Streets are for people, remember?


The next time you’re standing at the side of a street waiting for a light to indicate when you can cross or the next time you call someone a “jaywalker”, remember the history of the modern Moloch. The radio blog 99% Invisible examines the emergence of automobiles in cities and the necessity to reframe the street as a natural place for cars, not pedestrians.

Automotive interests banded together under the name Motordom. One of Motordom’s public relations gurus was a man named E. B. Lefferts, who put forth a radical idea: don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness. Lefferts and Motordom sought to exonerate the machine by placing the blame with individuals.

And it wasn’t just drivers who could be reckless—pedestrians could be reckless, too. Children could be reckless.

This subtle shift allowed for streets to be re-imagined as a place where cars belonged, and where people didn’t. Part of this re-imagining had to do with changing the way people thought of their relationship to the street. Motordom didn’t want people just strolling in.

So they coined a new term: “Jay Walking.”

People used to walk freely through the street as they desired. If you wanted to get to the other side, there was no button to push or designated crosswalk, you just walked across. The street was a public space for walking, playing and interacting with other people. So why, even now, can’t pedestrians cross the street whenever and wherever they want?  Why are there laws that prevent pedestrians from walking through the street?

Because it would interrupt the movement of cars, rendering the utility of a fast moving vehicle useless and crushing the perceived benefits of automobile travel. This desire to preserve the utility of motordom has become so entrenched in our assumptions of urban mobility that pedestrians will continue to go out of their way to cross the street at an intersection. They will continue to wait for a light before entering the street. And they will continue to feel guilty about not doing any of these things!

The intersection of Broadway and Cambie is a product of the desire to preserve the movement of vehicle traffic.

Cambie and Broadway, major transit hub

Cambie and Broadway – a conflict zone for pedestrians and cars

Streets on Granville Island are designed to be flexible. They are narrow, constructed with pavers/bricks and great for strolling. Pedestrians walk where they want and cars can move no faster than about 15km/h – which is not only safer for both drivers and pedestrians, it would be enough to seriously question why you’re in a car and not walking.

Granville Island

Granville Island

granville island 2

Granville Island street space

Read about Chicago’s Complete Streets Design Guidelines plan being implemented this summer. “The fact is that the transit user is also a pedestrian, a cyclist is also a pedestrian, an auto user is also a pedestrian. You may not chose the other modes every day, but every day you’re a pedestrian.”



Feature Image credit: Vancity Buzz


One response to “Streets are for people, remember?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s