E.B. White, New York, and the street-safety revolt that never came

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Busy New York street in the 1950s

November 30, 2013

Michael Andersen, Green Lane Project staff writer


New York City's Sixth Avenue in 1957. Photo: Smithsonian.

About 30 years ago, our country lost something precious: a generation of Americans who remembered cities that weren't completely dominated by the automobile.

It was that memory — of a time when cars were servants, not masters — that powered the mainstream outrage behind the "Stop de kindermoord" movement that created the modern Netherlands. And it was a shock when, up late after a Thanksgiving meal this weekend, I read E.B. White's 1948 essay about his hometown and got a little taste of that same loss, here in the USA, from a man who was living it:

"New York has changed in tempo and in temper during the years I have known it. There is greater tension, increased irritability. You encounter it in many places, in many faces. The normal frustrations of modern life are here multiplied and amplified — a single run of a cross-town bus contains, for the driver, enough frustration and annoyance to carry him over the edge of sanity: the truck that blocks the only opening, the coin that slips to the floor, the question asked at the wrong moment. There is greater tension and there is greater speed. Taxis roll faster than they rolled ten years ago — and they were rolling fast then. Hackmen used to drive with nerve; now they sometimes seem to drive with desperation, toward the ultimate tip. On the West Side Highway, approaching the city, the motorist is swept along in a trance — a sort of fever of inescapable motion, goaded from behind, hemmed in on either side, a mere chip in a millrace."

White, who was born just outside the Bronx in 1899 and died in 1985, didn't put it in these terms at the time, but he was describing (among other things) a transition from a city dominated by humans to one dominated by machines. He's describing the claustrophobic unease that Americans have spent decades trying to escape by building wider and wider roadways, hoping each time that the next highway lane will be the one that never fills up.

He's describing the feeling a frog must get while sitting in a pot that's slowly, slowly rising to a boil.

The rise of protected bike lanes in the United States, which began seven years ago in New York City, doesn't aspire to ban the automobile from city streets. It just aspires to reopen our eyes to a different way for a city's streets to exist. It reminds Americans that, all these years later, it's still possible to build new Amsterdams.


New York City's Prospect Park West in 2012.

The Green Lane Project writes about the ways cities are building better bike lanes. You can follow us on Twitter or Facebook, or sign up for weekly emails of our latest news here.

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