To many people—especially in North America—the automobile is a given. An essential part of the onward march of progress. It’s as expected as lighting and indoor plumbing. Given the way our cities are built, it’s hard to imagine a world without cars, and almost as difficult to imagine one where people hate them. Many think cars must have been embraced right away by all but the most adamant of Luddites.
This is far from the truth.
The personal automobile fought a long road to public acceptance, and many of the ways it achieved its victory are dubious, at best. While cars are, undoubtedly, a very valuable and often necessary resource, they have problems that haven’t changed since the old days when people were trying to force them out of their cities.
Today, we’re going to dive into some of the criticisms of the automobile and how it won. But to start, we need to understand what it was like before cars came on the scene.
Before 1908: When Pedestrians Owned the Streets
In the 19th century, before cars were common, the streets were owned by the people. There were streetcars and horse-carriages but they were slow and easily yielded to pedestrians or bicyclists. The Smithsonian puts it well:
“’ The streets were absolutely black with people…’ People strolled to and fro down the center of the avenue, pausing to buy snacks from vendors. They’d chat with friends or even ‘manicure your nails…’ And when they stepped off a sidewalk, they did it anywhere they pleased.”
That last part is incredibly important for modern people to understand: streets weren’t reserved for carriages and carts. They were smoothed-over, which made it easier for those vehicles to use, but the streets were primarily playgrounds and places where folks could hawk their wares or chat.
If you told someone from that era they couldn’t walk on the street, they’d rightfully look at you like you were bonkers.
~1908: The Early Years
Publicly available vehicles appeared around the 1880s and, for the most part, were toys for the rich. They weren’t taken seriously as a mode of transport, in much the same way some of us might see someone’s yacht or private helicopter. They were expensive, unreliable, and topped out at a speed lower than a good run.
But that changed in 1908.
In 1908, Ford released the Model T. The Model T was affordable enough for middle-class families, went thehigh speed of 45 miles per hour, and was reliable enough to be practical for day-to-day use. They were especially popular in cities, where middle-class families had the money to spare.
The 1920’s: The First Anti-Car Movement and “Jay Walking”
Suddenly, there were 1,500-pound chunks of metal going through city streets at 45 miles an hour. The same streets where people walked and talked, and, more importantly, where children played. Unsurprisingly, deaths by automobile became far more common. In cities with populations over 25,000, auto accidents accounted for two-thirds of deaths. Professor Peter Norton gives us further context for this, noting that three out of four auto deaths were pedestrians, with many of these deaths being children.
At the time, the blame was put squarely on the drivers of these automobiles. The idea was simple: they were the ones controlling the big, heavy vehicles that were killing people, so the drivers had the responsibility to use them in a way that didn’t… you know, kill anyone. As the Smithsonian article points out: “’Nation Roused Against Motor Killings’ read the headline of a typical New York Times story, decrying ‘the homicidal orgy of the motor car.’”
Thus began the first anti-car movement in the United States. There were Safety Marches held, letters were sent to newspapers with grim stories of children killed in accidents, and, in 1923, more than 40,000 Cincinatti residents signed a petition to force auto manufacturers to install a limiter on cars that would keep them moving under 25 miles per hour.
Auto manufacturers were terrified. They were losing public opinion and feared that they would lose it permanently. The change was reflected in sales, which dropped 12 percent in the wake of that ballot measure.
So, manufacturers launched a counter-attack: they lobbied to get the streets legally redefined as a place restricted to cars. A place pedestrians could no longer wander freely.
It wasn’t the first attempt at such a measure. Kansas City had tried it in 1912, with hilariously poor results. In one incident, a woman smacked a cop with her umbrella when he told her not to walk in the street. These other measures had failed, so the auto industry knew it needed to try a different tact this time. The trick was shaming.
They launched a massive PR campaign centered around the idea of the, “Jaywalker.” The term came from the word “jay,” which was slang for a country hick who didn’t understand the city. It first had its major use in the word “jay-driver,” meaning someone who drove their horse-drawn carriage on the wrong side of the street. Auto companies released comics, PR statements, and advertisements portraying pedestrians in the street as uneducated rubes. They even encouraged the police to sneer at and taunt them. Among the most sinister of these strategies was the establishment of a free wire service where reporters could send in the basic details of an accident and get a free, completed article which almost always painted the pedestrian as the one at fault.
Unfortunately, the ploy worked. By the 1930s, streets belonged to cars, and anyone who argued the point was seen as a rube. But, this wouldn’t be the last fight.
The 1950’s and ‘60’s: Give us Space!
The 1950s and ’60s saw, perhaps, the last real fight against the automobile until the modern era. It started in 1949 when a coal truck driver drove onto a designated “play street” in New York City. A play street was where the neighborhood could apply to shut down traffic on that street so that children could be legally allowed to play in the street. When the coal truck driver drove down the designated play street, he struck and killed two ten-year-old girls. Residents reacted fast. The next day, they formed a “parent and baby-carriage” blockade across a street, turning back all delivery vehicles. And it didn’t stop there. They set up a second picket one block north on the next day and forced the city to outright close the street to delivery vehicles at the times kids were walking to and from school.
There’s no guarantee this particular protest was the first of its kind, but others in this era all followed its model: the protesters were primarily women with baby carriages. And most importantly: they weren’t objecting to having automobiles around… they just wanted safer streets. And they continued all over the country through the 1950s and ’60s, extracting small concessions from those in power.
But, as suburbanization increased with the popularity of driving children to and from their various schools, doctor’s appointment, and extracurricular activities, a familiar pattern re-emerged: public perception shifted from blaming the driver, to the victim. And, in the case of children’s deaths, often on the mother.
A Final Note: Classism
The two movements above make up the most notable examples of resistance to vehicles in North America. But, they also share something important: an element of classism that threads through this controversy.
Cars are expensive. While they’re no longer just toys only available to the wealthy elite, they are definitely less available to the poor. Systemic racism and gender inequities mean the poor are often the disabled, women, and people of color. These marginalized groups wind up as pedestrians in our cities which have historically been [built specifically for cars.][Link to my article on car culture] They are also the people less likely to have the financial or practical resources to lobby or advocate for their own interests.
In North America, our cities have prioritized the comfort of drivers over the lives of pedestrians because the economic costs of driving means that drivers have historically been the ones with the financial and political power to fight for their interests.
A disparity emerges. We have cities that are built for a mode of transportation less available to its marginalized populations. Those whose very safety is threatened by the prominence of cars lack the political power to fight this. This becomes even more difficult to manage when you learn about people like Robert Moses, who knew these marginalized populations lacked personal transport and purposefully built bridges too low for the buses the marginalized people would have had to use to reach the beaches in Long Island.
The hate vehicles have received has been earned. Globally, 1.35 million people are killed in car accidents each year, with an additional 20-50 million injured or disabled. Modern vehicles, and the industry surrounding them, are major sources of greenhouse gases. And, as we can see, the desire of auto manufacturers to build cities for drivers, instead of for pedestrians, has deepened social inequality.
And if that’s the case, maybe we as a society should re-think the way we build cities and remember the lessons of those old resistance movements. Cars are great, but our cities should put people first, not vehicles.