This video explains how the automobile conquered the American street in the 20th century

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[Editor’s Note: This is one piece in a multiple-part series about street safety in Louisville as the city continues to roll out its three-year pedestrian safety campaign, Look Alive Louisville. View the entire series here.]

 

Our streets today are dangerous places for everyone involved—because we chose to turn our most prolific public spaces over for use as high-speed motorways. As we covered in detail in August, that evolution was a gradual one that took place throughout the 20th century and was orchestrated largely by the automobile industry as a way to sell more cars. Beginning in earnest in the 1920s, propaganda campaigns demonized “jaywalking,” scolded children for playing in the street, and redefined the term street itself. You can read all about it here.

If you’d prefer the condensed version, just watch the video clip above from truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything.” The segment uses research from Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic, a 2011 book chronicling the history of how the motor car took over American streets.

We made our streets into what they are today, and we can remake them again into something better.

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Branden Klayko

Branden Klayko

Founder and Editor at Broken Sidewalk
Branden founded Broken Sidewalk in 2008 while practicing architecture in Louisville. He continued the site for seven years while living in New York City, returning to Louisville in 2016. Branden is a graduate of the College of Architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and has covered architecture, design, and urbanism for The Architect's Newspaper, Designers & Books, Inhabitat, and the American Institute of Architects.
Branden Klayko

4 COMMENTS

  1. Sorry, but for most of America in 2015, the roads are for cars and the sidewalks are for pedestrians. Our lives have changed since the late 1800s. We depend on our cars to work, shop and travel. They are convenient, quick and efficient. They represented freedom to generations of Americans. Public transportation may sound romantic to some, but it won’t be practical for most us in the suburbs of Louisville during my lifetime. Public transportation that is extensive enough to serve every suburban home and need would be far too expensive to operate here. Our shopping areas and stores in the suburbs are too far apart to be practical for pedestrians. We are not a compact European city. Most Americans actually do prefer their own vehicles compared to the shared, routed experiences offered by public buses. Most people want to travel as quickly as possible from point A to point B, and main arteries are designed to accomplish that. That concept serves the vast majority of people. I love the city, but attempting to impose an urbanist utopia on suburbanites and suburban neighborhoods is silly.

  2. I agree that the video, while very interesting, probably bites off a little more than it can chew as far as trying to explain Americans’ love affair with cars. I think it’s a deeply cultural thing, which I think is a serious challenge to reducing traffic and, yes, travel-related carbon emissions. Stated differently, while of course we are very car-centric, I don’t think that reality is 100% explained by how convenient cars are.
    My perspective benefits from a small experiment I’ve been performing for the last two months. I sold my new-ish sedan, for which I was ultimately paying close to $500 per month, and opted to travel by 110 mpg moped, from my Crescent Hill home to downtown for work. It has certainly helped that I live with my fiance, who has a compact SUV and works just over two miles from our home. In any event, Over the last 63 days or so, I’ve fallen in love with my work commute and saved over $1,000. River Road has proven the best route for me, though Lexington Avenue near Beargrass Creek is also pretty convenient. When it’s too cold or my fiance needs the car for work, I’ve been lucky enough to walk about 8 houses down to a TARC stop, which takes me 4 blocks from my office. I appreciate getting some walking in (after reading my book for 15 minutes), and overall the experience has been great, honestly. Given that much and my frustrations with stagnant traffic on my work commute (not every single commuter needs an SUV!) it seems to me that a major priority ought to be making TARC way more comfortable for the average commuter (it has a not entirely deserved, terrible reputation), in addition to finding inexpensive ways to promote bike/moped lanes. Other cities in our region seem to be leading the way here.
    I’ve talked with friends about the experiment, and they think it’s cool, but when asked to consider doing it themselves, I can’t get past “well, I just can’t do without my car…” From what I’ve read, this seems to be a common challenge for city officials trying to encourage use of public transit, and not just in Louisville. I think my savings could be exhibit A!

  3. «Public transportation may sound romantic to some, but it won’t be practical for most us in the suburbs of Louisville during my lifetime. Public transportation that is extensive enough to serve every suburban home and need would be far too expensive to operate here. »

    Self-fulfilling defeatism. It’s also the fallacy where perfect is the enemy of the good. Public transportation may never be perfect for the suburbs (although that is likely debatable, given enough time, planning, and love), but that is a far cry from never being good enough or practical enough to succeed in the suburbs.

    Ultimately, this isn’t even a war between urbanism and suburbanism (and exurbanism), it’s a war between people (and death) over status symbols and traffic. Do you appreciate people driving 90 in your suburban neighborhood? Do you think your neighborhood streets should double as expressways? Drivers recently sped fast enough to smash a (historic) building in half in mine!

    Should you need to file a permit to allow your kids to play in even a cul-de-sac in your neighborhood, because cars and their drivers are the true rulers of our streets? Should we not remove the many, many speed bumps in suburbia because they are inconvenient to drivers?

    Meanwhile, people have been in a tizzy that my neighborhood is planning a median (!) to slow “their expressway”. I can only imagine the furor if we Downtown residents decided to build strategic speed bumps, such as the ones suburbia takes for granted.

  4. to Jeff Bailey:

    I agree, mostly, I don’t think we need to retrofit the suburbs on a whim, just so we can get all gooey-eyed over a trolley.

    BUT

    The problem is that there are virtually no alternatives in Louisville for people who do NOT want a suburban life. Downtown is a deeply unattractive place, precisely because it has been made to accommodate suburban car commuter.

    Many of Louisville suburbs are money-pits. Louisville this fiscal year is borrowing money for road maintenance. Property tax revenue is not covering the obligations. This means precisely one thing; Louisville has too much low-value suburban infrastructure. These liabilities need to be wound down, instead of being covered with debt.

    Then there are suburbanites (like me) who enjoy the suburbs, but would also like the choice to bike to work, without feeling they risk life and limb to get there due to all the cars. Even something as harmless as painting a few bike lanes is a struggle in this city. Not to mention the casual indifference to the many traffic fatalities in this city, that is just shockingly uncivilized.

    I would also like the choice to enjoy city life a few times a month; Bardstown rd gets old after a while. It’s sad that the only whiff of urbanity in Louisville is basically a turnpike.

    Yes, we don’t need to pursue an europe-style urbanist utopia here. But the absence of decent pedestrian neighborhoods and multiple transportation options hurts Louisville as well.

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