May 27, 2013

20's PLENTY:

Step Backward, Step Forward : Walkers used to own the streets. Now they're looking to reclaim expropriated property. (Wayne Curtis, 5/15/13, Smart Set)

Streets were more or less nondenominational spaces for several decades after the cars first appeared. Different religions of movement were each given the freedom to practice as they saw fit. It wasn't always utopian practice, of course -- cities had a staggeringly high number of pedestrian deaths from the get-go. (In the 1906 video clip, you'll see a couple of pedestrians leaping out of the way of bullying cars.)

The growing carnage was perversely and slyly used to by "automobilists" to gradually take control of the streets -- all in the name of public safety, of course. The automobile sect, following the dictates of the AAA club Vatican, soon controlled all the lanes, and installed traffic engineers in city halls as archbishops. The conversion was complete. (This history is told in Peter Norton's oddly engaging 2008 book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.)

Walking advocates didn't roll over immediately -- many loudly and brashly attacked cars as the "modern Moloch." (Definition: "a Canaanite idol to whom children were sacrificed"). But like heretics everywhere, they were ultimately dismissed and ignored by the ruling automotive church.

So urban byways steadily morphed from being spaces of complex relationships where lives were lived to, essentially, traffic sewers, administered like utilities by municipal bureaucrats interested solely in mechanical efficiency and speed. Social space was sacrificed. "The old common law rule that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway," wrote Miller McClintock, then a 29-year old graduate student and soon to be a pioneering traffic engineer, "must give way before the requirements of modern transportation." City streets started to lose their humanity, and new construction across huge swaths of the country -- suburbs, strip malls, major arterials -- followed the new mandates and were designed without any accommodations for the exiled walker.

"The day of the hero with the long careless stride is over," wrote Elizabeth Onativia in the New York Times in 1929. "The more careless it is the quicker it is over. Pedestrianism in city streets today involves executive ability, planning, and foresight, specialized knowledge and concentration." The article was entitled "Pedestrian lot not a happy one."

But slowly, block-by-block, pedestrians are starting to take back the streets. Beachheads include a stretch of Broadway in New York, scattered parklets in San Francisco, and better sidewalks and intersections in smaller cities like Raleigh, N.C., which adopted a progressive city plan that promotes design for walking. In England, the "20's Plenty" movement now has some two hundred campaigns in cities across the island, encouraging municipalities to make 20 miles per hour the default speed limit.

The saint of the modern pedestrian revival is the late Hans Monderman. Faced with a small budget and a request that he make streets safer in part of a Dutch village called Oudehaske, Monderman did the unthinkable: He removed curbs and signs and let cars, bikes and pedestrians come together and sort it out on their own.

It worked: The more nuanced environment slowed down drivers, and the intermingling demanded communication using body language and eye contact. Accidents decreased, traffic moved steadily. The concept -- called "naked streets" or "shared space" -- has been expanding across Europe, and is slowly, tentatively, making its way to American shores. It's like 1910 all over again.

Posted by at May 27, 2013 8:01 PM

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