Roads Were Not Built for Cars (Part 3)

Mission: To promote driving less so all may live more.

This follows the second post that draws upon the book Roads Were Not Built for Cars: How Cyclists Were the First to Push for Good Roads & Became the Pioneers of Motoring, by Carlton Reid, 2015.[1]

When automobiles were introduced in Britain and America, they were by historical fact newcomers and outsiders, unwelcome on many or most roads. They lacked legislative backing and social appreciation. But within about a half of century, they had taken over the roads and the minds of many.

Quoting something said by the historian Lewis Mumford in 1955, Reid summarizes the shift in thinking:

… motor transportation is the sacred cow of the …religion of technology, and in the service of this curious religion no sacrifice in daily living, no extravagance of public expenditure, appears too great…. Because we have apparently decided that the private motorcar has a sacred right to go anywhere, halt anywhere, and remain anywhere as long as its owner chooses, we have neglected other means of transportation. (53)

In his chapter “Who Owns the Roads?” Reid shows that until “the 1920s, the rights of all road users were defended by the mainstream press, the police and the judiciary” (77). But by 1925, a traffic control professional, Miller McClintock, said “‘The old common law rule that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway must give way before the requirements of modern transportation'” (77).

Bruce Cobb, a New York City magistrate, said that “the pedestrians of 1924 faced ‘superior force in the shape of the omnipresent motor car,’ and had been ‘compelled to forgo [their] legal rights of substantial equality on the highway, as they have existed almost from time immemorial'” (77).

Even though pedestrians were losing their rights, first by the sheer size and speed of the automobiles and later by laws against non-motoring use of streets, the struggle continued. Reid quotes the journalist J. S. Dean, who was head of the Pedestrians’ Association. In 1947 Dean wrote,

The private driver is … most strongly influenced by the sense of ownership of his car, and, as he often believes, of the road as well. It is “his” car to do with as he pleases, and, as he often believes, it is “his” road too, and other road-users are merely intruders who are there at their own peril. (78)

What should have been done instead of allowing cars to exclude other forms of transportation would be consistent urban and rural planning that insisted on a minimally invasive use of cars, with the result that for every new length of highway and street, alternate forms of transportation were considered and funded. That would mean that where practical, trains and buses would be subsidized to encourage mass transportation. It would also mean that pedestrian and bicycle pathways would typically be required wherever a new or bigger road were being built.

These changes would require government control, and society would need to accept the fact that a well-disciplined national militia is no more justified than a well-conceived national transportation system.

(Finish roads-were-not-built-for-cars series with Part 4)


[1] According to the author, “As much of this book is about resurrecting lost or deliberately obscured histories, there will be some who think I’ve made it all up. I’ve therefore been very careful to cite the source material for all the facts and quotes I’ve included. The copious notes would double the length of this book so I have placed them online:” (xxiii).