Charlotte Leis

December 6, 2017

A Brief History of Car Domination

Before cars existed, horse-drawn carriages, streetcars, and pedestrians shared the roads, freely interacting (although pedestrians tended to dominate). The occasional car drove slower than a person could run, and was just another street user expected to share the road with others.

A NYC street before cars took over

With the invention of the Model T – mass-produced, cheaper, and faster – the balance between pedestrians and cars changed. Car crashes killed large numbers of pedestrians (and accounted for 2/3 of the total death toll in some cities) and while drivers were rightfully seen as the perpetrators, they managed to eventually shift blame for accidents towards pedestrians. Cities began threatening to limit driving speeds to 25mph, but car proponents fought back. They pushed for laws criminalizing pedestrian rather than vehicular behaviors, and shaming people who broke the law by calling them “jaywalkers” (“jay” essentially meant “hick”). Their efforts were clearly successful, and now we think of roads as places for cars.

Early media coverage of car accidents

The invention of AVs represents an equally important chance to change our cities. During the 1920s, we chose cars over people. Just like car manufacturers, AVs proponents argue that we should change cities and people to fit the needs of their new technology. But at the same time, some of the proposals that arose when cars were widely introduced are resurfacing – speed limits of 25mph, for example.

Depending on the policy choices we make, we can either return to city streets that prioritize pedestrians, or we can continue pushing for technology to fix problems created by technology. (AVs are meant to reduce deaths from car crashes, but if we had made better decisions in the 1920s and 30s there might not be so many crashes to begin with.) Instead of planning for AVs and then figuring out how that affects people, we should plan for people and then decide how (and if) AVs fit into the mix.

On a related note:

A more recent video that I saw on Facebook that shows how car-proponents are continuing to try and shift the blame for accidents to pedestrians. The billboard makes the pedestrians think they are going to be hit by a car when crossing during the “don’t walk” phase. These sorts of scare tactics are meant to reinforce the perception that cars have a right to the street and pedestrians are occasional interlopers who “take the risk of facing death” if they dare step out of their designated area to get to wherever they need to go.

Additionally, France recently passed a new law that allows pedestrians to cross the street
Charlotte Leis
Urban Studies