Picturing the City: Traffic in New York City in the 19th and 20th Century

Aidan McCarthy 112524287


Picture depicting late 19th century New York city showcasing the use of pushcarts and horse’s as modes of transport within the city.

Traffic in big cities can always be seen as an issue in the modern day world. With the rise of the metropolis in many cities throughout the world, the rise of traffic congestion also comes along with it. New York City and the subject of traffic within the city has been a talking point since the late 18th century. (Horsetalk.co.nz, 2012). In Richard Dennis’ (2008) publication of “Cities in Modernity” he wrote how the increase of public transport led to increased traffic within the city. Dennis wrote how “public transport provided a space which you could be private in public”, however Dennis also documented Richard Sennett’s argument where he believes with the increased amount of traffic and the comfort public transport provides, it ends up disconnecting people with the space that surrounds them.


This image conveys to us the amount of pushcarts which were used on the roads in early 20th century New York. We can see from this image also that there was free movement of pedestrians to cross the roads as Traffic lights were not installed until later years.

Pushcarts, Horses, cars and pedestrians had been New York’s main build up of traffic in the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Pushcarts and horse’s were mainly used as modes of transportation, whilst also being used as stations of commerce. Pushcarts would halt on the side of the roads and begin selling goods to the passerby’s. However, these stalls soon became an issue within the city as they were not only effecting local businesses in New York by reducing their trade, they were also causing major traffic congestion within the city.


This image was found on a website displaying old postcards of New York City. This particular postcard displays 5th Avenue and Broadway, where you can see that the street traffic was quite high. You can also see that no traffic signals have been put in place yet.

As an aid to this problem, New York’s chamber of commerce called for a ban on these pushcart businesses. Daniel Bluestone (1992) wrote “Proposals for banning pushcarts favored a modern ideal of the street as the exclusive province of smoothly circulating traffic”. He went on to describe that the narrow view of the street as a traffic artery resembled the broader specialization of urban space during the 19th century. New York city then introduced in 1904 it’s first Subway line to provide rapid transport within the city to help elevate traffic congestion on the streets.


The introduction of Traffic lights becomes a milestone for the transport infrastructure of the city, the introduction of auto mobiles reduces the amount of pushcarts and horse’s used for travel within the city of New York.

As the city developed over time with the increase of auto mobiles and almost the extinction of pushcarts, the right infrastructures had to be put in place to ensure the free use of streets by citizens of New York in a modern day world. With this saw the increase of Traffic lights, Subway lines, and pedestrianized areas.

If we look at Times Square which is renowned for its high tourism attraction within the city. This square acts as a focal point within the city. It had always been quite heavily congested with both pedestrians and traffic on the streets. It was not until the early 21st Century where this Public space became a traffic free zone to allow the free movement of citizens within the area.(Dailymail.co.uk, 2009)


Free movement of pedestrians within Times Square introduced in early 21st Century to reduce amount of accidents within the notorious tourist landmark in New York City.


Bluestone, D (1992) The Landscape of Modernity: New York city 1900-1940. Chapter 13 “The pushcart evil” Published university press oxford.

Dailymail.co.uk (2009) “New York celebrates new era as cars are banished from Times Square” Published 25th May 2009 [Electronic Source] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1187300/New-York-celebrates-new-era-cars-banished-Times-Square.html Accessed 4 November 2014

Dennis, R. (2008) Cities in Modernity. New York. NY. Cambridge University Press.

Horsetalk.co.nz (2012) “From Horse Power to Horsepower” Published 26th March 2012 [Electronic Source] http://horsetalk.co.nz/2012/03/26/from-horse-power-to-horsepower/#axzz3HYLExiVs Accessed 2 November 2014

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