Today was the first day I tried commuting via bike to school from Belmont. As a kid, I was not allowed to bike in the road. That street, Salmon Falls Rd., was once a country road that has now become a dense cut through where cars drive like they are in the country – with no regard for other cars or even residents. There have never been shoulders for bikers or pedestrians. I had to settle for biking in our small driveway.
The downtown and University area of Charlottesville is a far more bike friendly than the Salmon Falls Rd. It has an ethos of being “green,” a relatively great bus system (for a town this size), and has some bike lanes. As gas prices rose and green consciousness expanded, more and more bikes have begun to dot the University’s landscape.
But its still hell for bikers in this town. I would love to commute everyday by bike, and have wanted to try it for years. But the stories of regular bikers – doors of parked cars pop open in your face, drivers yell at you to “get on the sidewalk where you belong,” horns honk, and UTS buses squeeze you out on campus. In spite of this, there is safety in numbers, and I felt it today on Main Street where three of us bikers caused a UPS truck to slow down and give us the right of way.
By coincidence, I ended up at at talk this evening at the Charlottesville Community Design Center (CCDC) about re-envisioning the road. A UVa professor (whos name was lost to me) gave a fascinating talk on the history of the streets, focusing on the shift in the 1920s from pedestrian-owned to car-owned streets. He began with the common phrase “our love affair with the automobile” – a phrase that is often used to justify car centered urban space or to lament the inevitability of car-centered development. This phrase came from a program, put on television in 1961 by Dupont and hosted by Groucho Marx. The schtick was that men would fall in love with their beauties (cars), date them, and marry them, staying together for better or worse. A curious gender politics as well as auto-politics. This notion continues to permeate our culture.
It was also part of a much larger campaign (on the part of car manufacturers) to reclaim the streets in favor of the car. In the early 1920s, the deaths of pedestrians, particularly the deaths of children, lead to public outrage and attempts to put legal restrictions on motorists, particularly on speed. In Cleveland, the town lobbied to force manufacturers to install a speed limiter, allowing vehicles to go no faster than 25 mph. These laws, and the bad PR of kids getting crushed by these new machines daily, led car companies on a crusade to reinvent the streets as spaces for cars.
The main thrust of this campaign was to shift responsibility for accidents from drivers to children and their parents. Associations like AAA were instrumental in public reeducation. Coloring books, school safety courses and pamphlets were churned out by the thousands. Children were taught to fear the road and “look both ways” before crossing. You have to understand, prior to this, people just hung out in the streets and crossed wherever they liked – they considered this a public right.
The second pillar of this campaign was a reinvention of the role of streets in the city. Models at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 demonstrated this new city in a Le Coubusier fashion – high towers in pods with cars whipping around on multi-lane highways. Like Atlanta today, if in fact the cars weren’t always backed up in traffic. Perhaps most striking in the effort to envision the city of the future as a city of car traffic was in the emergence of the Jaywalker – the pedestrian who did not follow the rules that allowed cars to dominate the streets. Jaywalking was once a derogatory term used in the Midwest for country folk who didn’t know how to navigate city streets. Being in the street was no longer a right of the public, but something you did if you were non-urban, stuck in pre-modern times.
This mentality still pervades the streets of Charlottesville (an otherwise green, open minded town) today. Police (let alone other traffic) fail to stop at crosswalks on the Avon Street Bridge while pedestrians are sandwiched between speeding traffic eager to catch the light. Drivers yell at pedestrians in crosswalks. A police officer hit a man in a wheelchair in a crosswalk last year. However, you can still get cited for Jaywalking or for biking in ways that break traffic rules made for cars, even if breaking the rule is safer than following it.
At the end, the speaker was asked: what do we do? His job was to tell us that history can help us reinvent the future. Car dominated streets are not inevitable. We have more public rights that the right to drive.