When Cars Were The Intruders

The MIT Press Reader has a fascinating extract from a book called “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”, by Peter Norton. The piece is about the early 1920’s in America, and focuses on how Americans struggled to get used to the idea that cars were going to be around in ever increasing numbers:

City people saw the car not just as a menace to life and limb, but also as an aggressor upon their time-honored rights to city streets. “The pedestrian,” explained a Brooklyn man, “as an American citizen, naturally resents any intrusion upon his prior constitutional rights.”  Custom and the Anglo-American legal tradition confirmed pedestrians’ inalienable right to the street. In Chicago in 1926, as in most cities, “nothing” in the law “prohibits a pedestrian from using any part of the roadway of any street or highway, at any time or at any place as he may desire.” So noted the author of a traffic survey commissioned by the Chicago Association of Commerce.  According to Connecticut’s first Motor Vehicle Commissioner, Robbins Stoeckel, the most restrictive interpretation of pedestrians’ rights was that “All travelers have equal rights on the highway.” 


Even more amazingly, at least to my twenty-first century ears:

In New York City’s traffic court in 1923, a judge explained that “Nobody has any inherent right to run an automobile at all.” Rather, “the courts have held that the right to operate a motor vehicle is a privilege given by the state, not a right, and that privilege may be hedged about with whatever limitations the state feels to be necessary, or it may be withdrawn entirely.”  The law would not deprive pedestrians of their customary rights so that motorists could roam at will in cities.


We’ve come a very long way since! I and a good friend of mine, Binoy Mascarenhas, have had quite a few arguments about the redevelopment of many streets in Pune city in terms of the widening of footpaths, and whether it makes sense or not. My contention has been that this (the redevelopment) definitely makes sense eventually, but the current high priority problem for Pune city is better public transport. Widening footpaths (and thereby narrowing streets) ought to be done only if we can increase the percentage of people traveling by public transport. Once that is done, we should absolutely make our cities more pedestrian friendly. Binoy is going to be in Pune this weekend, and I look forward to continuing the debate.

But I found it amazing to note that there was a time when the cultural adoption of a car as an inevitability on our streets was a new phenomenon. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious – the car, and the mental model of it as being top dog on the streets – required a change in how folks would have viewed the streets back then. But even so, the idea that, for example, some passages in the excerpt made me sit up:

Some even defended children’s right to the roadway. Instead of urging parents to keep their children out of the streets, a Philadelphia judge attacked motorists for usurping children’s rights to them. He lectured drivers in his courtroom. “It won’t be long before children won’t have any rights at all in the streets,” he complained. As the usurper, the motorist, not the child, should be restricted: “Something drastic must be done to end this menace to pedestrians and to children in particular.” 


Maybe I’m far too much of a modern day individual, but I genuinely struggle to see how we could adopt our cities today to a pedestrian first framework. The volume of traffic seems far too high, and we seem far too dependent on our vehicles for us to even try and imagine what something like this might look like at a city scale.

But there was, it would seem, a time when this was not just possible, but was actually reality. At what costs, and with what benefits – and should we aspire to return back to those presumably idyllic times, is a question I look forward to debating about this weekend.

And, of course, one more book has been added to the pile. So it goes.

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