Whose streets? The further marginalization of walking in our cities

On the front page of a 1923 edition of the New York Times, the headline blazed, “NATION ROUSED AGAINST MOTOR KILLINGS.” Below, a picture of a now-antique motor car driven by the grim reaper painted just how the nation viewed the invasion of the automobile onto its streets. As cars became prevalent on urban and countryside streets alike in the 1910s and ‘20s, one of the largest shifts in the makeup of human settlements was beginning, and we are now witnesses to the final results. As cars sped down the city streets that had been used by citizens of all ages, abilities, and walks of life for the past 10,000 years, people (especially children) began dying at an alarming rate. Indeed, even today, motor vehicle crashes are the number one cause of death for children aged 5-24.* Not guns, drowning, nor disease, but car crashes.

Courtesy of  The New York Times

Courtesy of The New York Times

Contrast the New York Times headline with a June 24th opinion piece by the editors of The Berkshire Eagle titled, “PEDESTRIANS LOSE CONFLICTS WITH CARS.”** How did we get to the point of throwing our hands up at the danger posed by these two-ton machines in which we transport ourselves around? We now simply tell our citizens that “you lose, cars win?” The answer, of course, has nothing to do with any laws of nature, nor edicts from a higher power, but political choices made by our leaders to make driving more important than other forms of transportation. Over the past century, we decided that the space between the buildings we built (commonly called the “street”) was now a highly-regulated, high-stakes conduit for moving automobiles, with scraps left over for other people, who are unable or unwilling to drive, to use. It is not “how it’s always been.”

A city cannot have “jaywalking” without crosswalks, because the concept of “jaywalking” did not exist before crosswalks did. In a nutshell, since we decided that the car should have priority over our streets, and it was inconvenient to slow down or stop for people crossing from one side to the other wherever they want, traffic engineers designated places and times to walk across the street. Now, cars could drive faster and longer, without stopping, than ever before. And if the driver struck someone crossing outside the designated space or time, then it was the victim’s fault for being unaware of their surroundings and the way things worked in the city: a “jay.”

The portmanteau of “jaywalker” was coined by automotive lobbyists and advertisers as a way of turning on its head the negative press being generated about their deadly products. The people getting hit by cars are impeding the progress and growth of the city. As big cities caught onto the idea in the guise of “forward thinking,” police officers began to publicly shame people who did not fall in line and who crossed against signals or outside of crosswalks. Boy Scout troops would pass out informational flyers to educate citizens on how not to be “jays.” The street space that all could use for walking, chatting, peddling, pedaling, taking the streetcar, playing games, or just existing, became a conduit for moving in two directions (or sometimes one) at high speed. Traffic noise increased, sidewalks narrowed, street life dwindled. As paint, signs, and signals made the streets more orderly, traffic could move faster, and it wasn’t long until free movement by car across town was taken for granted.

How city streets look to people not inside cars. (Source unknown)

How city streets look to people not inside cars. (Source unknown)

Credit: Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Poster illustrated by Isadore Posoff, 1937

Credit: Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Poster illustrated by Isadore Posoff, 1937

Can you spot the “jaywalkers” in this photo of North Street? Are they “jaywalking” even though crosswalks had not been invented yet? (via Library of Congress, ca. 1908-1915)

Can you spot the “jaywalkers” in this photo of North Street? Are they “jaywalking” even though crosswalks had not been invented yet? (via Library of Congress, ca. 1908-1915)

We can still change the paradigm of “people lose, cars win.” All it takes is a willingness to try something “new.” I say “new” because it is actually a concept that has existed for 10,000 years: Let the people use the street. Not every street exclusively, of course, but at least with priority on the important streets. Is it so unorthodox to have drivers proceed cautiously down a street with the expectation that someone on foot could cross anywhere? Paint does not provide any protection as it is. If Pittsfield wants to be an attractive 21st century post-industrial city, it cannot be stuck in 20th century thinking. Let us not throw our hands up at the manufactured problem of “jaywalking” without taking a look at what the real danger and interloper on city streets is. We can continue to live in the American reality of using cars to get around, while also making sure they are kept in check with human-scaled, people friendly street design. Limit car speeds with hard infrastructure, put our important destinations close together, and most importantly, remember that the spaces between our buildings can be anything we want them to be. We will be amazed at how much closer-knit the community can be once we learn how to stop traffic from tearing it apart.

Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA, where cars are welcome but treated as guests. (Photo by the author)

Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA, where cars are welcome but treated as guests. (Photo by the author)

A street where “jaywalking” cannot exist. La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain. (Source:  https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/barcelona-spain-june-02-crowded-la-151691564?src=gXgL5dp6L_nJew4OMw1EbA-1-0 )

A street where “jaywalking” cannot exist. La Rambla, Barcelona, Spain. (Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/barcelona-spain-june-02-crowded-la-151691564?src=gXgL5dp6L_nJew4OMw1EbA-1-0)