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It’s Been 100 Years Since Cars Drove Pedestrians Off The Roads

One hundred years ago roadbuilder Edward J. Mehren wrote that streets, should be redesigned for the utility of motorists alone.

One hundred years ago—almost to the day—roadbuilder Edward J. Mehren wrote in a still-published U.S. engineering journal that streets, previously the preserve of mixed traffic, including foot traffic, should be redesigned for the utility of motorists alone.

Framing his 9 November 1922 editorial as a solution to road safety—pedestrians were killed in shocking numbers by period motorists—he stated that “the obvious solution lies only in a radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for.”

He called for “motor boulevards, second-story streets, [and] under or over crossings for pedestrians.”

Of course, he got what he wished for as the U.S. swiftly displaced pedestrians from streets by building motor-centric infrastructure and became the first auto-dependent society. (Mehren also later got what he didn’t wish for: after years of championing urban expressways to make road use safer for motorists he was killed in a motor crash.)

Mehren, the editor of the influential civil engineering journal Engineering News-Record, was one of the earliest to advocate for car-dominated streets, citing the danger to pedestrians of the “carelessness of drivers” and the “common assumption [from motorists] of superior right-of-way over the pedestrian crossings.”

His editorial is significant, says transport historian Peter Norton because “motordom”—automobile manufacturers, roadbuilders, asphalt interests, oil companies, and more—worked hard to shift the then-current perception of who and what belonged in and on streets.

Streets for all

In the early 1900s there was a cross-over period when there was no dominant mode of transport in the cities of America. Pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians and motorists, all shared the usually ill-defined roads. Add to the mix trams and omnibuses—both originally pulled by horses—and the answer, as period films show, looks chaotic to modern eyes.

A 35-minute 1906 film of San Francisco, shot from a moving trolley-car, shows pedestrians and cyclists darting hither and thither between motor cars, horse-pulled omnibuses and hand-pulled carts. Motor cars drifted between slower-moving vehicles. (The large number of motor cars in the film is often said to point to early automobile domination of San Francisco’s streets when, in fact, the same cars keep doubling back to appear multiple times in the film, a deliberate ploy by the film-makers. One of the motor cars appeared ten times in the space of one and a half miles.)

Even 15 or so years later pedestrians still ruled on many U.S. city streets and the dominant mode demanded that interloper cars should be driven slowly rather than that pedestrians should jump out of their way. Street hardware—such as low bollards that prevented drivers from cutting corners—enforced this hierarchy; there were also frequent calls for speed governors to be fitted to cars and trucks.