Pedestrians poised to take back the streets
In the 1920s, three-quarters of annual auto traffic deaths were pedestrians, according to historian Peter Norton’s 2002 book “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.”
Norton describes how pedestrians were often unwillingly forced from roads in America in the 1920s, and how we have been shaming jaywalkers if they impede the progress of cars today. The “America’s love affair with the car” campaign of the 1960s supported designing our lifestyles around cars, Norton said in a 2014 interview in the Washington Post.
“One of the signs of its success is that everyone forgets it was invented as a public relations campaign,” he said.
The mantra explains why we’ve built cities and lifestyles that are dependent on cars, without much consideration for alternatives.
Sometimes we forget that cars were not always welcome on the road. In Cincinnati, 42,000 people signed a petition in 1923 to have mechanical speed limiters keeping all cars under 25 mph. To placate pedestrians, the auto industry proposed a “municipal traffic ordinance” which we’ve followed for the past 90 years, which has led us to believe roads are the exclusive domain of motor vehicles.
We design cities and our work schedules around this belief. For the past three decades McDonald’s has sold more of its products via drive-through windows than to walk-in customers.
But cars were not to blame for crowded cities and the car-dependent commuter lifestyle. According to a 2014 report in CityLab, an online publication of the Atlantic, “commuters” originated in the 19th century. Wealthy people commuted — or reduced — the cost of their train or coach fare to city centers by buying monthly tickets. Working-class people lived near their industries in cities.
Jobs later followed workers who had cars out of cities, so commuters today travel between suburbs by car. There’s been a trend of slightly reducing our car commuting for a lot of reasons, from working at home, to walking and biking for fun and health, to sharing cars.
Autonomous cars promise two things: The possibility of zero traffic fatalities. And vastly reducing the suffering of a driver stuck in traffic jams. Google’s autonomous car technology has elevated to the point where it can recognize pedestrian intent, and not merely jam on the brakes if a person steps near a crosswalk.
Autonomous cars will also, I believe, behave in a way that defers to pedestrians. Walkers will likely not have to look both ways when they cross a street.
That’s already happening in Ann Arbor, a city with a heavy penetration of Toyota’s Prius fuel-sipping hybrid. I’ve seen these Prius’ non-autonomous cars behave the way I expect future self-driving cars to behave: Their drivers are anticipating and sensing the intents of pedestrians and slowing down. It’s almost as if the Prius drivers don’t want to scare pedestrians, much less hit them. These drivers are behaving like Google cars promise to.
I used to believe this type of Prius driver behavior was a plea for approval, an apology for commuting: “I’m sorry for polluting. Forgive me for using foreign oil.”
But lately in Ann Arbor (among other college towns around the country) I’ve noticed that folks driving Priuses seem to be apologizing for our history of turning pedestrians into second-class citizens.
By driving their Prius’ in a less-threatening way, I’m sensing that Ann Arborites seem to be exaggerating behaviors as an anticipation that road use is about to change in a profound way: Cars won’t bully their way through town, they’ll blend in.