in a speech to the 'evils of congestion'.2 A Boston Globe article the following year claimed that 'the hundreds of thousands of citizens of Boston and vicinity [are] clamoring for and demanding relief from the congestion in the business district of the city'.3

Looking forward thirty years in time to the 1920s, concern about congestion persisted unabated. In 1922 the Boston City Planning Board warned that congestion was 'strangling' the city,4 and a 1925 editorial in the Boston Herald described street traffic conditions as 'approximating the impossible'.5 The Chamber of Commerce, which routinely used alarmist language about congestion in its magazine Current Affairs, gave visual form to all this worry about congestion, printing a cartoon portraying the city as a child sick in bed with 'Boston's traffic problem', a reference to the city's traffic congestion (Figure 1). And in addition to merely complaining about traffic congestion, Bostonians in both eras also spent a great deal of money and effort trying to reduce it, whether by building new roads or transit infrastructure, or by changing the city's traffic regulations.

An unasked question lurks behind all the alarmist statements, expenditure of public funds, and time spent by private citizens and government officials investigating policies to reduce traffic congestion: why did they care? What were the negative consequences they associated with traffic congestion that led them to believe it was an important problem? This article explores the reasons Bostonians brought up in public discourse about why congestion in the downtown business district was a problem, looking comparatively across the two eras of the 1890s and the 1920s. In particular, the article addresses three research questions. How did locals define the problems caused by congestion? How did their perceptions evolve across the two time periods? What factors might explain the differences and similarities between the two eras?

Although at first the question 'Why does congestion matter?' may seem obvious - certainly, residents of big cities around the world still complain about traffic today - the answers are not self-evident. After all, traffic congestion in and of itself is not a problem. When people complain about congestion, they are actually complaining about some set of negative conditions or events that they perceive the congestion to cause. This article investigates the nature of those perceptions.

The concept of 'perception' is central to the argument in this article. In 1967 Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann published a book called The Social Construction of Reality which argued that societies develop certain conceptions of the world that their members understand to be 'true', even though there is no objective basis for their perceptions.6 This article takes the position that traffic congestion is such a phenomenon. Understanding why traffic congestion matters is thus not a matter of documenting real, observable conditions, but rather one of revealing shared cultural understandings.

This article adds new approaches to the growing field of urban mobility history by looking at congestion as a cultural construction. In other words the 'discourse' rather than the congestion as an 'objective reality' is the focus here. The existing literature mostly focuses on understanding the public policies and private business decisions made to address urban mobility needs, rather than on the attitudes towards congestion held by public and private actors. For example, scholars such as Mark Foster, Clay McShane, Clifford Ellis, and Paul Barrett have documented that congested traffic conditions existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and were a matter of public concern, and they have described the public policies generated to cope with traffic congestion. …