Photo by Rich Renomeron on Flickr.
Every new bike lane, speed camera, or change in parking requirements becomes an attack in what organizations like AAA decry as a “War on Cars.” But in the 1920s, there was a different war over our streets. And pedestrians lost.
At one time, citizens fought to keep their streets for people. But by the 1920s, cars were appearing in ever-greater numbers on the streets of American cities, and the war on pedestrians began. By 1929, motorists could declare victory, and pedestrians, especially children, paid the price.
In April, design-focused podcast 99% Invisible covered the war on pedestrians, from which motorists emerged victorious. Dubbed “The Modern Moloch,” the episode is named after the ancient god of the Ammonites, who received children sacrifices in the name of prosperity. A 1923 editorial cartoon in the St. Louis Star depicts Moloch’s altar as the grill of a car. Host Roman Mars leads listeners through the narrative.
Before the car became king, streets were for all users. Pedestrians could just stride right out into the street. Traffic on the street, horses, streetcars, and motor cars moved at very slow speeds.
With a growing mass of automobiles, drivers tried to go faster. By 1923, according to the episode, over 17,000 people were being killed by cars each year. That was up from just 12,000 in 1920, a 47% increase. The outcry was loud. People held parades to memorialize the dead, and cities began to propose laws that would make it difficult to drive.
The issue came to a head in 1923, when Cincinnati voters put an initiative on the ballot to require that every car have a governor which would limit speeds. Car manufacturers realized that if it became too difficult to drive in cities, people wouldn’t buy cars and instead choose transit or other modes.
The car lobby responded by taking the approach that cars weren’t dangerous, people were. Drivers can be reckless, they said, but then so can pedestrians. However, Americans weren’t sold on the idea of a reckless pedestrian. The lobby began to use the word “jaywalking” as a way to coerce pedestrians to cross only at corners, mainly though peer pressure. Los Angeles passed the first anti-jaywalking law in 1924.
In 1929, the first cloverleaf in America opened, and motorists could declare victory over pedestrians. Over the following years, cities began to require parking spaces, streets were widened by highway departments. And pedestrians got further and further marginalized in a nation that droves more and more miles every year.
Last December, an episode called “Built for Speed” brings the story forward to the present. What does the design of our streets tell us about driving?
Mars interviews author Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. He notes that no matter what speed limit signs tell drivers, the context of our roads often encourages us to drive faster. They also tell us not to walk.
The episode talks about street trees as an example of how the changing design philosophy encourages drivers to go faster and encourages pedestrians to not walk. In the early 20th century, communities planted trees between the curb and the sidewalk, giving pedestrians shade and creating a buffer between the sidewalk and car traffic.
But after World War II, traffic engineers began to rethink the design. At high speeds, a tree can be deadly in a crash. So instead, designers moved the trees to the other side of the sidewalk. This, of course, makes pedestrians the buffer. But it also makes the road feel wider, and that encourages drivers to go faster.
In 2001, 42,196 people were killed in motor vehicle collisions in the United States. That same year, a terrorist attack in September killed 2,996 on American soil. The September 11 attacks were a call to arms for Americans, and resulted in billions being spent on the war in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan war, now America’s longest conflict, has resulted in the deaths of 14,449 allied soldiers (2,260 American troops) and 19,013 civilians, a total of 33,462 over 11 years. In the period from 2001 to present, 460,536 people have been killed in motor vehicle collisions in the United States.
The “War on Cars” may have resulted in fewer fatalities. But last year 32,367 people were still killed in car crashes.
The deaths of almost 3,000 people in terrorist attacks was enough to spur an actual war. But when more than 10 times as many people die in crashes every year, it seems that most consider it just the cost of doing business. These deaths are simply sacrifices to our modern Moloch; the people we sacrifice in the name of prosperity.
And whenever a government tries to make our streets safer, especially for vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists, the auto lobby says drivers are victims of a “War on Cars.”
Cities around the nation are working on projects to reclaim public spaces in our cities for people. Programs like New York City’s Public Plaza projects and other traffic calming initiatives are making streets safer for everyone.
That’s not a war on cars, that’s a war on death and injury. Pedestrians and cyclists can indeed coexist with motorists. But not when they’re marginalized and subjected to missing sidewalks, speeding drivers, and other hostile conditions.
Our communities can be prosperous without offering up our most vulnerable road users as sacrifices. But it requires a rethinking of what our roads are built for. So long as “speed” is the answer, pedestrians and cyclists will pay the price. So will many unfortunate motorists.