Traffic jams in 1930s Prague

Wenceslas Square

In the 1930s Prague was a modern city, with a passion for innovation. New buildings were springing up, celebrating the technology of steel, chrome and glass, jazz and swing were playing on the radio, and despite the impact of the world economic crisis, the Czech love of the motor-car was growing fast. One of the gems in our pre-war archives is a report from 1st January 1936 on the city's first traffic light. The intrepid reporter is standing at a busy Prague crossroads, and we hear the traffic roaring around him.

Wenceslas Square
"Hello, hello! We are at the big junction at Mustek at the bottom of Wenceslas Square..."

He goes on to describe a scene, which must have seemed more than a little exotic to millions of Czechs and Slovaks listening in provincial towns and villages.

"In the middle there is a police standpoint, painted in red and white stripes, and above it a traffic light... Vehicles on Wenceslas Square are now heading downwards into the street Na mustku. The light is turning green. It's all clear! Pedestrians are crossing from one pavement to the other at a point indicated by metal markers in the road. Vehicles are going straight ahead or making a small arc to the left or a bigger arc to turn right .... But they can't go on... Several vehicles are stuck in the middle of the crossroads... They want to turn right, but their way is blocked.... The light is turning yellow... The policeman has raised his hand... We have a yellow light. Look out! Get ready! The direction is changing! The junction has cleared and for a moment everything has gone quiet. And now it's red. Red calls! Stop! Wait! We're waiting while vehicles cut across from Na prikope Street to 28th October Street.... The light is turning yellow. Look out! Pedestrians are getting ready, drivers are going into first, their feet are on the gas! Look out! Look out! GREEN!"

And if you are wondering why the cars turning right were stuck in the middle of the junction, remember that back in 1936 Czechs still drove on the left!

From today's perspective the report sounds comic, but it is worth pointing out that this is an early example of an outside broadcast - an experiment in modern broadcasting. And it certainly does capture the atmosphere.

Foreigners who visited Prague were often surprised to find such a modern, bustling city. Here is an American professor, who visited Prague with a study group in July 1937 and came into the radio to talk about his impressions.

"I spoke a moment ago about this city of Prague being an old city, and yet in a very real sense we have found it to be a new city. The very day we arrived we were impressed by it. To drive from our railroad station to our hotel we passed through the archways of three towers dating back to the Middle Ages, we crossed the oldest stone bridge [sic] in Europe, we passed by the most famous clock, perhaps, of all clocks in the world, and yet, when we arrived in our hotel, we found the most modern furnishings, the most up-to-date equipment for the comfort, the most attractive beauty of our modern styles. So we have found that in this city there is a unique union of the beauty of an old world and the up-to-date smart and attractive newness of the very best of modern life."

That was Professor Miller [the archives do not give his first name], an American visiting Prague in 1937, and judging from his enthusiasm, he clearly managed to avoid the traffic jams.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on November 15, 2007.

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