Population Statistic: Read. React. Repeat.
Thursday, November 05, 2021

It’s no secret that American urban/suburban planning since the early 20th Century has been decidedly car-centric, to the detriment of pedestrian egress. The groundwork for automotive primacy started with a psychological tar-and-feathering of the traditional two-legged road presence:

The very word “jaywalk” is an interesting — and not historically neutral — one. Originally an insult against bumptious “jays” from the country who ineptly gamboled on city sidewalks, it was taken up by a coalition of pro-automobile interests in the 1920s, notes historian Peter D. Norton in his book Fighting Traffic. “Before the American city could be physically reconstructed to accommodate automobiles, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where cars belong,” he writes. “Until then, streets were regarded as public spaces, where practices that endangered or obstructed others (including pedestrians) were disreputable. Motorists’ claim to street space was therefore fragile, subject to restrictions that threatened to negate the advantages of car ownership.” And so, where newspapers like the New York Times once condemned the “slaughter of pedestrians” by cars and defended the right to midblock crossings — and where cities like Cincinnati weighed imposing speed “governors” for cars — after a few decades, the focus of attention had shifted from marauding motorists onto the reckless “jaywalker.”

The genesis of the “don’t play in the street” rule that most of us grew up with. If you’re not in a car, you don’t belong on the road (and it is a four-wheel minimum in this vehicular terrain — bikes and motorcycles are only barely tolerated).

In the automobile’s defense: Where else are they supposed to traverse? It’s not like a driver can opt for a shortcut on the sidewalk — s/he had to stick to the asphalt. A sensible delineation of pedestrian/automotive spaces, with ample room for both sidewalks and roadways, should be the goal. It’s when, for instance, residential subdivisions are built with nothing but lawn-edging roads that the balance is thrown out of whack.

Still, I’m glad I can traverse the streets of New York with the occasional outside-the-lines crossing, with little chance of getting collared for a jaywalking offense. Foot- and wheel-based traffic flows generally find a harmony in this tightly-packed urbanscape.

by Costa Tsiokos, Thu 11/05/2021 11:23 PM
Category: History, Society
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