Gridlocked: A History of Traffic in New York City before the Automobile

  • SCHLEY, David (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Today, the word “traffic” calls to mind honking cars and blinking stoplights, but the question of how to control movement through the city has a much longer history than these images suggest. This project examines cultural representations and political regulations of traffic in New York City between the advent of the grid plan in 1811 and the common council’s enactment of pioneering traffic statutes in 1897. In the eight-plus decades separating these events, New York cemented its status as the American capital of commerce and culture, a role that drew ever-greater numbers of people and goods to the oblong island of Manhattan. As New York’s merchants, bankers, and industrialists embedded themselves within transnational networks of credit and exchange, they began to conceive of movement through the city’s streets in terms of the circuitry of global capitalism. For most New Yorkers, though, traffic was more than a matter of dollars and cents. Rapid growth strained the city’s street capacity and raised pressing questions about how to manage the movement of a diverse array of vehicles, people, and animals within urban space. The answers to those questions had major implications for understandings of identity, citizenship, and community.

Walt Whitman wrote poetry about New York’s traffic; civil rights activists launched lawsuits over it. Yet scholars have not given nineteenth-century traffic the attention it deserves. Most historians trace the origins of traffic management to the Progressive Era in the early twentieth century. In doing so, they align regulation of movement with the professionalization of planning in a process that culminated with the arrival of the automobile, which forcibly recast the street as a site of transit. Urban traffic was a matter of political concern long before the automobile, however. Manhattan faced traffic problems more intensely than other American cities, and communities elsewhere often adopted transportation innovations first implemented in New York.

This project draws on recent scholarship in mobility studies to ask questions about how people moved and to unpack the meanings they attached to that movement. It gets at these questions through both a narrative history of traffic regulation and episodic case studies that examine confrontations over transit. This approach, by shedding new light on life in the nineteenth-century city, also reveals continuities with the present day. Questions about who can move in the city—and how, and where, and when—remain critical to the construction of citizenship in the twenty-first century.
Effective start/end date1/01/2030/06/23


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