Chances are, you probably take things like stop signs and traffic circles for granted. At least, I know I’ve never sat at a stop sign and wondered, “Who on Earth decided to make us stop in situations where there may be oncoming traffic or pedestrians?” But someone had to have done it. That someone is William Phelps Eno.
Eno was born in New York City in early June of 1858 and died in December of 1945, so he was around to witness the evolution of the automobile from simply not existing to becoming an incredibly commonplace form of travel. And that also meant he witnessed those lawless early days of the road.
Back when people first started building and buying automobiles, there really wasn’t a reason to implement a series of road rules. Not enough people had cars for it to really matter, so no one had really thought to implement regulations for operating them.
But when Eno experienced his first traffic jam in 1867 — caused not by automobiles but by a dozen horse-drawn carriages — he was a changed man. He realized that a few rules and someone to enforce them could lighten the burden of travel considerably, so that small problems wouldn’t turn into a congested, dangerous, hours-long debacle.
So, in 1900, Eno worked to set down his thoughts on traffic safety, which he titled Reform in Our Street Traffic Urgently Needed. Three years later, he wrote a city traffic code for New York, the very first of its kind.
Among his many inventions were the stop sign, the traffic circle, one-way streets, taxi stands, and medians. He set down clear rules on passing, turning, right of way, parking, following, and backing up. Eno designed the Arc de Triomphe, Piccadilly Circus, and Rond Point on the Champs-Élysées — some of the busiest and most iconic pieces of road in the world. Basically, the whole goal was to keep traffic flowing as smoothly as possible and prevent accidents and deaths.
But the crux of this article stems from a Twitter thread about the unique hell that is the parking lot — something that Eno also played a hand in.
Back then, there were two different terms for what we’d just lump under “parking” today, as per MIT: ranking and parking. When ranking, you would line up vehicles one behind the other parallel to a curb. In parking, you’d stand vehicles parallel to one another at an angle to the curb. There were also two designations for a parked car: live or dead. A live vehicle was one that contained a human inside. A dead vehicle was one that did not.
This, as you can imagine, was not efficiently designed; in parking, folks would be so close to the car ahead that it would be impossible for anyone to get out unless the first one moved. Order, Eno decided, was needed. So, he devised a scheme where live vehicles would be the only ones allowed to park curbside while dead vehicles would have to be parked in a vacant lot. Those vacant lots also solved the problem of Americans just straight-up ramming their tires into the curb and blowing them out.
Big parking lots and garages weren’t really en vogue until the 1920s, when cities started allocating specific lots for vehicle parking. By 1923, the National Conference of City Planning was heavily advocating for off-street parking. As you can imagine, as cities grew, parking was featured more heavily in the planning phases than it had been in cities that had evolved in the horse and buggy age. So, instead of having to find a vacant lot near the downtown shopping area, city planners could just build a lot to meet the need. And as more people began buying cars, more cities and stores planned for parking spaces.
During those initial years also came multi-storey parking garages — in large part because the first cars were not weather-resistant. Plus, a vertical storage solution reduced the need to take up long stretches of real estate that would be necessary to park the same number of cars.
All this, in turn, enabled the rapid adoption of the automobile and the growth of suburban enclaves. You no longer had to plan to buy a home within a close distance to your job; you could buy a car and move right on out of the city, because wherever you were moving had likely been developed to accommodate the vehicle.
So, the next time you’re tackling a roundabout at rush hour, or you’re looking at a home in a suburb, or you’re struggling to find a parking spot in a jammed airport garage, just remember: you have William Phelps Eno to thank.