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For pedestrians to be safe, we can't assume that streets are inherently for cars

A road sign warning against pedestrians focusing on their smartphones in Stockholm in 2016.

Peter Norton is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Society at the University of Virginia, and the author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.

You've seen them. Pedestrians on sidewalks or even crossing streets, faces down, their attention more on a device than on their surroundings. Such "phone zombies" can be a nuisance to other pedestrians. The practice can also be dangerous. Responses have varied. A few Chinese cities have tried dividing sidewalks to separate device users from other walkers. Some cities have special signs or lights for phone users. In Honolulu, pedestrians can now be fined if police deem their phone use hazardous. Ontario is considering a similar measure.

The most recent national data from 2015 show that 283 pedestrians were killed in Canada. In the United States, 5,376 were killed – a 10-per-cent increase over 2014 and the highest pedestrian death toll in almost 20 years.

Walking should not be life-threatening and the horrific reverberations of each one of these deaths alone is beyond imagining.

What can we do to save lives?

Surely the first step is to restrict pedestrians' most dangerous practices: jaywalking and distracted walking. Or so it may seem. In fact, this solution reflects assumptions we've inherited from the past – assumptions we should question.

Today, lurking unnoticed in the backs of our minds is a certainty: "Streets are for cars." But a century ago, the unnoticed certainty was "streets are for people."

As automobiles became common, drivers were routinely blamed for pedestrian deaths. The law, police, social norms and mainstream newspapers all confirmed pedestrians' full rights to streets. They defended even children's rights to them. The responses to pedestrian fatalities included low speed limits, traffic rules that slowed cars down and proposals to restrict cars mechanically to low maximum speeds.

People walk along a pedestrian street in downtown Shanghai in 2013.

These methods frightened businesses that wanted a large market for automobiles in cities, and they organized to shift the blame for pedestrian fatalities to pedestrians themselves. In 1922, Engineering News-Record, the readership of which included road builders, editorialized that "the obvious solution … lies only in a radical revision of our conception of what a city street is for." Charles Hayes, president of the Chicago Motor Club, put motordom's position plainly: "The streets are made for vehicles to run upon." Auto maker George Graham explained to his colleagues that "Pedestrians must be educated to know that automobiles have rights." Automotive interest groups, which sometimes called themselves "motordom," were already organizing to promote such a change.

Among the most effective of the many techniques they used were campaigns to redefine walking in the street as "jaywalking" – from "jay," a slur such as "hick" or "rube." In safety campaigns, automobile clubs and dealers arranged for Boy Scouts to distribute cards to free-roaming pedestrians that explained their fault to them; many learned the word jaywalking this way. Motordom also provided schools with free traffic-safety materials that taught children that streets are for cars – a notion that was quite foreign to their parents.

In Los Angeles in 1925, local motordom drafted a traffic ordinance that codified automobiles' superior claim to the streets. National motordom developed the law into a Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance for cities nationwide to adopt, in whole or in part. It was the predecessor of the typical city traffic ordinances of today. These laws protect pedestrians from cars by turning the streets over to cars. Thereafter pedestrians, like resident aliens, could enter streets only within strict constraints.

Assuming that cars must be the priority everywhere has a self-fulfilling effect. When streets are for cars, drivers stop seeing pedestrians – even those who are still there. And we make ourselves car-dependent less from choice than from a lack of good alternatives. Such car dependency then becomes the reason for further prioritizing cars, and so on. Maybe the consequences for mobility, equity, transportation budgets, the environment and public health are worth it. But we can't know until we compare car-dependent cities against the alternatives. And to do so, we have to set aside our assumptions long enough to compare fairly.

Pedestrians cross a street in Tokyo’s Ginza shopping district in 2008.

Many cities have experimented with pedestrian zones (where cars are excluded) and with sharing space (where cars and pedestrians mix). These innovations were introduced as temporary and controversial experiments, and the results have usually been so impressive that cities kept them permanently. In 2002, Drachten, a town in the Netherlands, introduced such "shared space," and success there has led cities in Germany, Britain and other countries to try it, too.

Shared space was an accidental reinvention of an old idea: Prioritize pedestrians, and let street users of all kinds interact. Such streets are low-tech "smart streets" because they take advantage of street users' underappreciated common sense. Humans are much smarter than the dumb systems that regulate them. In 1922, Chicago's top traffic expert, R.F. Kelker, explained that in the city's central Loop district, "owing to the density of pedestrian traffic," authorities "permit the pedestrians to filter through the traffic without obeying the whistle signals, although there may result a slight slowing up of vehicles. This is our present practice and accidents in the Loop are nil."

We grow up learning that North Americans took to automobiles eagerly. We went to extraordinary degrees to destroy and rebuild our cities for them, but the effort (we hear) was primarily a response to car enthusiasm – a "love affair with the automobile." This history is not quite wrong, but it's selectively incomplete and therefore misleading. It silences the moral outrage, now long forgotten, that overtook urban North America as automobiles killed pedestrians. It conceals experts' warnings that trying to accommodate unlimited numbers of cars in cities would be practically futile and economically wasteful. It misrepresents millions of urban North Americans' ultimate recourse to the financial burden of car ownership, in the absence of good alternatives, as a free expression of an enthusiastic preference.

Wherever cars prevail, constraints and sometimes even laws may be necessary to protect pedestrians. But cars need not come first everywhere. Pedestrians can also be protected by returning at least some streets to places where they prevail, and where cars are the resident aliens that must follow strict rules – as in fact they once were. Walkers' greatest vulnerability is their invisibility to drivers who see only other drivers' cars. Distraction is itself a distraction: Phones distract drivers as much as they distract pedestrians, but with far graver risks to others.

Pedestrians will become visible to drivers only when drivers expect them to be in streets. The success of shared space in several European cities gives us a clear duty at least to consider it for North American cities. But as long as we are the heirs of a history we don't know, and which misleads us into assuming that streets are inherently for cars, and that we North Americans always preferred it that way, we will not give this method the attention it deserves. And until we overcome this obstacle, pedestrians will keep getting killed.