New Frames for New Ages

A (rather long) essay reflecting on the book Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton (MIT Press, 2008)

The street is an extremely important symbol because your whole enculturation experience is geared around keeping you out of the street.  “Just remember: Look left, look right, look left again… No ball games… Don’t talk to strangers… Keep out of the road.”   The idea is to keep everyone indoors.  So, when you come to challenge the powers that be, inevitably you find yourself on the curbstone of indifference, wondering “should I play it safe and stay on the sidewalks, or should I go into the street?”  And it is the ones who are taking the most risks that will ultimately effect the change in society.

The car system steals the street from under us and sells it back for the price of gasoline.  It privileges time over space, corrupting and reducing both to an obsession with speed or, in economic lingo, “turnover.”  It doesn’t matter who “drives” this system, for its movements are already pre-determined.

— from the website of the London advocacy group “Take Back the Streets”

* * * * *

Imagine you are a member of the majority, and a powerful minority has managed to get the laws changed in such a way as to significantly curtail one of your essential liberties.  What’s more, they then proceeded to abuse your remaining rights and make your life miserable.  As a result, a couple decades later, your majority has become a minority.

There’s no need to imagine.  This is what happened to pedestrians (and to a lesser extent bicyclists) in these United States in the 1920s.

* * * * *

I’m not sure [George is] wrong about automobiles … With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls.  I am not sure.  But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect.  They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring.  They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace.  I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess.  But you can’t have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us.  Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward changes in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles “had no business to be invented.”

— from The Magnificent Ambersons, the 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Booth Tarkington

* * * * *

Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City is a scholarly exploration of the radical changes that happened to our perceptions of streets and traffic in the late 1910s and 1920s.  During that era, motorists were a very small – but fast-growing and affluent – minority.  Norton documents how they managed to change the “construct” (or “frame”) of what a street is for.

I found Norton’s book compelling to pick up because it describes minority street users managing to change the long-held conventions that determined how streets were used; the very same situation bicycling and pedestrian advocates face today.

Fighting Traffic is bit dry and dense in parts; it reads at times like a Ph.D. dissertation. But it is livened throughout by colorful quotes from the newspapers and other records of the age. Most importantly, Norton makes his case rock solid.

In the late 1910s and early 1920s motorists were a wealthy minority who were often limited to speeds of 8 or 10 mph in the cities.  Pedestrians had free reign, wandering the streets as they had for as long as there had been streets.  Until this time they only had to share with other relatively slow users: livestock, ridden horses, horse-drawn carts and carriages, and bicyclists.  (It should be noted however, that bicyclists too were at first seen as a reckless addition to the streets, spooking horses and running down pedestrians, as bicycle law expert Bob Mionske noted in his Road Rights column in the June 2009 Bicycling Magazine.)

The introduction of fast and massive vehicles into this chaotic mix resulted in an alarming increase in fatalities, mostly of pedestrians.  With only 7.5 million cars on the road in 1920 there were 11,000 traffic fatalities (one death for every 680 vehicles per year); about three-quarters were pedestrians, with children highly over-represented.  By comparison, there are about 250 million cars and trucks on our streets today, with an annual death toll of 35,000 to 40,000 (one death per 6,000 vehicles per year); about 5,000 being pedestrians and cyclists. Indeed, we have a much safer system today, but it has not improved much over the past three decades, and some point to air bags and better emergency room care as the reason it has not climbed.

Police in those days saw their role as upholding the existing order.  According to Norton, safety came first, and traffic congestion was none of their concern.  In fact, congestion was seen as keeping speeds down, reducing the severity of crashes.  But motoring and economic interests wished to see “better traffic flow,” and experimented with various new rules and traffic control devices.

Cities experimented with their own unique rules and devices, making things confusing for those traveling from city to city.  Motoring interests often worked with local Safety Councils to improve traffic safety by railing against careless and reckless motorists.

But things changed dramatically in 1923 when the city of Cincinnati, Ohio threatened to pass a law requiring speed governors on all motor vehicles, limiting them to 25 mph.  Much as Texas bicyclists got organized back in the late 1980s when threatened with a cycling ban on many rural roads, motoring interests got seriously activated.  They defeated the Cincinnati referendum and went on to develop a masterful campaign to redefine what streets were for.  There’s nothing like a threat to get people organized.

In the early 1920s, Norton writes, “Motordom claimed that a new age had dawned, making the old customs obsolete.”  Indeed, it was named “The Motor Age.”  A “new age” demanded new ways of thinking and behaving, and new laws to reinforce them.  “Freedom” was their rallying call; the fewer laws the better.  Speed was reframed from a danger to a “right.”  Previously “speed” was considered an integral, and even primary, element of “recklessness;” motordom’s spinmeisters decoupled the two.  Now pedestrians could be deemed “reckless” for doing what they had done for centuries, and motorists could go fast without being called “reckless.”

Part of the strategy was to avoid differentiating between “groups” (motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians) and focus on behaviors (motoring, bicycling, walking).   It’s acceptable to criticize a bad behavior; not to criticize a group of people by association.  But this hinged on whether or not an automobile was considered to be “inherently dangerous.”  If it was, then motorists must be strictly controlled due to the very nature of their vehicles, not their individual actions.  Auto interests won this argument not with any dispassionate assessment of physics, but with better propaganda.

The motoring propaganda machine launched campaigns to blame pedestrians for crashes.  Since there were no Uniform Vehicle Codes, they led the effort to create them, holding the lion’s share of the seats on both state and federal committees writing them.  Support for these changes came from the very top.  Then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover helped motoring interests get what they wished.  Pedestrian interests, having no organization to speak of, had no seat at the table.

Not surprisingly, the new codes limited pedestrians to sidewalks and crosswalks.  Thinking long term, auto interests ran their heaviest propaganda efforts in the elementary schools – “streets are for cars…no playing in the streets.”  The campaign in the streets themselves progressed from ridicule to arrests as police had to uphold the new laws.  With the introduction of traffic signals, officers were no longer needed to control traffic at busy intersections.  Unfortunately for pedestrians, this meant there was no-one there to defend their right-of-way in the crosswalks.  Motorists promptly started using their size and speed to scare pedestrians to the curbs.  Bear in mind that this was in a country where there were only 19 million automobiles but a total population of about 114 million.  Motorists were still well outnumbered, but had the force of law and the power of petroleum on their side.

It’s startling to conceive of how quickly things changed.  In a few short years, pedestrians went from being historic rulers of the streets, to an outcast majority.

States started imposing gas taxes in the early ‘20s.  Initially they were condemned by motoring interests, but in a few short years they realized that gas taxes in effect “bought” them not only more roadway space, but also a stronger claim to “ownership.”  The perception of our streets changed from public spaces and public utilities managed by government for the good of all, to a “commodity” paid for by users.  Pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-motorized users, not paying into this system, now had a lessened economic claim to the streets.

Next came the propaganda of the “forgiving highway,” which began in the late ‘20s.  The belief was that safe highways could be designed that would require very low driving competence.  One need only spend a few minutes on an American street today to see that this was a self-fulfilling prophecy…except for the safety part.

Bicyclists were just collateral damage in this overthrow.  Norton makes very little mention of us.  American adults gave up cycling for motoring and didn’t pick it up again until the 1970s when the first good-quality multi-speed bikes hit the U.S.*  The high-speed “forgiving highway” concept had all but taken over by then.  It was the speed of these new roads that had the biggest impact; combined with the keep-as-far-right-as-practicable laws, it helped push bicyclists literally and figuratively to the edge of the roadway, where they had to suffer the stress and risk of being passed too closely by speed- and time-obsessed motorists.  Being told one was an intruder on “somebody else’s road” only made it worse.

The public relations and social marketing firm Salter-Mitchell, in a new study for Florida Bicycle Association through a Winter Park Health Foundation grant, heard a common refrain from motorists:  “Roads were viewed as ‘belonging’ to cars; cyclists and pedestrians should stay out of the way as much as possible.”

Cops shifted from protecting vulnerable users by upholding their rights, to keeping them out of the way.   Today, even after cops are shown that basic cyclist violations such as no lights, wrong-way riding, and red light running are the primary causes of cyclist/motorist crashes, and that group rides rarely result in crashes with motorists, they still put more focus on group rides because they get in the way of the “rightful owners” of the roads.  Cyclists putting themselves at risk are of little concern; cyclists impeding motorists is evidently a far more serious problem.  Pedestrians fare no better with today’s law enforcement philosophy.  A Florida Highway Patrol officer once said during a discussion of crosswalk laws, “I’m not going to stop six lanes of traffic on SR 436 so some guy can cross the street to get a Frosty at Wendy’s.”  We see law enforcement agencies focusing much more on “jaywalking” than on motorists violating crosswalk laws.  Delaying motorists is evidently the bigger sin.

* * * * *

[T]he automotive city took back much of the freedom it promised….[W]hen street users are free to use cars, the freedom of all street users (including motorists) to use anything else is diminished.  A city rebuilt (socially and physically) to accommodate cars cannot give street users the good choices a truly free market can provide.”

— Peter Norton

* * * * *

The Use of Power

If 1920s motordom had used today’s dominant bicycle advocacy strategies, they would have said: “Give us a place to drive where we won’t get in the way and harm others.”  But they knew that such a strategy would severely constrain their freedom.

What we can learn from their story?  First and foremost is the need to reframe our streets back to their original concept of public space.  Today, as in the 1920s, a “new age has dawned.”  The age of Climate Change and Peak Oil has begun; the Age of Sprawl has ended. In this new age, bicyclists slowing motorists is a good thing.  It’s an age for reclaiming the crosswalks, for building pedestrian-oriented streets (to counter freeways).  It’s an age for letting bicyclists drive in the safest possible manner, which often means in the middle of the lane.  It’s an age in which the definition of “efficiency” must change from speed to space, from speed to real energy conservation.

Building “walkable communities” and “complete streets” is a good effort – it provides incremental improvements for non-motorized travelers – but it’s not enough.  It doesn’t change the frame.  I watch the behavior on Orlando’s supposedly pedestrian-friendly and cyclist-friendly streets and still see far too much “we own these roads” behavior by motorists.  In the 1920s motorists changed the frame of what we today call “walkable communities” into motor-dominated cities.  Only later did they rebuild our cities to accommodate the auto.

Motoring interests used every form of power available to them. They didn’t have much in the way of numbers, but they had political connections, strong financial backing, and organization.  They developed “moral” power by playing the “freedom” and “future” cards. Finally, after they had changed the rules of the game, they could use physical horsepower to intimidate with relative impunity.

Pedestrians today are the weakest street user group.  Their little political strength is “bottom up;” their financial support is scant.  Few people identify themselves as “pedestrians,” so their organization is minimal except in places like New York City.

We bicyclists could be much stronger if we took full advantage of the forms of power we have at hand.  Unlike pedestrians, we are quite well organized; we have the Alliance for Biking and Walking (formerly Thunderhead Alliance), the League of American Bicyclists, numerous state and local advocacy organizations, and still more local clubs, groups rides, and web forums.  (In a way we are even better organized than motorists; but then motorists have the entire culture behind them.)  Financial support is growing, but still miniscule compared to motoring interests.  We try to use moral power (freedom, safety, environment, community), but the voice needs amplification (which takes money). Commanding the lane is an expression of personal power combined with the power of expectation; you’re telling the motorist you expect him to treat you as an equal.  Critical Mass – like it or not – is an expression of physical power.  (Motorist and law enforcement complaints that groups of bicyclists are occasionally “hogging the road” sound hysterically funny when one steps out from behind the current motorist-dominated frame.)

The bicycling movement needs a serious internal discussion on what types of power it can and should use, and how.

In an essay I wrote inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, I quoted Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji: “You don’t choose to make positive associations with the dominant group, but you are required to. All around you, that group is being paired with good things. You open the newspaper and turn on the television, and you can’t escape it.” Before we can change the frame, we must move out from behind it ourselves as cyclists and pedestrians.

Bike and pedestrian advocates have been trying, and in some cases succeeding in passing laws in some states which would supposedly return some balance to our streets, but these laws are like mosquito bites on the back of an unharnessed elephant.  Does anyone have the slightest bit of evidence that the 3-foot passing law has changed anything?  Has even one motorist (not involved in a crash) been cited for it?

Please understand I am not proposing a return to the pre-1920s laws or customs.  Automobiles aren’t going away too soon, and we need good order when such dangerous things are on our roads.  Indeed, for the most part our existing laws are quite good.  The problems are the frame through which our laws are interpreted, and the general ignorance of them.  When I explain the laws to those with suspended licenses attending the Alternative Transportation course, many have a hard time accepting them; they don’t fit in the “proper frame.”

The Time is Now

There has never been a better time of opportunity for cycling and walking interests.  We have a New Age.  We offer healthy, economical, green, and enjoyable options.  We represent real efficiency, by accomplishing many goals at once instead of mere transport.  We have the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure on our side; Jim Oberstar is an avid cyclist.  President Obama reportedly “gets it” when it comes to cycling:

Stan Day, president of SRAM bicycle company said Obama “gets it,” referring to the role the bicycle can play in solving big problems like obesity and sustainability. “He does his homework and he can connect the dots.”

— Momentum Magazine

Do Obama and Oberstar understand the necessity of changing the frame?  Do public health and environmental leaders understand?  It will take a strong coalition.

And the “opponent” is weaker than ever:

“I don’t think the car is sustainable as the primary form of personal transportation.  It’s not just about petroleum or global climate change. It’s also about congestion and safety.”

— Larry Burns, head of research and development for General Motors, 2009

In the 1920s many, if not most, pedestrians and transit riders aspired to become motorists.  Today many are finding the automobile to be as much a burden as a tool of empowerment.  It takes up about a quarter of their annual income, threatens the climate, continues to kill over 35 thousand Americans a year (just through crashes; that doesn’t include air pollution), and driving is increasingly seen as a chore.  More and more I hear from people who wish they could become bicyclists.  Ironically, becoming a bicyclist today is easier than becoming a motorist was in the 1920s.  It’s just seen as being difficult because the motor-centric frame says it is.  The real task of cycling and walking advocates is to help more people — as Morpheus said in The Matrix – “take the red pill.”**

“You take the blue pill, the story ends; you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill; you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

“Taking the red pill” in part means trusting the power of our cultural norms.  Salter-Mitchell also found that most motorists, even though they see the streets as “belonging” to them, want to act safely when encountering cyclists and pedestrians.  The problem is they often don’t know what bicyclists and pedestrians are allowed and expected to do by law.  So we’ll keep handing out those little yellow books.***  Altering our culture’s construct of what a street is for, of who “owns” them, is essential if we are to truly have multi-modal communities that support our environmental and social values and goals.  Motorists got their Freedom in the 1920s by diminishing the Freedom of pedestrians and bicyclists; it’s time to take it back.

* Contrary to common myth, bicycling did not increase in response to the OPEC oil embargo; sales began to climb before the embargo, and there was no similar increase in bicycle sales during the late 70s gas price hikes.

** Credit to Keri Caffrey for this reference.

*** FBA’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Law Enforcement Guide

Nota bene:  Go here for a musical coda to this essay.

23 replies
  1. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Mighk: Is there any conflict between what we as cyclists ask for in terms of access and rights, and what we need relating to safety? What I mean is, as a cyclist I want to be treated as a vehicle — same rights, same responsibilities, same laws. But from a safey perspective, don’t we want to treat cyclists (and pedestrians) different than motorists because of increased vulnerability? It seems like we are sending a bit of a mixed message — or can these two points be kept separate?

  2. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    So by claiming my lane, I’m on the cutting edge of re-framing our car-centric culture?

    While I can at times get a hostile response from motorists because of my lane position, there is very little they can do other than ineffectually moan at the “injustice” of the situation. As they floor their gas pedal and lean on their horn while safely passing in the next lane, I have to laugh to myself- in the end, I was the one who successfully educated the other as demonstrated by changed behavior.

  3. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    People often confuse or tangle up vulnerability, risk and danger (not saying you do Andrew!). They use vulnerability as the sole justification to keep pedestrians and cyclists in their place. They separate speed from danger. And they are ignorant about risk.

    If you reduce the force of the danger — either by reducing mass or speed — and you reduce risk by increasing predictability — then vulnerability is no longer so important.

  4. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    To expound: Norton showed how motoring interests decoupled speed from danger. They argued that speed was not the problem; carelessness and recklessness were. So let’s eliminate carelessness and recklessness. Riiight. How’s that workin’ for everybody?

    I was hit by a motorist while cycling a few years ago. He was reckless; probably intoxicated on something. But he was going only about 2 mph faster than I was, coming from behind, so the impact was so minimal that my butt never left the saddle and my bike never left the road. So we had mass, recklessness and vulnerability. But because we didn’t have speed, there was no injury.

  5. andrewp
    andrewp says:

    Mighk: Thanks for that — good for me to mentally chew on that for a bit. I was thinking about how if “roads are for everyone” then should there not be increased protection for the most vulnerable (pedestrians, followed by cyclists)? That “protection” could come in several forms — decreased speed, decreased mass, and even legal protection (along the lines of the Dutch making motorists liable in accidents with pedestrians/cyclists).

    It is interesting that this same argument — “protecting us” is turned on us when motorists insist we use sidewalks or bike lanes. So in order to protect us, we have to give up our rights …..

    Seems like I’ve heard this somewhere else before ….. for like the last 8 years or so ……….. 😉

  6. Keri
    Keri says:

    ChipSeal nails it:
    “So by claiming my lane, I’m on the cutting edge of re-framing our car-centric culture?”

    Reclaiming the ROAD is the way we change the culture. That isn’t to say cyclist-specific infrastructure is irrelevant. But real culture change is going to happen by redefining who that public space we call roads belongs to. And that culture change is necessary for the bicycle to be a truly useful mode of transportation in American cities.

    Great essay Mighk! There’s much to learn from history.

  7. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    I’ve been chatting on Facebook with Robert Seidler. He of course always has some wild ideas. Thought just occurred to me that a Wiki to compile concepts for the different Forms of Power would be really useful. Forms I’ve identified thus far:

    Force (Critical MASS)
    Vulnerability (yes, this is a form of power: see:
    Media (web, TV)
    Money (public health, government, bike manufacturers, Nike)
    Expectation (lane control)
    Moral (expressed through art, media)
    Political (Oberstar, Obama)

  8. acline
    acline says:

    Add to what Norton discusses this from Chris Balish in “How to Live Well without Owning a Car”: “The auto industry has done a fabulous job of convincing Americans that their status and self-worth are tied to their cars.” It’s a double whammy: political power and economic power allied to keep us slaves to automobiles and keep “vulnerable” road users off the road.

  9. ChipSeal
    ChipSeal says:

    To piggyback on acline’s comment above, it is natural for car companies to want to sell their products, and so some of the negative fallout of that is unintended, and ought not be laid at their feet.

    Advertisers make great headway in making their client’s products appealing by using sex appeal.

    Having shown the way, we could benefit from their example. We need to recruit more women cyclists to ride assertively! (And as night follows day, more men will become interested in cycling as well.)

  10. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    The automobile is an excellent tool for middle-distance trips; say 15 to 150 miles. But it’s huge overkill for urban trips. (Intercity high-speed rail is great for 100 to 500 miles.)

    I recall reading a story about a guy who put on hour meter (aircraft pilots use them in lieu of odometers to determine when to do routine maintenance) on his car; it ran whenever the engine ran. After a year he discovered his average speed to be 17 mph. That’s what you get for about $5,000 per year; 17 mph instead of 12 mph (plus climate control, comfort and increased carrying capacity).

    Auto use is heavily subsidized and has “bundled” costs that encourage it. For example, you pay for parking as a part of the overhead costs of goods and services, so you may as well use that “free” space out front.

    Changing the frame isn’t about being anti-motorist; it’s about being pro-community; about increasing restraints on motorists to minimize their negative impacts.

  11. Rantwick
    Rantwick says:

    Just a general comment: this is not the first time I have been impressed by the quality of writing and depth of knowledge shown by Mighk in particular (very strong essay, man, well done!) and many others including Keri, of course, on this commuter site. Frankly, it blows other commuter forums away, which is why a guy from London Ontario Canada hangs out at an Orlando web site! Just wanted to say thanks; keep up the good work!

  12. Chris
    Chris says:

    The Big 3 American auto makers are failing. GM and Chrysler will most likely lose money for many years and need constant infusions of cash from the gov’t.
    Foreign automakers have also seen sales fall dramatically.
    New/stronger mileage standards announced will further strain an already strained auto-marketplace.
    People will be forced into smaller, more economical vehicles. SUVs, Trucks, and most larger mini-vans will not be affordable to run or buy.

    The result?? Less freedom and less cars on the road.

    All I can say is good riddance to the cars. As for freedom?? I will keep riding my bike and move around town just fine thanks.

  13. Keri
    Keri says:

    Yes. Thank you Rantwick!

    And to add to that,

    Mighk’s essays were very much an inspiration to me when I began researching bicycling advocacy. If you google, him, you’ll get a bunch of them published on various sites around the web. Or, there’s a great PDF compilation on the FBA website.

  14. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    I echo Rantwick’s comments, checking in regularly from Portland, Maine! I just started a page at my website listing vehicular cycling blogs, and both Commute Orlando and Mighk’s blog are high on the list. (More suggestions always welcome.)

    On power: I participated in some community organizer training in Chicago once in the mid-90’s (no, I didn’t see Obama there) that I thought really defined power very well and very simply. Power is either organized money or organized people. Big business and wealthy individuals have the organized money and know how to use it. So the goal of public groups going up against the organized money has to be organized people, hence community organizing.

  15. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    Very good point JohnB.

    I would add that when you’re rich you can afford to reach a lot of people with blunt, simple, uncreative messages (see: Fox News). When you’re not so rich you have to be very creative and have a thorough understanding of the media and human motivations.

  16. JohnB
    JohnB says:

    On the way in this morning, I had a followup thought, which is that it really comes down to organized people in both cases, except of course in situations of outright bribery. Other than that, it’s simply a matter of whether the organized people are those being paid by the organized money (i.e. Fox news employees), or those doing things on principle because they have been inspired to.

    Human motivation: The training I mentioned was also very helpful to me in that regard. They put a lot of emphasis on self-interest, which sounds negative, but like it or not, is key to making alliances. You identify the self-interest of others (and this training company had specific interviewing techniques for doing this), and you thereby discover the reasons that that person might have to work with you, and what you have to offer to them. A trait of very successful people is that they are clear on their own self-interest, and on how any decision they need to make will advance it or not. This is especially important to realize when, in the course of your activism, you need to interact with people more powerful than yourself, whether as an ally or an opponent.

    It was also very helpful in making me clarify and really own my own self-interest. The training was targeted mainly to congregation-based organizers, and religious people often have quite a hard time with the concept of self-interest, because it sounds like “selfish”. There’s this idea that actions have to be completely selfless to be pure. But in the end, you have to identify what you really value, which doesn’t have to be money or material things, but maybe a vision of what the world should be, along with those specific areas where you have skills and resources to contribute. That’s your motivation and basis for deciding what you get involved with and what you leave for others, because one person can’t do everything.

  17. Keri
    Keri says:

    Other good reading following John’s line of thinking:

    Social Intelligence (Goleman)
    The Art of Woo (Shell)
    The Biology of Transcendence (Pearce)
    Predictably Irrational (Ariely)

  18. Marty
    Marty says:

    Motorists’ behavior towards pedestrians can be changed, and the method is obvious — law enforcement. I have discussed pedestrian crosswalk laws a number of times with local police officers, and their response has never addressed non-signalized intersection crosswalk enforcement. Their response has either been yield-to-pedestrian enforcement at signalized intersections (necessary but not sufficient) or jaywalking prevention (they missed the point).

    Motorists’ awareness of pedestrians will change drastically when the motorists’ behavior is modified through strict law enforcement. Take a walk in Boston or San Francisco and you can see how aware motorists are of pedestrians, making these places a safer and more pleasant environment for walkers.

    I believe the answer is a top-down mandate to enforce the existing laws regarding yield-to and stop-for pedestrians at all crosswalks, marked or unmarked. We need to work with our local governments to alter the mindset of traffic officers. This change in mindset must come from the top, working from the mayor and commissioners to the chief of police to the officers on our streets. We can, and I’m optimistic we will, improve motorists’ behavior and attitude towards pedestrians, and that they will see pedestrians as also having rights-of-way in our streets.

  19. Keri
    Keri says:

    This is where we have to change law enforcement focus from traffic flow to safety and from “roads are for cars” to “roads are for people.”

    I agree, if we’re ever going to accomplish this, there needs to be political will to change it at the top levels of city and county government.

  20. John S. Allen
    John S. Allen says:

    OK, OK — but I’m seeing thoughts like the good ones here lead to confusion in some quarters. A favorite image displayed by so-called livable streets advocates is of a street populated by little children sitting around and playing. There’s a famous one circulated by Ben Hamilton-Baillie of the British group Sustrans; only last week, I saw a very similar photo in a presentation by Noah Budnick of Transportation Alternatives, from New York. Budnick also talked up the car-free Times Square plan which recently went into effect. News photos of it show people milling around in every direction and sitting in lawn chairs. Try riding a bicycle through _that_ kind of happy scene at more than 5 mph! Actually, don’t. But some bicyclists do try, and then bicyclists are viewed again as The Enemy as was the case in the 1880s and 1890s — as Mighk noted — and a ban on bicycling or an unenforceable 5 mph speed limit gets imposed.

    Any form of road transportation, old or new, that travels faster than a walking pace — horseback rider, animal-drawn vehicle, bicycle, pedicab, moped, larger and faster motor vehicle — is incompatible with use of streets for play and must operate according to rules of the road, or else be reduced to a walking pace. Multi-use paths and so-called shared-space schemes impose the same constraint. The confusion in the minds of the public of “vehicle” with “motor vehicle” and of bicyclists with pedestrians fuels the popularity of bicycle facilities which mix bicyclists and pedestrians, or which compel bicyclists to operate like pedestrians at driveways and intersections.

    The vision of liberation of space for pedestrians is compelling, but if we are going to throw out the bathwater — overuse and misuse of motor vehicles — let’s not throw out the baby — roads, and rules of the road, that allow bicycling to be competitive with other modes of transportation.

    Actually, quite often I have seen the baby thrown out while the bathwater remains — with “protected” bikeways that force bicyclists into conflict with motor vehicles at every driveway and intersection, to give one example.

    Fortunately, there are measures such as bicycle boulevards (streets with bicycle-permeable barriers and diverters that allow only local access by cars and trucks); sections of path connecting neighborhood to neighborhood; signalization and enforcement to slow motor traffic; etc. — but above all, empowerment of bicyclists through knowledge of vehicular cycling techniques and social marketing — which offer an alternative.

    Disclaimer: I am the author of that little yellow book to which Keri refers, and so I have a small vested interest in the ability of bicyclists to operate according to the rules of the road. But mostly, I just want bicyclists, myself included, to be able to travel safely at the speeds their legs can propel them, speeds which make bicycling advantageous and which provide a meaningful amount of physical exercise. That’s 25 mph at the 99.44th percentile, folks, except on steep downhills. Is that too much to ask for?

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  1. […] clash—and death count—threatened to curtail the usefulness of the motorcar.  So began a deliberate effort by a wealthy minority of motoring interests to reframe the purpose and preferred users of our […]

  2. […] has been noted before, the Culture of Speed causes some police to enforce traffic flow vs safety. Worse, they often don’t even realize that their concepts of protecting safety are stealthy […]

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