9 February 2011

Where Were All The Cars?

Cardiff Queen Street, http://www.oldukphotos.com/

I continue to read “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City by Peter Norton and many of the strands in the book tap nicely into a concept of urban space promoted by urbanists such as Jan Gehl. “Street” is a completely different concept to “Road” – within the idea of a street there is something about coming together for the common good and about the social necessity of a space for meeting, commerce and communication. Road is a more individual concept, “On the Road” – a lone traveller, with just the empty highway in front.

I am always intrigued by looking at old photographs of familiar places, particular city centres. I am constantly struck by how “modern” life seems in the social sense. There is density, vibrancy and endless activity. In fact, there are people everywhere – on the street, on the pavement. I now wonder if this was all possible because in those days, the “street” was a genuine multi-user experience, but crucially the balance of power was with the slowest – pedestrians, cyclists, horse and cart. The new trams and trolleybuses just had to mix it up with everyone else as best they could. We may well blurt out “look! there are no cars!” Of course, they weren’t really popular or present in any great numbers until the 1920’s in the USA and possibly a little later in the UK – and yet still we are surprised, as if the idea of no cars is preposterous.

This makes a stark contrast with photos taken from similar locations today. The most noticeable change is that the street has been almost completely devoted to a single mode of transport – the car. It is now clearly a road. Other, slower, occupants of the city centre have to fight it out on the margins, literally. Indeed, encroaching on the right of passage of the car has been classified in our minds (if not necessarily in our laws) as some kind of offence – “jaywalking” as the Americans call it.

The fact that the motor-car gained this pre-eminence in our mental and physical urban space created the “bull in society’s china shop” as described by Mikael Colville-Andersen on Copenhagenize, and is the key to understanding why we need the bicycle in the struggle to help turn the road back into a street. It is the bicycle that can now challenge the widely held assumption that cars have the right to the road. It is by challenging this so-called right that we can win back the civic space that was the street of old. It is by challenging this hegemony that we can create the space for the decent, well designed cycling infrastructure in cities that could unlock the pent-up demand for alternative ways of travelling.

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