If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say ‘cars.’
But there was a time not too long ago, before the rise of the automobile in the 1920’s and 30’s, where this was not the case.
What we have been told is that when the automobile was produced for the masses, people fell in love with the idea of its freedom. People began moving further away from the city because a car connects you to wherever you want to go, and hence the formation of the suburbs. The suburbs were once a type of unique oasis, because the downtowns were seen as gritty, dirty, and polluted, and the suburbs were perceived as having fresh air, being safer, and providing privacy. Not only this, but the land was so affordable that developers jumped at the chance to exploit the market.
Although all of this may be true, I think that we are forgetting that the automobile industry played a large role in perpetuating the culture of owning and relying on a personal car. The idea of owning a car was marketed as such an attractive thing that the very infrastructure of our cities had to adapt for them.
Before cars took total ownership of our streets, streets were for people. Kids always walked to school, and pedestrian deaths were treated like soldier deaths. Apparently, the public actually hated the introduction of the automobile because it imposed itself on both the streets and the social classes of the people.
While drivers used to be charged with murder in a fatal collision with a pedestrian in 1930, a pedestrian is now often accused of jaywalking or not being in their right of way if they are struck today.
It is important to remain critical of why infrastructure is built the way it is. Imagine a street for everyone, in a city that didn’t need to rely so much on cars. We’re already seeing examples of what are called ‘woonerf’s‘ in Europe. Do you think it is reasonable to adapt our infrastructure to suit the needs of people and undo the damage that the automobile industry has imposed on us in the last 80 years?