The Year That Cars Took the Roads Away from Pedestrians

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In a new essay for Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford and Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic, examine the history of the automobile in America, and how our perception of city streets changed:

In 1924, recognizing the crisis on America’s streets, President Herbert Hoover launched the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety. Any organizations interested or invested in transportation planning were invited to discuss street safety and help establish standardized traffic regulations that could be implemented across the country. Since the conference’s biggest players all represented the auto industry, the group’s recommendations prioritized private motor vehicles over all other transit modes.

Norton suggests that the most important outcome of this meeting was a model municipal traffic ordinance, which was released in 1927 and provided a framework for cities writing their own street regulations. This model ordinance was the first to officially deprive pedestrians access to public streets. “Pedestrians could cross at crosswalks. They could also cross when traffic permitted, or in other words, when there was no traffic,” explains Norton. “But other than that, the streets were now for cars. That model was presented to the cities of America by the U.S. Department of Commerce, which gave it the stamp of official government recommendation, and it was very successful and widely adopted.” By the 1930s, this legislation represented the new rule of the road, making it more difficult to take legal recourse against drivers.

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Longreads Archive: Collectors Weekly

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