Urbanism

An Unearthed Traffic Film Documents Mentality That Drove Car-Centric Dallas

There were people in 1950s Dallas who feared that turning all of downtown's streets into one ways would kill the city. They were dismissed.

A fascinating little film reel popped onto YouTube today which offers a chance to plumb the historic mentality that helped destroy downtown Dallas and turn the city and region into a car-driven sprawling behemoth.

Entitled “Report to Dallas” (1955), the film is produced by the Dallas Citizens Traffic Commission, a group that was tasked with master planning Dallas’ response to the car. What makes the old film fascinating is that it is a kind of psychological time capsule. In its descriptions, justification, assumptions, and marketing, it lays out clearly how it came to be that the car trampled Dallas and a city that once had an extensive streetcar network and a thriving downtown was subdued by the needs of the car.

In fact, the reason is summed up perfectly in one of the closing lines of the film. “Traffic is the life blood of the city,” the baritone narrator drones. “Slow down the traffic and the heart beat slows down. Stop it and the city dies.”

Yikes.

The film opens with the usual mid-century tone of self-grandeur. Dallas is a city that stands “as a towering achievement of mankind’s ability to raise beam on beam and stone on stone.” With 3,000 people moving to the Texas city every month, it’s population is quickly accelerating towards the million mark. Many of those new arrivals are settling in the hundreds of thousands of new homes that are sprouting up on the suburbs. But with growth comes challenges, and the big one, according to the film, is traffic.

“The problem of traffic is the problem of Dallas progress,” we are told.

Set in such monumental terms, you can see why few would want to stand in the way of a project that promised to push the city into the future. But how did the Dallas of 1955 understand the problems of their and the future they wanted to build?

Well, they saw too many narrow streets, too few one ways, and too much traffic moving too slowly in and out of the central business district. As for their solutions to these problems,  you already know the answer because these men of sound pragmatic reason and guided optimism succeeded in building it.

In the film, the men of the Dallas Citizens Traffic Commission envision the Dallas of today, a place where downtown is surrounded by an expressway ring, where the streetcars are banished from the streets and the traffic islands that served as stops removed to allow for expanded city streets. They envisioned a downtown that was a crisscross of one way streets filled with parking lots and garages that could solve the car “storage problem.” They pointed to the newly constructed circular exit ramp that replaced the intersection of Harry Hines and Oak Lawn as a progressive indication of the future. There is no mention of public transit, sidewalks, or pedestrian safety. That Dallas would go the way of the car was a forgone conclusion.

Of course, for downtown, all this “progress” achieved was to kill the city. Which leaves us with an interesting and valuable question. If these men, who come across as earnest and pragmatic stewards of the city’s best interests, truly wanted to foster a vibrant Dallas, how did they arrive at a plan that, in so many ways, worked against these very desires?

The answer, like all great tragic  miscalculations, is that the commission makes a false assumption and then is too set in its arrogance to reevaluate that assumption when it meets public resistance.

The commission frames the problem entirely wrong. It sees a problem with the amount of cars flooding into the streets and it wants to figure out a way to move them efficiently and safely. It seeks to employ the three “e’s”–education, engineering, and enforcement–to educate citizens how traffic works, empower engineers to reshape the city, and enforce traffic rules with an extended police force.

In other words, the commission equates the problem of how to move people around the city with the problem of how to move cars around the city. The commission assumes that cars have become the lifeblood of the city and the city needs to be adapted to better suit them. “The city can’t survive as a major shopping center unless both [cars and trucks] have access to places of business.”

And yet, at the same time, the film makes reference to some push back from downtown business owners who understand that the commission’s efforts to transform all of downtown’s streets into one ways is going to be terrible for business–that turning the city’s streets over to cars will kill the city. The commission, however, will hear none of it.

“Every business man wants more customers, but some are unwilling to accept a one way street proposition or a no parking edict,” the narrator says. “Because of short-range or imagined penalties, progress is stymied by these few.”

Of course the business owners were right. Their “penalties” were neither short-range nor imagined. The one ways and parking codes instituted by the commission and its successors helped kill downtown, and 60 years later, it is still clawing its way back.

We have heard this tone and rhetorical strategy more recently, in debates around the Trinity River, the privatization of Fair Park, the proposed boulevard of I-345, and other civic debates. Those who raise common sense objections to potentially damaging city proposals are dismissed as NIMBYs, small-visioned, or enemies of progress. Then, as the downtown business owners are in the film, they are derided:

“Even a schoolboy could figure out that downtown streets can’t be used at both times both for movement and traffic storage,” the film’s narrator sneers.

Sadly history has borne out two takeaways from this filmstrip. The first is that the commission got its way. The film shows that Dallas has a tremendous capacity for setting in motion the wheels of power to achieve the vision it sets out for itself. The second lesson is that that vision was fatally flawed from the outset, and people at the time knew it. If only someone had listened.

And yet, watching this film one comes away with the impression that not only did the traffic commission fail to listen, they were incapable of listening. That is a lesson that can illuminate both the past and the present.

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