How pedestrians were driven from our cities' streets--and why it is bad for everyone | The Baffler

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Historically, city streets had been part of the public realm. Vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, playing children, and public-transit streetcars all used them, but the pedestrian dominated. Crossing the street on foot was a simple matter of walking from one side to another. Due to their mechanical power, fast speeds, and need for large amounts of physical space, cars upset this mix of uses and posed a new mortal danger to pedestrians exercising their right to mobility. So starting in the 1920s, automakers and their allies led a coordinated effort to “socially reconstruct” American city streets, as historian Peter D. Norton writes — shifting responsibility for maintaining road safety away from drivers and onto pedestrians.

For some time, pedestrians were the clear winners of this battle, at least in the court of public opinion. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, cars were playthings of the rich, and traffic collisions led to widespread moral outrage on behalf of the thousands of pedestrians who were killed each year (mostly children and the elderly). But over time, the mechanical might of automobiles effectively allowed drivers to bully their way into dominance: “Whatever the legitimacy of their claim to street space, the motoring minority had the power to drive pedestrians from the pavements,” Norton writes. “Fearful for their safety, nonmotorists learned to limit their own access to streets and to caution their children to look both ways before crossing.”

Soon, this advantage in physical force was written into laws and social mores. Based on a law enacted in Los Angeles in 1925, auto-industry trade associations began to craft “model” traffic ordinances that privileged cars over pedestrians, and encouraged transportation officials around the country to adopt them. These ordinances placed strict controls on pedestrian movement and reserved the vast majority of street space for cars, even though motorists were still a significant minority in U.S. cities. Such car-centric legislation found allies within the nascent profession of traffic engineering, whose original purpose was to design highways in rural areas. Traffic experts at state highway departments excelled at building roads connecting towns to each other, but few of them understood the very different needs of a busy urban streetscape.

MoBikeFed comment: This is a long, in-depth article that is well worth a read--whether you agree or disagree with its conclusions.

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