Contesting city streets


in Books and literature, Economics, Politics, The environment

Self-portrait with pink handlebars

At present, I am reading a book about how the ‘motor city’ emerged as the dominant North American standard. It is quite interesting, really. The fact that automobile promoters played a role in the demise of streetcars is well known. What seems to be less well known is how the very idea of urban streets was contested and ultimately redefined in the period between 1920 and 1930. At the beginning of that span, automobiles were seem as a deadly and dangerous new element in street life: particularly effective at killing children. Now, thanks to school safety campaigns devised during the transformative period, automobiles are recognized as the road-going default: the normal thing to find on urban streets.

Only 20% into the book, I cannot comment on it comprehensively. Still, I have the sense that the next such conflict may be between fossil fuel automobiles and greener options – particularly cyclists and transit.

Our personal experiences often leave us incapable of glimpsing the assumptions that underlie the way we live. Good historical writing gives one a sense of how things were seen before. So far, this book has been accomplishing that task well.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 4, 2008 at 8:47 am

I Wish the Motor City… (mp3)
Eric Darby

Sarah July 4, 2008 at 3:18 pm

Automobiles ARE deadly and dangerous, & Western societies are oddly blind to the vast numbers of serious accidents and deaths caused by cars each year.

Milan July 4, 2008 at 4:56 pm


The author argues that was has changed is not the deadliness of cars (at least, to those outside them). It is the way in which dangerous cars are understood. We now instruct children in how to safely navigate roads intended for automobiles and see drivers as less than fully responsible for collisions in which pedestrians have ignored such rules.

It is worth noting that legal regimes vary. In the Netherlands, for instance, cars are automatically considered to be at fault in the event of a collision with a cyclist.

. July 25, 2008 at 2:50 pm

One study published earlier this year reckoned 33m Americans have jobs that could be done from home. If all of them started to telecommute instead of drive to work, oil imports would drop by over a quarter, and carbon emissions would fall by 67m tonnes a year. In terms of hours saved, each telecommuter would get the equivalent of an extra 25 working days of holiday per year.

. November 16, 2008 at 5:37 pm
. July 2, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Protesters might object by standing in front of AVs and blocking traffic. That could lead to calls for AV lanes to be fenced off, “thus making city streets even more inhospitable to non-motorists than they already are”, says Brian Ladd, author of “Autophobia”, a history of opposition to cars. But an unregulated introduction of robotaxis could also cause problems. Rival fleet operators might flood the roads with vehicles offering cut-price rides, making congestion worse.

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