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