Historians usually date the origins of traffic control in the U.S. to the early twentieth century, but in nineteenth-century Manhattan, managing movement through the city streets was a major political project. This paper examines efforts across the nineteenth century to “relieve” Broadway, New York’s principal thoroughfare, of its congestion. The solutions that New Yorkers proposed, including street openings, traffic police, and urban railways, reflected divergent ideas about whose movement should be privileged and whose should be curtailed. The question of how to relieve Broadway was thus also a question about how to manage the city’s growth and how to govern a diverse population. As Broadway’s traffic intensified in the nineteenth century, control of mobility emerged as a principal field of political conflict and government action.
David Schley is an associate professor of history at Hong Kong Baptist University and a visiting researcher in the School of Art, Media, and American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He published his first book, Steam City: Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore, with the University of Chicago Press in 2020. His current book project is titled “Gridlocked: A History of Traffic in New York City before the Automobile.”
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