Sarah Goodyear relates the events that gave rise to the concept of "jaywalking," and describes what American life was like before the assumption that roads were primarily for cars became the norm, and when the streets were "vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses."
It wasn’t always like this. Browse through New York Times accounts of pedestrians dying after being struck by automobiles prior to 1930, and you’ll see that in nearly every case, the driver is charged with something like “technical manslaughter.” And it wasn’t just New York. Across the country, drivers were held criminally responsible when they killed or injured people with their vehicles...
“If you ask people today what a street is for, they will say cars,” says Norton. “That’s practically the opposite of what they would have said 100 years ago.”
Streets back then were vibrant places with a multitude of users and uses. When the automobile first showed up, Norton says, it was seen as an intruder and a menace. Editorial cartoons regularly depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel. That image persisted well into the 1920s...
The industry lobbied to change the law, promoting the adoption of traffic statutes to supplant common law. The statutes were designed to restrict pedestrian use of the street and give primacy to cars. The idea of "jaywalking” – a concept that had not really existed prior to 1920 – was enshrined in law.
The current configuration of the American street, and the rules that govern it, are not the result of some inevitable organic process. "It’s more like a brawl," says Norton. "Where the strongest brawler wins."
The Invention of Jaywalking
(via Making Light)
(Image: Jaywalking, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from acidxedz's photostream)
A drive through downtown Los Angeles in the 1940s and today. Spoiler: Less traffic then! Uglier now!
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