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Are “public” streets actually public?

I am currently reading Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic, an eye-opening account of the radical change our streets underwent from the dawn of the 20th Century to the motor age. I could probably write several posts for each chapter – there’s material enough. Alas, as you readers may have noticed – there are people that read this besides me, right? – it’s difficult enough to find time to write a post, let alone many posts.

I am struck by the book’s description of popular reaction to the invasion of motor cars on city streets during the early years of motordom. Before the automobile invasion, streets were public space in the true sense of the word, not very different from the way we think of city parks. As the book details, in order for cars to take over the roads, we had to fundamentally alter this view.

Imagine: If Uncle Rico’s time machine really worked and we could transport a group of average citizens from 1920 to the present day, how would they feel about the current state of our streets? If letters and statements quoted in Fighting Traffic are any indication, they would be horrified to see the transferal of the public street, once the domain of children and mothers, rich and poor alike, to the exclusive use of half-ton death machines careering along with reckless abandon. Streets used to be, after all, places of conversation and play, even places of commerce. Here’s a small sampling (from pages 68-9):

We must all pull together . . . and insist on our rights to use the streets until the auto-hogs . . wake up to the fact that they cannot do as they please and monopolize the streets.

Complained one judge:

It won’t be long before children won’t have any rights at all in the streets.

So, to the question posed in the title: how public are our streets now? The answer will of course depend on the street – many freeways limit access strictly to automobiles to the exclusion of all others. But even on local residential streets pedestrians have been largely engineered and regulated out of existence. Ought my daughter, for instance, play a game of hopscotch in the street? Can I, outside of a car, spend any appreciable amount of time walking, running or socializing on the street in front of my house?

In the century since the automobile first muscled its way to the top of society’s transportation food chain, we have legislated other modes of transportation into a thin sliver of grudgingly reserved leftover space: pedestrians may cross the street at the occasional crosswalk; bicyclists, while technically allowed to operate in the same space and under the same restrictions and protections as cars, are mostly just in the way (and liable to be harassed) if they don’t yield space; and transit users in all but a handful of North American cities suffer poor service and shabby facilities. To add insult to injury, we often turn a blind eye even when cars overstep their formal bounds.

In recent decades, ironically, one solution to the menace of the motor car has been to further “privatize” the streets, by creating dead-end cul-de-sacs, virtually assuring that only immediate residents will make use of the roadway. The net effect is that more and more of our municipal resources are being used to care for “public” space that is for all intents and purposes anything but.

This is to say nothing of on-street parking – the notion that one has the unquestioned right to store their private property in the public way. A few years ago, I interned for a non-profit downtown civic organization in the small town where I grew up. The city was mulling a proposal to remove median parking from the road that separates the downtown from the the Snake River in order to improve access to the popular parkland along the banks. Item #1 on every person’s list of complaints: where am I going to park my car when I go to work? That’s not to say I don’t understand their concern, but this illustrates how far we’ve gone down this uncharted path: where once we railed against the car’s invasion of our public space, we now rebuff nearly all attempts to re-allocate even a modicum of roadway to truly public use.

I should be clear: It’s not the existence of cars that bothers me. Cars, like any other technological advance, have brought tremendous benefits to societies across the world. It’s the frame through which we view the use of the street that I disapprove of. In my experience, no significant re-ordering of street space in the U.S. has ever proceeded without first satisfactorily addressing concerns about vehicular traffic. I have never, not even once, heard of, read about, or worked on a project to reallocate road space to alternative uses where approval was received in spite of significant expected negative effects on car traffic. This is because we have set our systems up to maximize auto mobility above all else. Our ancestors would be ashamed of us.

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7 responses to “Are “public” streets actually public?

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  6. The author just spoke at Rutgers, you might be interested in his lecture which is a summary of the book.

    http://policy.rutgers.edu/vtc/
    Link is on the right under whats new.

  7. thegetaroundblog

    Good to know. Thanks!

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