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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Walking into the Future

It has long been popular to appeal to the pre-automotive past as a pedestrian golden age. Narratives are compelling because people can be motivated to action when they can play a role they understand. Nevertheless, when we make decisions about the form of our cities, we should avoid telling tall tales.

So let's be clear. Life in cities before the car was no pedestrian paradise.

Consider the historical photo below of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. The flow of traffic was very heavy with horse-drawn vehicles, making it difficult for pedestrians to cross. Note the accumulation of pedestrians on the corners, waiting for an opportunity to push their way through:

[Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, New York, N.Y.]

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Similar to observations of streets today, the allocation of space was not really more favorable to pedestrians before the car was introduced, either. The sidewalks on State Street in Chicago were extremely crowded with pedestrians, yet most of the space was dedicated to the horse-drawn vehicles and streetcars carrying only a fraction of the people:
One of the busiest streets in the world--State St., Chicago, Ill. (18 miles long), N. from Madison St.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Let's go back a little further. Frederick Law Olmsted worked decades before cars infiltrated cities; he died a few years before the Model T was introduced. Explaining his concept of parkways, he explained the historical development of streets this way:
...the slops and offal matters thrown out of the houses were combined with the dung of the horses and the mud to make a tenacious puddle, through which the people on foot had to drag their way in constant apprehension of being run down or crushed against the wall. In the principal streets strong posts were planted at intervals behind which active men were accustomed to dodge for safety as the wagons came upon them...
To remedy its evils, in the construction of new streets, and the reconstruction of old, the original passage for people on foot was restored, but it was now split through the middle and set back with the house fronts on each side so as to admit of the introduction of a special road-way for horses and wheels, at a lower level.*
Pedestrians walking "in constant apprehension" of being crushed by traffic is hardly a new development. Relegating pedestrians to the sidewalks while vehicles run down the middle of the right of way is also not new.

The most telling example from Olmsted's designs may be the transverse roads in Central Park. People complain today (often rightfully so!) about grade separation forcing pedestrians out of their way to accommodate cars. Yet the genesis of grade separation predates cars by several decades. Not only does Central Park demonstrate that solutions to separate pedestrians from traffic were desirable before we were confronted with cars, it continues to demonstrate how well separation can work with good design.

It is true that automobiles made vehicles more affordable and increased traffic volumes dramatically. There is no doubt that heavy traffic has strained our streets. It is also true that automobiles have higher speeds and pedestrians are more likely to die when struck at higher speeds. Nevertheless, in many ways, automobiles are more predictable than horses ever were (my grandfather's instructions - do not walk behind the horse - are permanently imprinted on me). When reckless drivers claim their car accelerated all by itself, there is often a lot of skepticism (although often not enough from the authorities who should sometimes prosecute them); with horses it was really true.

Comparing the available information on fatalities, Eric Morris found that horse-drawn vehicles were even more lethal than the cars we so desperately need to control today:
As difficult as it may be to believe given their low speeds, horse-drawn vehicles were far deadlier than their modern counterparts. In New York in 1900, 200 persons were killed by horses and horse-drawn vehicles. This contrasts with 344 auto-related fatalities in New York in 2003; given the modern city’s greater population, this means the fatality rate per capita in the horse era was roughly 75 percent higher than today. Data from Chicago show that in 1916 there were 16.9 horse-related fatalities for each 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles; this is nearly seven times the city’s fatality rate per auto in 1997.** 
Recognizing that the internal combustion engine has improved urban conditions in many ways does nothing to reduce the imperative to eliminate the threats it poses to life and limb, and to address its erosion of the quality of life in our cities. Instead, we should recognize that our own efforts to improve our streets are the continuation of centuries of struggle to adapt our cities to balance the needs of commerce and quality of life.

We cannot simply get rid of the car and go back to ideal pedestrian conditions, because it never was that way. Instead, we need to continue the long and difficult task of adapting complex systems that have many competing interests. We probably won't ever eliminate our problems, but we can achieve real improvements by combining creativity with real analysis, by engaging in democratic discourse to build consensus on new solutions, and by investing the resources necessary for design excellence. Since we cannot find the answers to our problems in the mythical past, we must envision something new that will make our future better, and work hard to make it a reality. It's time to walk into the future.

* p. 123-124 in "The Concept of the 'Park Way,'" by Frederick Law Olmsted in The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted: Supplementary Series, Volume I, Writings on Public Parks, Parkways, and Park Systems
** "From Horse Power to Horsepower," by Eric Morris.

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