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I just finished a terrific history this week: “Fighting Traffic”, by Peter D. Norton.  He details the exact years in the 1920s when we changed from a nation of people to a nation of cars.

For millennia, streets were mixed between walkers and horsedrawn freight carriages.   Sidewalks only became necessary where horsefilth and household waste made the streets into actual sewers.  This was the case in ancient Roman cites, with their dramatically raised sidewalks and stepping stone cross walks designed to fit wagon wheels only of a certain (now familiar) gauge.  This situation of grimy roads and refuge sidewalks was also the case in the better parts of 17th century European cities, and in late 19th century American cities.  Dandies of the 17th century city wore short-pants and knee socks to keep their pants clean while crossing the street  You had to pay sweepers to clear a path for you across the street on these avenues, if you wanted to keep your socks clean.

The good thing about this was that the real perilous filth was confined to the freight and commercial arterial  streets.  The rest of the streets were largely walking streets.  Kids played in them, and vendors hawked wares along them.  For example, I visited a street stand in India for farm-fresh milk (Raw!) in Delhi in 2006.  It was right in the middle of the street for good visibility along its residential block.

The first disturbances to that ancient order were horsecars and stage coaches.  These were still on the main streets, so they weren’t endangering the children on the side streets.  Then came the bicycle, which could move faster than any horse, but lighter.  Being hit by a bicycle, even moving 2-3 times faster than a 3-4 MPH horse was bruising, but rarely fatal.  Bikes were not tied to rails and routes, and could move freely into the most cozy alleys.  Bikers wanted to be in the countryside anyway, since pedaling through the muck of main streets or the crowds of side streets was a slow and noisome affair.  As the first common self-propelled vehicles, they were the first to push for paving roads in the 1880s, when the automobile was still a steam or electric powered novelty.  The roads they got paved first were lightly trafficked, scenic boulevards like Montgomery Avenue in Philadelphia and Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn.  Close enough to home to reach, but clear enough of traffic to be drivable.

The next disturbance was the car.  It took 30-50 years for the car to take off in America, from the first auto race in the 1870s to the sales boom of the 1920s.  Much slower than the trolley, which spread quickly between 1888 to 1900.  The car was a rich man’s toy, next a farmer’s affordable and fussy hauler, then finally a coach for urban arrivistes.

The car moved freely through all the streets and began killing walkers who were used to their right to be in the streets as they saw fit.  Particularly children, who were using the streets as their playgrounds.  The first playground movement between 1880 and 1900 was a progressive reaction to Jacob Riis “How the other half lives”.  Progressives thought the solution to the poor’s ills was in giving them open air and places to play that were not hemmed in by slum and tenement walls.  Playgrounds were adjuncts to the great parks of the 1870 and 1880s.  The second playground movement in the 1920s and 1930s (The one Robert Moses worked on) was all about getting kids off the streets to make room for cars.


George Starkey, 1920

In 1922,  several cities threw memorial parades for their children lost to traffic.  Three fourths of the Philadelphians killed by traffic in 1924 were children, seen as innocents dying at the bumper of reckless “scorchers” (speeding, heedless cars piloted by entitled grandees and their reckless scions).  “White Star Mothers” were honored  for their loss at the fenders of the new, fast, heavy contraptions.  “Gold Star Mothers” were honored further for losing two or more kids to traffic.  Children killed by traffic was such a common issue that the mothers that lost their sons to the great war had to settle for the secondary color Blue.  Safety councils fought to make drivers ever heedful of the monstrosity of their pleasure cars in the cities.

In 1923, Cincinnati considered a governor law, and  car sales sagged for the first time ever, due to the bad publuicity of innocent children killed. Like Wal-Mart today, the car makers could only expand in the cites, so they had to make traffic work in the cities.  Engineers were called in to solve traffic in the same way that they had solved formerly open sewers, formerly black water, and formerly unobtainable electricity.  The challenge was to remove hazardous and inefficient users from the roads.

The vast majority of the people using the street were walkers or streetcar riders.  Traffic was a well heeled and seemingly inconsiderate minority.  In their opinion, the hazardous and inefficent users were obviously the newcomers in their cars. Cars took up a lot of space in the street, and had to be parked along the curb.  A typical block could usually hold less than ten cars. That parking took space for more traffic away from the street.  Unlike horsedrawn carriages, they had a reverse gear, and could by parked in rows.  But this took width from both sides of the street for through traffic.  Traffic was getting a reputation problem.

The gas tax was one solution for traffic.  In 1919, St. Louis was the first municipality, and Oregon was the first state, to impose a gasoline tax for building, paving and maintaining roads.  Motorists and their auto clubs (like AAA) resisted this as yet another Pigouvian tax on their freedom, but came to see by 1923 that they were actually buying the right to the roads.  The shift in attitudes between 1921 and 1927 was striking.  By 1929, all 48 states had a gas tax of some sort, and the auto clubs were in step behind them.

Traffic engineering was another way of controlling traffic.  From William Phelps Eno’s proclamation  that left turns should be circular and not crosscutting, to cornermen enlisted from police, to prominent bollards in the street called “silent policemen”,  the task of traffic control evolved from a police task to an engineer’s practice between 1900 and 1930.  Many of the idioms of traffic control, like signals, curve dimensions, and allowable acceleration forces for passengers, had been worked out by the railroads decades earlier. Engineers and technocrats were the heroes of the progressive era between 1880 and 1930.  They had made open sewers into closed pipe networks routing to early treatment plants,  developed sand and chemical treatment of river water pumped to thirsty citizens downhill of new water tanks, and they had brought electricity to the urban masses.  Electricity: the driver of the miraculous trolley system, which solved the problem of overworked and dying draft horses in the streets pulling streetcars and omnibuses, was another triumph of engineering.  Many of today’s electric utilities got their start as streetcar companies.

Traffic engineers saw the traffic problem differently than policemen.  They were less interested in control than flow and efficiency.  But this was not enough.  If you wanted efficiency of movement and the most people getting where they wanted in a minimum of space, you gave the streets to the packed streetcars and the miniscule pedestrians, and zone in small walkable blocks or allow corner stores.  You would build the way we built before 1920.

The onus of children killed by cars shifted from the heedless motorist in 1921 to the unruly child by 1929.  Safety campaigns shifted from bleeding children at the fenders of cars to gleeful scamps paying heed to dutiful crossing guards.  Cars went from faceless, massive, heavy killing hammers to vehicles piloted by smiling drivers oblivious to doomed children playing in the street.  The moral drama changed from blame to inevitability.  The term “Jaywalker” was coined by 1913, and universally understood by all school children  by 1930.

The gas tax, motorists representing themselves as an oppressed minority, and recasting the street as marketplace rather than a public utility let traffic become the sole occupant of the street.  Traffic engineers became interested in separating walkers from traffic, maximizing lane widths, not economizing space, and applying the demands of traffic for space and right of way.  In 1925, the Traffic code of Los Angeles was the first to prohibit walking across the street outside of crosswalks.  The ancient right to the public street was lost as this code spread to all the cities and states in America by the 1930s.  Engineers extended this interest in separating modes by proposing elevated highways, an idea which became the inspiration for Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, Norman Bel Geddes Futurama, and every urban viaduct in America.

The order of the street as the “sewer for cars” we all take for granted is surprisingly young, and the right to the street is not yet settled.  I’ve gone on too long to spend text on solutions, but I know that the market can still be recast in a way that lets bikers and walkers back into the right of way.  The key is not in the road, but in the land use.  If we want people to walk and bike, we need to make places worth walking and biking to and through.

Cf. “Fighting Traffic” by Peter D. Norton ,  and “Down the Asphalt Path” by Clay McShane


Windsor MacKay, 1925