Cities are for people, not cars

Whenever I see then-and-now photographs of urban streets I’m invariably struck by the difference in the number of pedestrians. There were far more in the days preceding the onslaught of the automobile.

Today, city transportation engineers endeavor to maximize vehicular traffic. So they design for and build wide streets with multiple lanes and signals that facilitate the flow of automobiles and trucks. Pity the poor pedestrian, who struggles to avoid merciless motorists who, understandably, treat pavement as their exclusive domain.

Vox gives us photographs of street locales both before and after the automobile took over. An excerpt from the linked article:

In the early 1900s, “pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn’t last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Cars are now a necessity, since sprawl separated the land into places to live (the suburbs) and places to work (usually cities). City officials mandated more parking spaces, an added expense to private and public businesses caught up in a vicious cycle: either accommodate the car or shutter your doors. The auto-dependent suburbanite rarely enters the city, preferring to shop at malls surrounded by enormous asphalt lagoons.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that rooftops generate retail. Build and they will come?