When cars won against pedestrians

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A century ago, in the early 1920s, cars were a novelty. Where in Italy they circulated just a few tens of thousands, almost a rarity. But even in the United States, where they had started to spread much earlier and had done so much faster, they arrived quite suddenly and spread and imposed on roads that until a few years earlier were crossed by pedestrians, horses, wagons or carriages. So much so that in the early twenties in the twentieth century, in the United States, they caused serious problems and thousands of deaths a year. Especially among pedestrians, especially among children, used to move freely on the street, in contexts where cars did not exist.

There was a period, about a century ago, in which in the United States the protests against cars and their intrusion into the streets that previously belonged to others were many and intense. But the automotive industry reacted and managed – in a very short time and with great effectiveness – to reverse the situation. To make common sense the idea that the streets must be cars, and that pedestrians must be considered guilty if run over. It all had a lot to do with an aggressive and highly effective campaign tied to one simple word: jaywalkingstill used today in the United States for to define the act of carelessly crossing the street where it is not allowed.

The main research on how and when it was introduced the concept of jaywalkingand how relevant it was in reversing an increasingly negative perception of cars, were made by the American Peter D. Norton, historian and author of the book Fighting Traffic. Interviewed a few years ago by VoxNorton She said“In the early days of automobiles, it was up to the drivers to avoid pedestrians, not the other way around,” and talking to Bloomberg he added: “If today we ask whose roads they are, we get the answer that they are cars, it is just the opposite of what they would have answered a hundred years ago”.

A New York Street in the 1920s (Keystone / Getty Images)

The “pedestrian crossings”, although without parallel white stripes, are about as old as pedestrians, and existed long before cars. They are one of those things about which it can be said that, albeit in their own way, “they already existed in Pompeii“. Certainly, however, in the United States, in the early years of the twentieth century, the streets were more pedestrians than anyone else. Horses were anything but a novelty, rail vehicles were predictable and cars were rare, expensive, noisy, and rather slow.

Things changed when the Model T wanted by Henry Ford began to spread, a car designed to become mass-produced, which could reach a top speed of about 70 kilometers per hour. In the postwar years and even more so in the first half of the “roaring” twenties, more and more Americans found themselves behind the wheel of heavy and fast cars, without the roads, the rules and what we would now call the “other road users “Had had time and opportunity to adapt to that bursting novelty.

A street in New York in 1923 (AP Photo)

In 1924 there were about ten thousand Ford Motor Company dealerships, and just around that time – when roughly 115 million people lived in the United States – the country passed the significant threshold of one car for every 10 inhabitants. Motels (short for “motor-hotels”), drive-ins and a host of other car-related activities and pastimes were born. But there were also intense protests from those who mostly found themselves suffering from the cars. Especially in urban areas, in fact, cars also became one of the main causes of death: in all the 1920s, only in the United States, caused the death of about 200 thousand people.

The cars were therefore seen as a serious threat. Cartoons and comics depicted the drivers in the role of “Death”, complete with a scythe. There were those who spoke of a “terrible massacre to be stopped”, and there were those who pressured cars to be fitted with speed limiters, a bit like what happens today for electric scooters.

In November 1924, a full-page title of New York Times I speak of the United States as a country “in revolt against motor killings”.

The article began like this:

“The horrors of war turn out to be less terrifying than those of peace. Cars stand out as far more lethal mechanisms than machine guns. The reckless driver makes more deaths than the gunner. Those in the streets are less safe than those in the trenches. Fifteen thousand of our men were killed in the nineteen months of our participation in the World War. Two thousand deaths a month, a modest number when compared with the staggering toll of seven thousand lives per month due to accidents in the United States. The automobile is the single greatest cause of death ”.

And it contained this simple graph:

(New York Times)

As a recent article recalled written by Clive Thompson on Mediumin 1922 a demonstration for road safety was organized in New York: among others, about 10 thousand children had marched and 1,054 of them had been made to walk apart, to represent the deaths caused the previous year by cars in New York.

Thompson also cites a data according to which in 1924, in the United States, cars sold were 12 percent less than the previous year. The automotive industry understood that the situation was serious and was in danger of becoming very serious. First of all, he tried to promote courses and awareness campaigns for the youngest, for example by going to schools to remember to be careful of traffic.

Most importantly, though, the auto industry began to talk about jay walking. The word, now commonly used in American English, combined the word “walking” with “jay”, a term that at the beginning of the twentieth century was used to indicate, in a derogatory way, someone not very awake from the countryside, a ” yokel “.

It is not clear how and when the word was born – on whose origin there are also a couple of other theories with far fewer supporters – but it seems that at the beginning it was used, regardless of car-related contexts, to talk about someone who came to town from outside, wandering bewildered and clumsy without knowing what to do or where to go. Thanks to an intense campaign, in which newspapers in the meantime full of advertisements for cars played an important role, the word began to be used to refer to pedestrians who crossed the street carelessly.

In short, whoever drove – and could afford a car – was the future and was right. Those who remained pedestrians, and could not even understand when and how to let the cars pass, was the past, they were left out. More than a campaign of accountability, it was in some ways a very effective work of blaming the victims.

(National SafetyCouncil)

There were those who tried to react, among other things by trying to talk about jay drivingbut jay walking had much greater fortunes, however, becoming a single word: jaywalking.

In this regard, Norton describes an event organized in the 1920s in New York in which a clown who does not know how to cross a street is repeatedly hit, at very low speed, by a Model T, for which – witnessing the scene – he ends up. obviously to side.

In the second half of the 1920s, car sales began to rise again: there was less and less talk of road deaths and massacres in the United States, with other tones and less frequency.

New York in 1933 (Jack Maytig / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Meanwhile, there were only one cars in Italy for every 500 inhabitants: very few, even compared to countries like France, Germany and the United Kingdom. The car for every ten inhabitants was reached only in 1965, forty years later than in the United States. What the Model T did there, here they did the 600 and even more the 500 of FIAT.

Matteo Dondè – architect and urban planner expert on issues relating to cycling and traffic control – he explains that, in fact, what happened in the United States in the first post-war period, in Italy happened in the second. But in a different way, because the period and the context were different. According to him, for Italy the theme of squares was “representative, public places par excellence which, from one moment to the next, became spaces to be dedicated to cars”. It happened in Piazza Duomo in Milan, in Piazza del Campo in Siena and even in Rome around the Colosseum, “without even the car manufacturers having to commit themselves as they had done in America”.

– Read also: When the Dutch changed the streets

In other words, continues Dondè, everything happened almost naturally, because – even without the active influence of the “communicating force” of the powerful and influential car manufacturers – in Italy “the country of small municipalities, the car was even more than elsewhere an element of freedom “. A certain victimization of pedestrians was therefore a consequence of the spread of cars, rather than something planned from above.

There is not a single word in Italian to translate the concept of jaywalking, but according to Dondè the thought underlying the concept is still very present. For example, it lies in the very meaning of the word “accident”, or in the perception of many road deaths as “fatality”, or even in expressions such as “car that overturns”, “pirate of the road”. Or again, in the references, even recent and institutional, to pedestrians as subjects who “must be educated” and who in any case must remain subordinate to cars.

Also in this regard, Dondè cites – and criticizes – a recent campaign by the municipality of Milan – “considered among the most advanced on the subject” – which however revolves around the adverb “kindly”, And which invites motorists to respect the rights of pedestrians politely, as if it were a concession.

According to Dondè, the civic awareness campaign “kindly” (of which it is not the only critic) is in its own small way a recent and umpteenth example of a general Italian perception, according to which «pedestrians often feel obliged to thank the car that makes them cross the strips». According to Traffic Lawsin the absence of pedestrian crossings, and over or underpasses – or if these are more than a hundred meters away from the crossing point – the pedestrian can instead cross the carriageway, as long as he does so perpendicularly and on roads where his presence is permitted .

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Indeed, he continues, “in residential districts [spesso appartenenti alle cosiddette “zone 30”, di cui Dondè si occupa] of the most advanced countries in terms of sustainable mobility and road safety, there are no pedestrian crossings and pedestrians always have priority and can cross wherever they want ”. In short, something – especially elsewhere – is moving, with the aim of changing a perception that seems to have always existed, and which instead exists. only for a century in the United States and a few decades less in Italy as well.

However, it is a way of thinking and seeing things that resists and persists: even elsewhere, for example in Canada, people continue to blame the act of jaywalkingand to make the pedestrian feel primarily responsible for any “accident”.