When Pedestrians Ruled The Streets

How Cars Captured Our Streets

It may seem difficult to imagine, but there was a time that our cities existed before cars. Today our city streets are clogged with stopped cars, honking horns and endless on street parking, all of which is occasionally interrupted by pedestrian crosswalks that drivers universally feel are somehow a nuisance. In the most progressive of cities, we sometimes see a few blocks of roads reserved for pedestrians: Times Square New York, Downtown Crossing Boston, Church Street Burlington. But imagine yourself standing in New York in 1900. What would it be like?

6th Ave. New York,  NY 1903

What happened to our cities? The automotive industry voted us out of our streets.

America: 1900

Our city streets existed as endless open-air marketplaces. Pedestrians shuffled about, conducting their business freely, strolling from place to place. Well developed networks of trains and trolleys moved us efficiently over long distances. Until the introduction of the Model T in 1908, this was largely the status quo.

At first, cars were wildly unpopular within cities. Pedestrians, whose rights of way had never been questioned in the streets, found themselves suddenly interspersed with high-speed steel deathtraps. Cars were essentially the monsters that vowed to trample innocent people in the streets. Take a look at this photo in the New York Times from the early 1920's. It literally depicts a car with a skull faced driver crushing children. At this time parents might think "What kind of idiot would drive in the street where my kids are playing?"

Death rates from pedestrian / car crashes rose and rose endlessly. The public at large was anti-car, at least at that time. The auto industry did not rest silently.

Cars Win The Battle For Streets

Slowly but surely, the norm began to change. By the 1910's, streets had become so dangerous across the country that cities had to act. Beginning in New York, traffic rules were gradually adopted. At first, cities regulated speed limits to about 10 MPH in an attempt to keep pedestrians safe. When this wasn't enough, they began using "Silent Policemen" cones to regulate left-turn lanes. 

This did little to help. By 1930, more than 200,000 Americans had been killed by cars, and the majority of these deaths were among children. 

In 1924 came one of the final pushes for pedestrians to remain in control of the streets. Cincinnati attempted to pass an ordinance requiring vehicle speeds within the city to be regulated mechanically to no more than 25 MPH. At this speed, few collisions were fatal. The auto industry launched a campaign comparing Cincinnati residents to "the backward Chinese" and the measure was defeated.

In 1927, the right of way was officially taken from pedestrians by the National Conference for Street and Highway Safety. President Hoover mandated that pedestrians were officially only allowed to cross streets at crosswalks or when traffic was not present. 

In 1928, the American Automobile Association, or AAA, sent memos to all public schools in America. Children were to be taught slogans such as 'why I should not play in the street' or 'why the street is for cars.' The derogatory term "Jaywalker" was soon developed to describe dull pedestrians who crossed into traffic. The age of the open-air street marketplace was dead.

America: 2014

The trend only continued over time. Suburbs sprawled out as cities reduced density. Streets and highways became wider and parking surfaces came to dominate cities. We now live in a world where pedestrian access to roads seems almost unimaginable. In fact, today, unless you are drunk, if you hit a pedestrian while driving and kill them, you will likely not be punished. Take a look at how our cities have changed. Here's a picture of Los Angeles today.

Today parents might think "What kind of idiot would I be to let my children play in the streets?"