Caution: People Walking

Open Streets 2013 on Minnehaha. Credit:

If you’ve ever walked past a parking garage (aka ramp) in downtown Minneapolis, you might have seen a flashing sign mounted on the wall and heard a tinny voice say “Caution: Car Approaching.”

As downtown Minneapolis fills up with more housing, there are more underground garages and more tinny voices telling people walking to watch out. Caution: Car Approaching!

I’ve mounted my own mental campaign every time I hear this. In my mind, I imagine a flashing sign inside the ramp, with a tinny voice shouting into cars — Caution: People Walking!

About 100 years ago in American cities, things were different. In the 1920s, streets were places for pedestrians and streetcars. Streets were (and are) public space. Kids played there. People stopped to talk. There were buggies and bicycles and cars, but everything moved slowly. At the time, motorized vehicles were “strictly regulated because they moved too few people at a heavy cost to street capacity,” according to Peter D. Norton, author of “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,” published in 2008 by MIT Press. All the quotes in this piece are from Norton’s book or sources he cites. (Thanks to the Hennepin County Library for having a copy!)

When motorized vehicles first appeared on streets, a centuries-old Common Law principle governed relations between pedestrians and autos: “all persons have equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users of the way.” In crashes, the bigger, heavier vehicle was the one at fault.

As a New York City traffic court judge explained, “Nobody has any inherent right to run an automobile at all.” Rather, “the courts have held that the right to operate a motor vehicle is a privilege given by the state, not a right, and that privilege may be hedged about with whatever limitations the state feels necessary, or it may be withdrawn entirely.”

By the late 1940s, after decades of struggle, attitudes about the street had changed, thanks to a massive public relations campaign fostered by safety groups and “motordom” (the term organized automotive interest groups called themselves, according to Norton). For example, the term “jaywalker” was widely promoted, describing a person who did not cross at intersections. To some, the word was “a defensive mechanism in the fight against traffic casualties.” To others, it was “a calculated aggression against innocent pedestrians.”

Frustrated pedestrians launched counter-campaigns against “jay drivers.” A St. Louis man wrote, “Make every machine stop and wait. . . . The streets belong to the people and not to any one class, and we have an equal right, in fact, more right than the automobile.”

But, these counter-campaigns faltered against the sheer might of the auto and “the physical threat they represented to other users,” reports Norton. “Pedestrians (and bicyclists) claimed prior rights, but the motorists’ advantage in power tended to make pedestrians relinquish them.”

By the late 1940s, depending on the city, motorists dominated the streets. Over that time, a shift occurred, from guaranteeing pedestrians’ rights to the street to making it the responsibility of pedestrians to watch out for motorists.

Under the new model, “traffic engineers focused on the easy flow of motor vehicles, by restricting users or rebuilding city thoroughfares for cars.” Flash forward to end of 20th century (and still today), when traffic engineers plan streets primarily for the easy flow of cars during rush hour.

But what if we flipped it back? Or changed the balance? Today, there are many efforts to approach streets from the perspective of other users and other times of day.

Open Streets events allow residents to experience streets in an old and new way — without cars. As one woman told me at last year’s Minnehaha Open Street, the event was a chance for her daughter to experience the street without worry.

The Complete Streets movement pushes for street design policies to accommodate all users of the road, from kids to seniors and in between. Neighborhood groups push traffic engineers to listen to desires for calmer streets. And many engineers and street design firms increasingly embrace a new vision of design from the sidewalks in rather than from the auto out.

But these initiatives still regularly run up against the fact that planning for the way the streets work is often dictated by rush hour and the flow of cars at peak demand.

Maybe we should revive a 1919 school yard game in which pedestrians and motorists had equal responsibility. In the game, half the kids pretended they were pedestrians and half cars. “Those crossing the street must look first to the left and then to the right. The automobiles must go slow at crossings and sound their horns. Whoever doesn’t do this, whether he or she is an automobile or a person is told not to go about without a nurse.”

Hilary Reeves is communications director for Transit for Livable Communities. 

More online …

Check out the ways people used San Francisco’s Market Street in 1906 in this video (thanks to Avenue Design Partners for sharing the link):