Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America

Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America

Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America

Watching the Traffic Go By: Transportation and Isolation in Urban America


As twentieth-century city planners invested in new transportation systems to deal with urban growth, they ensured that the automobile rather than mass transit would dominate transportation. Combining an exploration of planning documents, sociological studies, and popular culture, Paul Fotsch shows how our urban infrastructure developed and how it has shaped American culture ever since.

Watching the Traffic Go Byemphasizes the narratives underlying our perceptions of innovations in transportation by looking at the stories we have built around these innovations. Fotsch finds such stories in the General Motors "Futurama" exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, debates inMunsey's magazine, films such asDouble Indemnity, and even in footage of the O. J. Simpson chase along Los Angeles freeways.

Juxtaposed with contemporaneous critiques by Lewis Mumford, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer, Fotsch argues that these narratives celebrated new technologies that fostered stability for business and the white middle class. At the same time, transportation became another system of excluding women and the poor, especially African Americans, by isolating them in homes and urban ghettos.

A timely, interdisciplinary analysis,Watching the Traffic Go Byexposes the ugly side of transportation politics through the seldom-used lens of popular culture.


In the fall of 1991 I moved from Hyde Park, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, to University City on the northern edge of San Diego. in Hyde Park, where the University of Chicago is located, many people walk to campus, local coffee shops, or grocery stores. in University City, adjacent to the University of California, San Diego, people largely travel by automobile, even when going shopping at stores only a few—albeit long—blocks from home. University City is a classic example of what Joel Garreau (1992) calls an “Edge City”: it contains central elements of a city—shopping centers, office buildings, and homes—but is at the periphery of an older city. These new cities are designed to accommodate the automobile with wide roads and large parking lots, and this accommodation can make walking inconvenient, even hazardous. a large number of Americans live in neighborhoods of this sort, and a large majority rely on the automobile as their form of transportation . For me, the landscape felt sterile and, without a car, isolating. It seemed odd to me that people would choose to spend so much time in their vehicles.

During my first spring in San Diego I watched television when every news station in Los Angeles and San Diego broadcast via helicopters an uprising that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten an African American motorist. During this uprising, certain exits of the Harbor Freeway were closed to shield drivers from the violence erupting in surrounding neighborhoods. This event revealed a link between the individual isolation provided by a transportation form and the isolation of a group. On the one hand, the attack on Rodney King indicated a penalty for African Americans who travel outside predominantly black neighborhoods. On the . . .

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