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a right, and that privilege may be hedged about with whatever limitations the state feels to be necessary, or it may be withdrawn entirely.”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.

Back to College

I am very interested in the future of higher education.

I have learnt much more outside of the classroom than inside, and this was truest when I was a student. I want to stick around in higher education because I want to try and change this for everybody in college today.

Change it through two ways:

  1. Make classes more interesting than they were back in my day. Also make them more interesting than the typical run-of-the-mill classroom experience today. (This is a hard problem, it requires hard work and it does not scale. But learning how to teach better is an invaluable experience.)
  2. Help change college into something more than drab old sit-in-class for six hours a day, six days a week. What a horrible way to learn!

This current semester, I want to try and get as many projects off the ground as possible. This has meant getting some BSc students started on projects of their own, it has meant involving some of them in work I am currently engaged in, and it has meant trying to get some workshops going.

Some of these things will stick, and grow into something much larger than just my involvement. Others will fail. That’s ok. This semester is about trying out new things.

One of these things is a podcast.

I had tried this out in 2019 (link here), completely as a solo effort, but I got only five episodes in. 2020 is a mess I’d rather forget. And now, in 2021, we’re back with another season of Back to College.

What is Back to College?

The idea is simple: speak to people about how they would approach college differently, if they got the chance to do it all over again.

  • What would you do more of, what would you do less of?
  • What technologies that are available today would have been a blessing, and how could they also have been a curse?
  • Is bunking a science or an art? How should you choose which classes to bunk, and which to not – and why?
  • How would you have built out networks better?
  • Would you give exams the same importance with the benefit of hindsight? Why or why not?
  • Which books helped you?
  • How overrated are textbooks, or are they not? Why?
  • What in your current job are you able to do well because of what you learnt in college?
  • What in your current job makes you wish you had been taught differently in college?
  • … and the list goes on and on and on.

We’re beginning with Gokhale alumni, and we’ll add more folks in as we go along. But the idea is to build a repository of interviews for folks to listen to, any time, to get an idea about the careers they want to get into.

And this time around, it ain’t a solo effort. I have the energy of youth on my side! Praneet, Rahul, Vaishnavi, Simran, Shashank, Jay, Anshi, Nivida and Amogh are helping me out on this project, and the hope is that eventually, this will become a completely student run thing.

New episodes will be up every Friday, and we have two out already. Neha Sinha spoke with me about public policy, and Binoy Mascarenhas and I chatted about urbanization. In each case, of course, I touched upon some of the questions above. This Friday will be a conversation I had with Rohith Jyothish on understanding the ‘P’ in GIPE.

Please do give it a listen, and to all the GIPE alumni reading this, please – pretty please! – don’t hesitate to reach out if you think you would like to be on the podcast. We’ll set up a time at your convenience. (Non-GIPE folks, same offer applies to you in about a couple of months. I’ll do another post then).

Thank you, as always, for reading – and now for listening too!

Learn Urbanization with Binoy Mascarenhas

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and there’s more than one way to learn.

One of these ways is conversations. And so I decided to teach myself a little bit about urbanization, by speaking with a guy who’s been working in the field for a little more than a decade or so.

In this six part series (at least), Binoy Mascarenhas and I aim to speak about urbanization, and how it is a truly wonderful thing when done right.

Each episode will last for about 45 minutes, and the first one covered cities and Covid-19, a list of topics that future episodes will deal with, and Binoy’s list of cities in India that got urbanization wrong (among other things).

Delhi and Bangalore were obvious picks, but the third one might surprise you, especially if you are unfamiliar with the topic of urbanization (it’s Chandigarh).

In future conversations, you will learn about

  1. the impact of cities on the environment,
  2. urban densities
  3. mixed use neighborhoods
  4. transport policies and how they impact urbanization
  5. mistakes to avoid when doing urban planning

We speak about all of this and more in the video, and new videos will come out every Tuesday. Each video will have an associated set of links for you to read later, given in the description box below. I hope you take the time to read them, and I would love it if you would share your own links as well.

Here’s the video, please enjoy: