Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Cars and the freedom of a minority

As shocking as it may sound, a minority of Americans own cars. Yet, much of the public space in cities (streets) is dedicated to their high-speed movement.  This take-over of public space has occurred in less than 100 years (less than 20 is more accurate) and did not happen without opposition.  People strongly opposed the take-over of city streets by the "death cars" at the turn of the century and people still oppose this take over, today.

Excellent book.
I first began thinking about this post when I listened to an NPR story Motorists to Urban Planners: Stay in Your Lane. The piece talks about the discussions surrounding modest attempts to bring more balance to the streets by implementing bicycle and bus only lanes in the Washington, DC area.  The story had the same basic argument ... "they want to take away our cars!!!"

Near the end of the piece, they interview Peter D. Norton about the historical role of the automobiles in the city.  They mentioned that he wrote the book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, about the struggle at the beginning of the 20th century of bringing automobiles into the city. I was so excited, finally an urban planning related book that examines pre-1930! I bought the book, right away, and have been reading it since on my Kindle.

This post weaves concepts and stories from the book with my own ideas and interpretations.

Customary role of the street

In our current time people often think that before cars we lived in caves.  It's like nothing existed.  I've wrote about, in a past post, about how we tend to forget there were very intelligent people who lived before the Modern Era and we ignore much of this accumulated urban knowledge in decisions we make about cities today. Well, one of those things we forget is the customary role of the street throughout the ages. 

For thousands of years, a child could go from one side of town to the other without the threat of the being killed. The streets were designed for and used, mostly, by pedestrians - though horses, bicycles, and trams played their roles at various times. As Mr. Norton writes in this book, "When automobiles were new, many city people regarded them as a misuse of streets.  By obstructing and endangering other street users of unquestioned legitimacy, cars violated prevailing notions of what a street was for."

Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for you.  You had spent your entire life being able to go wherever you want.  You could walk down the middle of the road.  You could cross the street halfway.  You could walk leisurely in the road, cross at a diagonal or whatever you like.  When you're child had a lot of energy, you'd tell co to go play in the street.  Then, suddenly, you had these quick moving machines show up and start killing people. In your mind, they were taking away the street.

Strong Opposition to the Automobile

From 1900 through the 1920s there was strong resistance to the automobile.  It didn't just come from "special interest" groups, either.  Mayors, newspaper editorial boards, parents, nurses and nearly every other group was opposed to cars in the city. Most of this resistance came because they were seen as "speeding" machines (like a speeding bullet) and they killed people.  The book tells the story of a woman who lost two of her children in a short time to the automobile.  One child died while waiting along a street and another while riding his bicycle.

Children dedicating a monument to child car accident 
victims by holding up a flower for each child victim
killed in Pittsburgh in 1921. Scenes like this one 
were common across the US.
Groups mobilized against the automobile with the slogan "SAFETY FIRST!"  Police, also, did not like the automobile because it created chaos in the streets. All-in-all, cars were not welcome in the cities and were seen as better suited for rural areas.  Amongst the different groups, the primary lens which directed the view of automobiles was the traditional role of the street and justice. The Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote, in 1920, if a pedestrian is "hurt or annoyed [in an encounter with a car] don't ask wether the victim was wholly or in part to blame.  Suggest that the driver of the motor-car be lynched." 

Others suggested you shoot drivers with your revolver.  

This narrative played out for over 20 years.  Over this time, different lenses began to come into fashion: Justice, Order, Efficiency and, finally, Freedom.  Police had tried to keep speed-limits between 8 and 10 MPH.  Other people argued it wasn't efficient to keep cars slow and they should move quicker through the cities. However, it was the final lens that gave the death blow to cities resisting cars and opened the gates to unfettered access of the automobile into cities at high speeds.  "Motordom" appealed to the rights of the minority and their Freedoms. It worked. And we all know how it turned out.

Freedom of a minority

According to my calculations, from U.S. Census data, approximately 37 percent of people in the United States own a motor vehicle.  You certainly wouldn't know it by looking at any American city or listening to much of the discourse surrounding transportation.  Going back to that story I mentioned at the beginning of the post, urban planners are starting to see the serious value of giving other users rights to the street (as if rights are theirs to "give"). 

However, as with the past, people in cars think they have a right to as much space as they want for the cars.  People get upset about parking tickets and to openly say the phrase "restrict car use" would be committing political, and potentially, career suicide.  We walk a fine line ... trying not to upset car owners - 37 percent of population. I owned a car many years and probably will again. I was once one of those people who believed I had a right to my car wherever I wanted. I once called the police on a guy for parking on the street in front of my house. It's where I parked!!! I've changed.

Now, in my mind, beyond order and efficiency, I think this is an issue of justice.  Do children not have a right to their city?  Do mothers not have a right to not drive their children everywhere?  Do families and friends not have a right to safe cities?  If, as the Constitution says, "All [people] are created equally", don't the other 63 percent without a car have a right to not be harassed by those in automobiles?  

To be clear, I am not against cars.  I think cars are fantastic things for road-trips, camping, emergencies, agriculture, etc.  I just question whether or not on the opposite of "freedom-for" is an argument for "freedom-from"? Is there no freedom from automobiles? Safety.  Quiet. Peace. Sustainability. EQUITY. Are those not a type of freedom?

In all, cars are in cities and will probably be here to stay.  However, I think brining more balance to the equation should not be out of the question.  If there are hundreds of people who use a sidewalk, like here in downtown Portland, and seven parking spots where a wider sidewalk could ... should ... be, then that majority has a right from the freedoms of a minority and a wider sidewalk (pavement as called in England) should replace those parking spots. 

When discussions about using streets for more than just solo automobiles arise in the public dialogue, remember, this is not about punishing people for using automobiles.  It's about treating all citizens equally and ensuring safe streets --- for everybody!

As always, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving your comments below.  


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