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After 90 years, American cities are again redefining independence

Posted by on July 3rd, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Sunday Parkways: Just a slice of alternative history.
(Photo: J.Maus/BikePortland)

Sometime in the 1920s, the American auto industry worked very hard and very consciously to achieve a great victory: they successfully associated their product with freedom.

A machine that had been developed to power farm implements and long-distance travel became a way for the wealthy, and gradually for the less wealthy, to zoom and roar right through the middle of cities.

As documented by history professor Peter Norton’s 2008 book Fighting Traffic (and many links over the years in BikePortland’s Monday Roundup), many Americans — maybe most of them — didn’t see this as a blow in favor of freedom; just the opposite. They saw it as a takeover of city streets. Even in a world where many more people died of disease and violence than they do today, the public was shocked by the notion that a person’s freedom to zoom down a street could be more important than a child’s freedom to play in it.

nation roused

The New York Times, Nov. 23, 1924.

“Children must play,” St. Louis resident C.C. White warned in a letter to the St. Louis Star in 1918. Five years later, a cartoon in that newspaper depicted a car as “The Modern Moloch,” a reference to an Ammonite god who supposedly required the sacrifice of children.

Here in Portland, the mayor, The Oregonian and the police department eventually teamed up to lead a nationally recognized campaign called “Let’s Quit Killing” that treated lethal driving as a private choice but a public problem. Similar movements had already been active in cities across the country.

chinese wall

A 1923 ad in the Cincinnati Post taken out by a coalition of auto dealers.

In Cincinnati in 1923, the American movement against the automotive takeover of cities reached its high-water mark: 10 percent of the city’s population signed a ballot initiative that would have required “speed governors” in every car, devices that mechanically limited traffic speeds to a nonlethal 25 mph within city limits.

The auto industry, rightly realizing that without their big speed advantage cars would never be able to compete with streetcars and bicycles as popular ways to get around a city, poured money into lobbying the public for a “no” vote, referring over and over again to the idea that the law would build a “Chinese wall” around Cincinnati. By the time the campaign was over, fewer people voted for the law than had signed the petition.

It’s enough to make somebody wonder about the country that might have been.

In the years that followed, advocates of “motordom,” as they referred to themselves, pulled off their most famous trick: they used a derogatory American term for a country bumpkin, a “jay,” to coin a new word, “jaywalking.”

People using the street casually weren’t exercising freedom, the word implied. They were betraying ignorance and unsophistication. They didn’t belong in U.S. cities; cars did.

All of which hopefully explains why I was so intrigued, a few weeks ago, to notice this tweet:

And then this one:

And also this:

Have you had the prickling sense, lately, that the United States is in a new moment? That the Vision Zero movement and those like it are reviving some of the sense of outrage about the lost freedom of urban movement that almost no one still alive remembers?

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Here’s when I felt the prickle: When I noticed that local activist Dan Kaufman had used an image from the Dutch Stop de Kindermoord movement on his Facebook event for May’s traffic safety demonstration on Southeast Powell Boulevard outside Cleveland High School.

Screenshot 2015-07-03 at 12.27.33 PM

The need for the demonstration made me feel sad. But the response to Kaufman’s quick organizing — and the hugely successful two months that Portland livable streets advocates have had since — have made me feel something else: patriotic.

I started to think that even though (unlike in the 1970s Netherlands) almost no one still alive remembers the streets of the 1920s, something big could be happening here in U.S. cities. And that this might be what it looks like.

Protest on SE Powell-29.jpg

So when I saw those “jaydriving” tweets, I scrolled through Twitter until I could figure out the people who seemed to be responsible for spreading the term. Then I emailed them to ask why they use the word. Here’s one of them: Mitchell Austin, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator for the City of Punta Gorda, Florida:

My first encounter with it was April of 2014 when @PedestrianError … used it in a Tweet. … I just started using it from then on as the situation seemed to cry out for it.
Unfortunately the need to use the term seems to occur all too frequently. The social disconnect that autocentric life causes combined with the distraction of all these little screens seems to have enhanced our propensity to do dumb things behind the wheel. The narcissism of blocking a crosswalk…because 5 feet further in my BMW is more important than your life…or the stress-anger stew car commuters sit in for hours a day…to earn a buck to pay for the car?!?!? It all just seems to be going off the rails for so many people.
I say all this not as some militant anti-car guy. I drive, heck I own two cars in a single driver household. However, there is no reason someone should have to buy, fuel, insure, and maintain a 4,000 lbs hunk of steel, rubber & glass in order to get around & earn a living.

And here’s the pseudonymous woman behind the the account @PedestrianError:

I can’t even remember all the folks who’ve used it. … I don’t think I’d use it on someone who was operating a motor vehicle in a city without breaking any laws or at least standard safety practices (like talking on a hand-held phone in a state that hasn’t yet outlawed it) and it’s certainly possible to jaydrive even in an area where a car might be the most efficient way to get around thanks to limited transit, dispersed land uses and/or lousy biking conditions. I see it more as reckless and/or incompetent driving, which is amplified in an area where no driving is really reasonable. I think use of the term has been waxing and waning for a while, probably slowly but unevenly gaining more traction. … I don’t think I picked it up from someone else but I definitely wouldn’t claim to be the first. It just makes sense.

The birth or rebirth of this little word on a social media platform is a small thing. Even the big idea behind the word — that thoughtless driving, not thoughtless walking, is out of place on city streets — isn’t enough to restore the independence Americans lost when we gradually handed city streets over to traffic and began to build our cities around our machines, not fully realizing the costs until it was too late.

But from a gradually spreading grassroots hashtag to a Portland dad worried about his children’s safety to residents mobilizing for a voice on their neighborhood association to one of America’s great cities announcing that despite our country’s choices in the 1920s, we no longer find traffic deaths to be an acceptable price to pay for speeed, the national movement for better streets that’s being built right now is showing signs of a very American attitude. It’s actually the same attitude that advocates of “motordom” had when they gradually wrested control of city streets, supposedly in the name of freedom, 90 years ago.

Independence isn’t something you receive.

Independence is something you declare.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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PaulaF
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PaulaF

And it will take more than just a couple dozen people showing up at some of these protest events. As in the Stop Kindermood, we need hundreds, thousands to show up and force a change by our civic leaders.

Tom Hardy
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Tom Hardy

Yes Paula. It will take a lot of cyclists in suits at city and county meetings to help sway the Jaydrivers in charge of the bureaucracy to change their minds or be gradually replaced by promising them support then not delivering any if they don’t change their attitudes.

I noticed in “Bicycling magazine” an article regarding Bogata Columbia and the fact that cyclists take over the streets on Sundays every week with over 1 million cyclists. The main problem That I see is the rest of the week Motorists get their way and an average of one pedestrian a day is killed and one cyclist a week. The fatalities are not on Sundays.

Anne Hawley
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Anne Hawley

I’m so glad you posted this today, Michael. I’ve just been reading (well, listening to the audiobook of) Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century by Steven Conn. He’s dug into 19th and early 20th century original sources to trace the links between anti-urban, anti-government, anti-density sensibilities and the rise of the political right. He paints a clear picture of why those links are so hard to break, and where the city-hatred came from that is so tightly tied to “motordom”.

Cars and highways are a big part of his discussion. I’m not done with it yet so I don’t know exactly where he’s leading me, but he’s opening my eyes to the deeper, earlier roots of anti-urbanism in the US. It’s discouraging to know just how far back the roots of our transportation and housing problems go (way before cars), and how intractable the divide is between car folks and new urbanists.

It’s a good read.

Dead Salmon
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Dead Salmon

American urban/suburban areas grew to their current sprawling size during the age of the automobile – the exceptions being perhaps downtown areas. The sheer size makes eliminating the automobile unattractive to the majority of people who have to move around the city. Public transportation cannot provide reasonable commute times for a reasonable cost for many people because of too many transfers. Commute times on buses/trains in the PDX metro area can be 2+ hours – compared to less than 1 hour in a car. Most are not willing to ride a bike in the rain, snow, or when it’s 90 degrees outside.

Thus, cars will be here until economic conditions are so poor that people can’t afford them, however, the form of cars may change to electric, self-driving, etc. Cars represent a convenience – a savings of time and avoidance of work and harsh weather – and most folks LOVE to drive their car – it’s perfectly normal to love cars.

Historical perspective via a short video from early America:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Q5Nur642BU

oregon111
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oregon111

biky people are nothing but loser car-haters…

there is a reason why 95%+ of us prefer to drive…

why do I ALWAYS see so many cars in parking lots and never any bicycles?

lets have a ballot measure to ban cars – and total the results — I don’t think cars will be banned

Anne Hawley
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Anne Hawley

I AM SO HAPPY! I’ve finally been able to select an avatar! I’ve been a member of the Interstellar Losers Club (sci-fi/fantasy/genre nerds, basically) on LIveJournal since LiveJournal was a thing, and now I can use it here! Two losers’ clubs! OMG. I’ve arrived.

Anne Hawley
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Anne Hawley

Ahem! Now that I’m done goofing around, can I just say that I love the photograph at the top of this article? I had to look twice to realize that it was actually a picture of Portland, and not Copenhagen or something.

And, further, I appreciate the Independence Day spirit of your post, Michael. Recent days have brought so much uplifting news on the national level, and I agree that a big change seems to be in the air locally, too. An awakening of sorts. I’m feeling hopeful of positive change in our streets for the first time in a good long while.

gutterbunnybikes
Guest

There are two huge difference between now and the 20’s that really shouldn’t be overlooked.

Unlike in the 20’s – It (the automotive) is now an established world wide industry. Other than the military industrial complex, there is no bigger industry. It’s tentacles are wrapped around oil, mining, recycling, chemical/material, textiles, tech, banking, insurance, banking, construction, real estate and even media. Very few if any other industry has as many other industries tied to it for their success.

And as silly as it might seem, people still see the automobile as part of the American dream, and many place a lot of the definition of themselves into what they drive.

And quite frankly, I’m still not convinced that Vision Zero (here – it has definitely had some good results elsewhere) isn’t just a ploy to get citizens to lay on some political pressure to secure more DOT funds, only to have most those dollars them diverted to highway projects. It’s going to take more than some signed pieces and of paper and a couple jersey barriers to convince me otherwise.

Though I also have hope, because all of this that we’ve done for cars has occurred in less than 100 years (really it didn’t take off huge until after WWI). All that most of us know and grew up with, is really just a spec on a pinhead in history, and if all this car culture can be built in 50-80 years, it can be dismantled even faster.

Spiffy
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Spiffy

freedom isn’t free…

corporations bought the roads in a hostile takeover…

activists are using sweat equity to take them back to a co-op status…

Clark in Vancouver
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Clark in Vancouver

gutterbunnybikes
>And of course news media facing revenue losses (car advertisers is one of their largest ad markets) could start tainting the movement too – more so than they do now.

It’s been happening more and more though ever since peak-car.
And I totally assume that the auto industry is infiltrating The Netherlands to work on dismantling their cycling infrastructure that’s been inspiring the world. They’d have to be sneaky about it but they’re sneaky types.

Clark in Vancouver
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Clark in Vancouver

oregon111
biky people are nothing but loser car-haters…

This explains a lot of odd reactions that some people have. I was recently asked, after it was noticed that I biked to someplace, if I was one of those anti-car kinds of cyclist or a frugal person kind of cyclist. I hadn’t heard this idea before that someone could be anti-car. It must be a new myth developed recently. Like how years ago, it was thought that Lesbians hated men. In a heterosexist worldview, it would explain why they’re attracted to women. (As opposed to just lack of interest in men.)
Same thing with this belief. In a car-centric worldview, someone cycling therefore must hate cars. It’s a way of making sense of something instead of trying to understand the diversity of the world.

Tom Hardy
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Tom Hardy

I like your thinking Eric. Soon banks and insurance companies might require Google driven cars.

Commenter
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Commenter

I don’t know if any of you saw the Tour de France this weekend, but judging from the amount of cycling infrastructure I saw I’d say the Dutch are the real winners here…

Pete
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Pete

“They were betraying ignorance and unsophistication.”

Portraying?

Clark in Vancouver
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Clark in Vancouver

gutterbunnybikes
I don’t hate cars. I believe in using the proper tool for any given task. Well over 50% of automobile travel is too much tool for the job.

I don’t actually care too much about what other people do with their money. I hope that they would feel the same about me. What I do want is more choice in all matters. When it comes to transportation, I want to be able to choose between a selection of modes and not be forced into only one option. This is what the velorution is really all about.

Dan
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Dan

If you think climate change is a scam, I feel sorry for you.

Dead Salmon
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Dead Salmon

Quote:
“Chris July 6, 2015 at 10:41 am
Claiming that global warming is a plot hatched by those who stand to profit from it is, frankly, total bullocks.”

reply:
This graph of earth temperature based on Antarctic ice cores going back 800,000 years proves conclusively that the current global warming hysteria is a hoax. Enjoy:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperature_record#/media/File:EPICA_temperature_plot.svg

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

This is good! 🙂

George Carlin on Global Warming:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BB0aFPXr4n4

Dead Salmon
Guest
Dead Salmon

This article on Arctic sea ice melting from November 22, 1922 is better than sex for a GW denier. More proof of the absurdity of claims of human-caused GW: (all true per snopes)

http://www.snopes.com/politics/science/globalwarming1922.asp