Ben Bartosik

October 3, 2023

Still (slowly) working my way through Happy City and was reading this section yesterday on the way cars began to change the shape of our cities in the early 20th Century. The author notes that

"For most of urban history, city streets were for everyone. The road was a market, a playground, a park, and yes, it was a thoroughfare, but there were no traffic lights, painted lanes, or zebra crossings. Before 1903 no city had so much as a traffic code. Anyone could use the street, and everyone did."

Today, it seems to have been collectively decided that the streets are, actually, not for everyone. Despite the 'share the road' signs that are common in rural areas, we have largely closed the book on any debate that maybe our streets could become public spaces once again. For most people, it's not really something they think could be any different. Streets are for cars. Period. But even I'm old enough (and I'm not that old) to remember a time when riding my bike as a kid through the streets was perfectly normal behaviour - and much safer. Something I've written about elsewhere. We just seem to have abandoned the idea that it could be any different.

But it wasn't always this way. As cars first entered the scene people rose up en masse against the private interests of drivers. They fought to keep streets public; banning things like curbside parking and keeping speed limits to 16 km per hour. And when a driver killed a pedestrian, they were met by an angry mob.

What's particularly interesting about this shift is the way that auto companies were the ones who drove it (pardon the pun). One of the more significant changes was the way they seemed to move the burden of safety onto the pedestrian, rather than the driver. They did this by intentionally designing and legislating streets to keep pedestrians in their place. Again, this perhaps seems like a very unremarkable thing today; but this is why understanding the history of change can be useful. The author quotes urban historian, Peter Norton on how this change came to be.

"They had to change the idea of what a street is for, and that required a mental revolution, which had to take place before any physical; changes to the street."

There's a lesson here in how we both win and lose the fight for public spaces, as well as an important reminder that things that feel permanent emerged from some place at some time. Sometimes that's enough for starting to imagine that we can do better.