Zimmerman: Snowed by our penchant for automobiles

‘The evil snow is upon us.” So wrote New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong in December 1879, describing …

‘The evil snow is upon us.” So wrote New York lawyer and diarist George Templeton Strong in December 1879, describing a huge storm. Teams of horses pulled plows through the snow, piled high along the sidewalks, and city dwellers struggled to move about.

In the future, Strong imagined, things would be better. “A century hence cities will be put under glass,” he predicted, “and New York will be enclosed in a huge crystal palace.”

But snowstorms have become more devastating since, thanks to the automobile. Consider last month’s mayhem in Atlanta, where 2 inches of snow trapped people on expressways for up to 20 hours. Or the criticism from Upper East Side residents after a January storm choked their streets with traffic.

Public anger in Atlanta focused on Mayor Kasim Reed, who said most snowbound commuters were stranded far outside of his city. The remark was impolitic, but true. Reed is only one of more than 60 mayors of towns and cities in the Atlanta region; fewer than 10 percent of residents live within the City of Atlanta.

There are lots of reasons for that, including federal policies that subsidized highway construction in the 20th century. That’s why Americans use cars for their daily transportation about 85 percent of the time.

A century ago, snowstorms provided the impetus for some of the first big investments in transportation systems. When 400 people died in an NYC blizzard in 1888, for example, city officials stepped up plans to build a subway system.

But over the next several decades, more and more Americans purchased cars. And everyone wanted their street cleaned so they could drive up and down it.

That’s why residents of the car-dependent outer boroughs led the charge against mayor John Lindsay during NYC’s huge 1969 snowstorm, which dealt a big blow to his hopes of becoming president.

“The recent suffocating snows [are] a warning of God’s Vengeance on us for our Ingratitude to his Goodness and our Transgression of His law,” a Massachusetts minister thundered after a snowstorm in 1741. I prefer to think of snow as a more secular warning, about America and automobiles. With snow looming, the question to ask, isn’t why so many people get stranded in their cars. It’s why so many are driving in the first place.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.

Jonathan Zimmerman