The persistence of pedestrianism

By Robbie Webber

An investigation of the “persistence of pedestrianism,” written by Peter Norton and published by Cambridge University Press, explores the history of both the rise of the dominance of automobiles as personal transportation and the continuing pushback by pedestrian advocates against this dominance from the 1920s to the 1960s. It is a fascinating look at how our perception of the urban landscape and mobility has been shaped by social and commercial forces as well as a rejection of the idea that most Americans drive because they prefer auto travel over walking. Norton instead contends that the cause and effect have been confused in most transportation analyses; people don’t walk, not because driving is their preferred method of travel, but because walking has been made so difficult.

Norton starts in the 1920s, when cars first became common in cities. Although Henry Ford envisioned a mode of travel that would be open to the middle class, cars were not universally welcomed. Judges, city planners, health experts, and safety advocates argued against allowing cars into cities, and parents staged protests over what they saw as a machine that was threatening their children. At the same time, the field of traffic engineering was born to bring order to the chaos created by motorized traffic.

This order meant shuttling pedestrians to the sides of the road, even when no walkways were present. And this loss of access to the public rights-of-way was met with protests from the very start, frequently led by middle-class women, seen as the protectors of the family. Norton also delves into how white, privileged women were given consideration during their protests, while similar actions in black or poor communities were often treated with harsher police reactions.

Many of the topics and protest tactics we see in the 21st century are not new at all. Concerns about children’s safety on the way to school, laments from the public health community about a lack of physical activity, calls for zero traffic deaths, and demands for traffic calming and improved public spaces free of auto traffic are all chronicled in Norton’s history. When walking advocates noted the lack of sidewalks on bridges, they formed human chains to create safe walking spaces or moved obstacles into place to create a walkway. Intersections were blocked after pedestrian fatalities until city officials agreed to add traffic controls. And “play streets”—streets near schools where children could play without interacting with motorized traffic—were demanded as necessary to healthy childhood development.

Even concerns by traffic engineers and urban planners about induced demand, busy roads as barriers to walking, and how surface parking lots pushed destinations farther apart, all leading to less walking over the years, were decades old by the 1960s.

The article ends at the time when Lewis Mumford, William Whyte, and Jane Jacobs were writing about the need to preserve pedestrian spaces in our cities and not forfeit traditional neighborhoods to urban highways and drivers’ convenience. But these well-known commentators were only building on the movements that have now been present for close to 100 years, despite the ever-present rise of the automobile.