Recently, as I was once again honked at with no place to move, I thought of the recent 99 Percent Invisible podcast on The Modern Moloch. In it Roman Mars interviews Peter Norton who describes how the powerful forces behind the automobile aka "Motordom" had a major public relations victory as it convinced us that the person responsible for safety was the victim rather than the operator of the vehicle. Today it's considered normal (at least in North America) that streets are for motor vehicles primarily and that people are only tolerated at best. (Photo credit: Privileged Sport, Puck. Library of Congress, The Invention of Jay-walking.)
In the early 1900s, before the advent of mass usage of the automobile, things were quite different. Nothing went faster than 10 miles per hour. People crossed the street wherever they wanted because it was easy to avoid collisions in slow moving traffic. Like in this early film of Market Street in San Francisco:
The arrival of cars changed this and people were outraged by the children and adults being killed. It's hard to believe it but there were calls to ban or put tight controls on automobiles. There were even comparisons of automobiles to Moloch, the god to which the Ammonites sacrificed their children. And reminiscent of modern ghost bike memorial rides for killed cyclists, "cities held parades and built monuments in memory of children who had been struck and killed by cars" (link)
But powerful forces behind automobiles (which called themselves "Motordom") created a shift in public consciousness through some crafty public relations. "Don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness." As Mars notes, "this subtle shift allowed for streets to be re-imagined as a place where cars belonged, and where people didn’t." So this is where the term "Jay Walking" went from being applied to a country bumpkin to being "rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time".
The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law. (The Atlantic Cities)
Putting people first
We are now looking at this from the opposite end. Advocates are attempting to kick the car off its pedestal. The two pronged tactic involves changing mindsets on the one hand, and changing the infrastructure on the other.
Streetsblog has been working long to change mindsets with their regular online feature Weekly Carnage which shines a light on car crashes and traffic deaths/injuries. Inevitably very few drivers are changed. Transportation Alternatives of NYC also has an ongoing "Vision Zero NYC" campaign that wants the simple goals of zero deaths, zero injuries, zero fear of traffic. Like Motordom's PR campaign to blame the victim, the Vision Zero campaign is most powerful in changing peoples' mindsets. And in many cities, including Toronto, there are memorial rides whenever a cyclist is killed by a motorist.
The mindset isn't enough. Just as Motordom successfully rebuilt our cities around the automobile, now nothing less than a major restructuring is necessary to take back some space. That includes proper cycling infrastructure, better sidewalks and calmed streets so kids can once again go play in the middle of them.