America’s Love Affair with the Automobile: Not much Change in 100 Years

As I was beginning to draft a new article about pedestrian safety and the need to change the car culture in Minnesota, including drivers’ sense of entitlement to roadway use to get to their destinations as quickly as possible, my husband brought me this article written by his grandmother, Sara Hirshfield Kessel, for the Buffalo (NY) Enquirer in 1902*.



1902 article from the Buffalo Enquirer, we think was written by Sara Hirshfield Kessel. Found in a scrapbook of her articles, but we can't be sure she wrote it, since her byline was not attached.

1902 article from the Buffalo Enquirer, we think was written by Sara Hirshfield Kessel. Found in a scrapbook of her articles, but we can’t be sure she wrote it, since her byline was not attached.

Although clearly much has changed since that time, the pleasure of driving, the desire to go faster, and the inattention to other road users sounds very similar to the attitudes of drivers today. What has changed, however, is the speed of cars and the design of roads to help move traffic as quickly as possible.  The result is there are many more crashes that result in fatalities or serious injuries, especially to our most vulnerable road users, pedestrians and bicyclists, as opposed to the few scratches and the broken wagon shafts described in the 1902 article.

This is why it’s so important to change 100 years of a car culture that today results in an unacceptable number of deaths and injuries. Please enjoy the article and respond with ideas on ways to launch a massive campaign to change the car culture, involving media blitzes, community calls to action, and increased investment in making our streets safer for all users.



Anne White

About Anne White

Anne White lives in the Merriam Park neighborhood of Saint Paul. She is currently the Land Use Chair for the Union Park District Council (District 13) and serves on the Governing Council of the District Councils Collaborative of Saint Paul and Minneapolis (DCC). After moving to the Twin Cities in 2003, she retired from her work as a professional photographer and began working to ensure that community concerns were fully considered in planning for the Green Line LRT. Now that the line is up and running, including stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western, her main focus is on walkability, making sure that people of all ages and levels of mobility have safe, pleasant walking routes to LRT and other destinations. She was recently appointed to the St Paul Transportation Committee of the Planning Commission as the Active Living community representative.

14 thoughts on “America’s Love Affair with the Automobile: Not much Change in 100 Years

  1. Kadence

    Neat! Would someone at mind typing up the text from the photo of the article and post as a response so that this post is compatible with screen readers? I had difficulty reading the text in the photo. Thanks!

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Bound to contain typos:

      How the Natty Machine, Owned by Mrs. V. Mott Peirce, Displayed An Ugly Temper

      Mrs. V. Mott Pierce has a new “auto.” It is an electric phaeton with red wheels. It is an exquisite conveyance with all appearances of mildness and gentle sobriety. One would never connect balking or disobedience with this fastidious looking machine.

      Mrs. Pierce has always insisted that autos have minds, and now she is more convinced than ever of the fact. She is an fearless rider and has had many an experience with her various machines, but this dainty little auto has given her her most thrilling encounter.

      She was down town on a shopping expedition. It was a beautiful day, one of our cool crisp, sunshiny autumnal days that seemed charged with electricity. As she sped down Main Street many an admiring glance was turned in her direction. She was gowned in a handsome black velvet dress and wore a natty grey-squirrel hat. She was accompanied by Jack, who sat with the dignity of one conscious of superiority in many directions. Jack is the Peirces’ Boston terrier.

      The auto somehow seemed out of sympathy with the conditions but Mrs. Pierce paid little heed to it. She was in an unusually buoyant mood, and cared little for the seeming restlessness of the machine. Nor did she give much thought to the crowded streets, their passengers, or their traffic. She hastened along with a speed that bordered on the limits of the law. Down Main Street, through Court into Pearl, she ran, and as she turned the corner she found her way blocked a short distance ahead by a fire engine, a street car and a delivery wagon. She hastened to stop the machine, but it would not stop. Was this pretty, dainty auto balking? Was it angered at the hedlessness [sic] of the fair chauffeuse to its mood?

      At any rate, the machine would not stop. It was in a going-on mood, and on and on it went. What to do, was a question. To run into the street car would surely be disastrous. To run into the fire engine would be equally as bad. The delivery wagon was the nearest approach to safety. So she made a turn in its direction, and ran straight into it. Snap! went one of the wagon shafts. The horse attached to the wagon reared, broke its braces and turned on the auto. A small boy grabbed the horse by the bit and held it from committing crime. The trolley conductor rang the bell furiously. The fire engine puffed and snorted at a fearful rate. The dog sat more upright than ever, looked straight ahead, but never stirred. A crowd of street passengers rushed to be of assistance in case of a calamity. It was an awful moment and Mrs. Pierce in the midst of the danger, alone, was cool and collected. She firmly kept her seat while the auto came to a sudden standstill from the wagon shock, and so avoided disaster.

      In a few seconds it was all over. The various vehicles went on their way. The crowds dispersed but with their hearts still in their mouths. There was little harm done. The doctor had some small bills to settle.

      Mrs. Pierce continues to enjoy her auto rides and still has longing to own one of the French 40-horse-power machines and says she will not be content until she has one.

  2. Anne WhiteAnne White Post author

    I was hoping to be able to avoid typing it up, but I do want everyone to be able to read it, so I’ll copy it and put it in as a comment later this afternoon.

  3. Nicole

    To answer your call to action:
    –Decrease automobile references from television and films, glamourize walking/mass transit (kind of like removing cigarettes)
    –Enforce stricter laws about alcohol consumption and driving
    –Make parking less convenient and more expensive
    –Put a face people can relate to to walkability, biking, etc.,

    Programs like Open Streets, and the 30 Days of Biking, are great, but I don’t have an answer for how to improve on that. Without sounding too much like a narcissist, I hope, I remind myself that just choosing my bike, walking to the post office, taking the LRT to go out to dinner: other people do notice. Hopefully they see the activity humanized and relatable–a mom/parent, in street clothes, on a Target bike, pulling a trailer.

    –Give employees options to work remotely one to two days a week.

    I started biking rather than driving because I needed exercise and I got fed up being in my car in traffic. I work remotely, so many of the reasons people choose to drive to work don’t apply to me (lack of showers, time, safe travel routes). I live near the Greenway and the Hiawatha LRT allowing me to easily move around the city in a protected space. Over the last three years I’ve driven fewer trips and chosen biking more and more because it’s become the easier and nicer choice. I’m not sure a campaign of some kind would have moved me. I had to get here on my own.

    –More mixed use development would help.

    We couldn’t get our daughter into any of the daycare/preschools near our house. We’re over the moon with where she ended up, but it’s 7.2 miles round trip. Walking would take too much time; the bus is a 41-minute journey one way; biking takes 25 minutes and by car it’s about 13 minutes. When it starts snowing I’ll choose my car. I know daycare drop-off is often a major reason that people choose to drive rather than bike/walk/use mass transit.

    –Priceless incentives
    I’m not bothered if I get 10% off my tab at a bar/restaurant because I showed my bike helmet. Find a way that gives bikers and peds not preferential treatment (which would, obviously, be discriminatory), but some sort of bonus.

    1. Rosa

      the media thing…every time there’s a movie scene on a bus, there’s a screaming baby or small child. So I’ve known several parents who had babies or toddlers who hated the car/car seat, but were very happy on the bus, and the parents were suprised because “everybody knows” kids hate the bus and make it really difficult to ride.

      In real life I see a lot of happy kids on the bus and rarely run into crying babies. Even on long Megabus trips. Maybe because even in a carseat they’re next to an adult who can pay attention to them, instead of rear facing by themselves while the adult drives.

      1. Nicole

        Definitely! As an infant and young toddler my daughter wanted nothing to do with the car seat. It was one of the reasons I really started biking. Now she’s way more enthusiastic about wherever we need to go if we take the bus or LRT instead of the car. We’ve even used it to bribe her to behave (which isn’t usually our first choice when it comes to parenting but sometimes you’re desperate), “if you can’t stay at the table we’re going to call a cab instead of taking the light rail home.”

        1. Keith Morris

          Kids do love trains: I’ve seen a few get really excited when the Northstar or light rail train is approaching. Never seen kids jumping up and down because here comes a car.

        2. Emily MetcalfeEmily Metcalfe

          This is one reason why I primarily walked to places since my baby was born. She hated the car seat but loved the baby carrier. Also, it’s much healthier for my toddler to be out walking than riding in a car seat.

  4. Kurt Howard

    On the subject of Open Streets, is anyone else skeptical of the notion that the event promotes cycling and walking as a safe means of transportation? If the purpose of Open Streets is to be whimsical, chaotic and fun, I think it accomplishes this goal in spades. However, if the purpose is to promote biking and walking as a safe means of transportation, I think it needs work. Have you ever been to Open Streets? It’s fun, but it’s chaos. I feel like it would be easy for someone who isn’t used to being around bicycle traffic to decide that being around bikes is inherently disorderly, chaotic and dangerous. Do you know what I mean?

  5. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    Almost every time this question comes up, I consistently think of one traffic engineer. Hans Mondeman, the engineer from the Netherlands who stripped away much of the safety nets for drivers- lane stripes, stop signs, traffic regulations. This created an environment where drivers actually had to pay attention, thus creating a safe environment for pedestrians and bicyclists. In the Twin Cities, I see a growing clutter of pleasantries designed to lull drivers into security such that they have no reason to fear being hit themselves. They are buffered from oncoming traffic by wide tree lined medians, so, the driver thinks it will be ok to check his or her smart phone, in spite of the bicyclist that may be squeezed in close enough that just one small turn of the wheel will be detrimental. They are forced to wait a little longer at stop lights with no turns on red, thus the driver can again look at that smartphone or look in the mirror to apply some lipstick. No thinking necessary, the driver will just make the turn when the light is green, in spite of the pedestrians that also want to cross then. We plan our transit designs that encourage people to run against traffic, and in some cases in front of trains and alongside moving buses in order to catch the train or bus.

    My ideas to change this culture? Look to the examples of Monderman for one. Stop creating so much regulation that drivers drive on auto pilot. As long as streets will be shared with drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists, actually give everyone space so we are not all crowded together- take away medians when the streets are too narrow, allowing space for refuge from cars for bicyclists. Put small refuge islands at intersections instead for the pedestrians, similar to what is at the Champs Elysees in places. Create transit stations for busy areas, like the Lake Chicago transit station so people aren’t having to run all over across traffic and into the middle of streets like they do now at Snelling and University, for example.

    1. Keith Morris

      The other issue with intersections like University and Snelling is that they’re in the hear of the city but the streets don’t feel that way, because they’re basically suburban mini-highways.

      1. Nathanael

        Indeed. Regardless of how the street is arranged in other ways, when you have something like *six driving lanes*, drivers will start treating it as if it’s a speedway.

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