When Pedestrians Ruled the Streets

The driverless car may take a while to catch on—just as the automobile did a century ago

Middle-class families scooped up affordable and speedy Model Ts. As they began to race through the streets, they ran headlong into pedestrians—with lethal results. (illustration by Kyle Bean)
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The use of “jaywalker” was a brilliant psychological ploy. What’s the best way to convince urbanites not to wander in the streets? Make the behavior seem unsophisticated—something you’d expect from hicks fresh off the turnip truck. Car companies used the self-regarding snobbery of city-dwellers against themselves. And the campaign worked. Only a few years later, in 1924, “jaywalker” was so well-known it appeared in a dictionary: “One who crosses a street without observing the traffic regulations for pedestrians.”

Meanwhile, newspapers were shifting allegiance to the automakers—in part, Norton and Vanderbilt argue, because they were profiting heavily from car ads. So they too began blaming pedestrians for causing accidents.

“It is impossible for all classes of modern traffic to occupy the same right of way at the same time in safety,” as the Providence Sunday Journal noted in a 1921 article called “The Jay Walker Problem,” reprinted from the pro-car Motor magazine.

In retrospect, you could have predicted that pedestrians were doomed. They were politically outmatched. “There was a road lobby of asphalt users, but there was no lobby of pedestrians,” Vanderbilt says. And cars were a genuinely useful technology. As pedestrians, Americans may have feared their dangers—but as drivers, they loved the mobility.

By the early ’30s, the war was over. Ever after, “the street would be monopolized by motor vehicles,” Norton tells me. “Most of the children would be gone; those who were still there would be on the sidewalks.” By the 1960s, cars had become so dominant that when civil engineers made the first computer models to study how traffic flowed, they didn’t even bother to include pedestrians.

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The triumph of the automobile changed the shape of America, as environmentalists ruefully point out. Cars allowed the suburbs to explode, and big suburbs allowed for energy-hungry monster homes. Even in midcentury, critics could see this coming too. “When the American people, through their Congress, voted for a twenty-six-billion-dollar highway program, the most charitable thing to assume is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing,” Lewis Mumford wrote sadly in 1958.

This is precisely what makes modern critics nervous about self-driving cars. Will they, too, create radically new driving patterns—and dangerous changes to society?

Norton sees two roads forward, one good and one dreadful. If we’re lucky, self-driving cars could reduce overall driving by allowing superefficient ride-sharing. Imagine a system that’s half Zipcar and half taxi service, where you buy access to a private fleet of vehicles that work out sharing on the fly. Stoplights could become obsolete: Some computer models suggest that self-driving cars could navigate intersections simply by weaving around each other, reducing emissions from idling. Maybe we could cross the street wherever we wanted—because the cars would stop and flow around us.

But there’s a dystopian view, too. Self-driving cars, Norton warns, could usher in an explosion of driving and even more far-flung exurbs. If you can now work on your laptop while commuting, why not live even farther away? “That scares me,” he says. “We might pave the whole country that way.” But Vanderbilt isn’t as worried. “The [computer] models I’ve seen suggest we’d drive less,” he says, and he suspects most people have an upper limit on how much time they’re willing to commute, even if they’re not driving. “I don’t envision two-hour commutes.” Auto deaths would likely shrink dramatically; Google’s prototype self-driving cars have been on the road for five years, and, Google says, haven’t had a single accident under computer control.

But when the rare accidents do occur, it’ll create—as with 100 years ago—a big public debate about who’s to blame. The passengers (who weren’t piloting the car)? The carmaker, who wrote the algorithms? A cloudy day that temporarily occluded the car’s GPS?

And carmakers may again need to mount a big public-relations campaign—this time to convince us to trust the cars. Would you put your faith in a self-driving robot to stop in time when your children step into the street against the light? The cars may change, but the détente between them and us may always be uneasy.

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