How streets came to be for cars and not for pedestrians

There is little doubt that American streets and roads are typically made to optimize the driving experience. It wasn’t always this way:

According to Peter Norton, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the change is no accident (so to speak). He has done extensive research into how our view of streets was systematically and deliberately shifted by the automobile industry, as was the law itself.

“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”

Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s…

Norton explains that in the automobile’s earliest years, the principles of common law applied to crashes. In the case of a collision, the larger, heavier vehicle was deemed to be at fault. The responsibility for crashes always lay with the driver.

Public opinion was on the side of the pedestrian, as well. “There was a lot of anger in the early years,” says Norton. “A lot of resentment against cars for endangering streets.” Auto clubs and manufacturers realized they had a big image problem, Norton says, and they moved aggressively to change the way Americans thought about cars, streets, and traffic. “They said, ‘If we’re going to have a future for cars in the city, we have to change that. They’re being portrayed as Satan’s murdering machines.'”

A fascinating story: as the car became more popular and the auto industry banded together, understandings of streets changed. If you look at old pictures of streets before the 1920s, they often seem like the Wild West: there are carts big and small (plus animals providing the power), pedestrians, sometimes electric streetcars, and more.

This reminds me of the efforts of New Urbanists to redesign streets so that cars become less dominant. They typically suggest several changes: reducing the width of the road, allowing cars to park on both sides of the road (this makes drivers more cautious), and putting trees close to the edges of the road to create another barrier between cars and pedestrians.

The suburban critic James Howard Kunstler is also fond of showing pictures of barren intersections where multiple 4-6 lane roads come together and the scale dwarfs even the most hardy pedestrians.

It is amusing to think of cars being portrayed today as “Satan’s murdering machines” – even though car accidents are a leading cause of death.

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