Sometimes people pushing for safer streets and more sustainable transportation comment about poor transportation planning of past generations. They usually sound something like this “Why do we have four lanes of fast traffic to begin with? Why did someone think this was a good idea?” The answer is always the same: perspective. Today these commentators see congestion, unsafe streets, and pollution. But 60 years ago people saw opportunity, speed, and convenience. Just look at this 1958 example from Disney. Magic Highway depicts a futuristic highway system that stretches forever and dissects our cities even more than today’s highway system. No thought is given to pollution, walkability, community, or even physical health (somehow everyone is thin and healthy when they sit all day). Density is clearly a bad thing. Nature is to be conquered or bypassed.
As we attempt to improve out streets through right-sizing and improving our communities through connectivity and walkability and bikeability we need to understand we are not just fighting against unsafe streets today – we are fighting generations of highway-hyped, car-centric culture that made the streets we see today.
Also keep an ear open for other pieces of American cultural history. Here are some of my favorites:
- Gender roles: Dad works while mom and kid shop, of course.
- Convenience: “From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk.” “Moving sidewalks make window shopping effortless.”
- Democracy: “The family vacation will always be decided by a family vote.”
- Progress: “New hopes, new dreams, and a better way of life for the future.”
A typical busy street scene on Sixth Avenue in New York City shows how pedestrians ruled the roadways before automobiles arrived, circa 1903. Via Shorpy by way of Collectors Weekly
Last week I wrote about my run in with an angry driver and how cyclists often discuss how they consistently are in danger of being hit, injured, or worse. I asked “How often do you go home at the end of the day and discuss how your life has been put in danger?” And I answered every day. My message was clear: Slow Down for Life. Presently, Vision Zero campaigns around the world are working to decrease traffic fatalities to an unbelievable number” zero. The video I shared shows how ridiculous people think that idea is. Yet there was a time when streets were ruled by people, not automobiles. Drivers were held responsible and it was assumed that people would be in the street so drivers and transit slowed to a pedantic pace. Last year Collectors Weekly published an article about just that. Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year explores the history of traffic fatalities and looks at a time when the rules and assumptions of the road were very different:
In 2012, automobile collisions killed more than 34,000 Americans, but unlike our response to foreign wars, the AIDS crisis, or terrorist attacks—all of which inflict fewer fatalities than cars—there’s no widespread public protest or giant memorial to the dead. We fret about drugs and gun safety, but don’t teach children to treat cars as the loaded weapons they are.
“The people who really get it today, in 2014, know that the battle isn’t to change rules or put in signs or paint things on the pavement,” Norton continues. “The real battle is for people’s minds, and this mental model of what a street is for. There’s a wonderful slogan used by some bicyclists that says, ‘We are traffic.’ It reveals the fact that at some point, we decided that somebody on a bike or on foot is not traffic, but an obstruction to traffic. And if you look around, you’ll see a hundred other ways in which that message gets across. That’s the main obstacle for people who imagine alternatives—and it’s very much something in the mind.”
Note: there is a video at the end of the article that is somehow both hilarious and terrifying. Be sure to check it out.
America’s Top 50 Bike-Friendly Cities | Bicycling Magazine
How I would love to visit all these places. American urban cycling is very different from the Danish & Dutch experience and I have only been to a handful of these American leaders. 12/50 is not too bad, but unfortunately many were pass-troughs lasting only a day or two. I cannot wait to travel and see more of what our country has to offer! This map proves American cycling is no longer a west coast fantasy – a surprising number of our country’s leading cities are in the central regions and the Midwest is quickly becoming an important cycling hub. I have been to:
- Minneapolis, MN | 4. Washington, DC | 5. Chicago, IL | 6. Madison, WI | 7. New York City, NY | 10. Seattle, WA | 16. Boston, MA | 17. Philadelphia, PA | 24. Milwaukee, WI | 35. Pittsburgh, PA | 39. Ann Arbor, MI | 41. Grand Rapids, MI