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The Power of Attitudes

cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists all mingling in Prague's town square

cars, trucks, pedestrians and cyclists all mingling in Prague’s wenceslas square

America vs. Europe: what’s the real difference?  I’ve used several examples from the Old Continent in this blog to illustrate what safe, complete streets look like, and also to hopefully assuage some of the war on cars worries by showing that even in the world’s premier multi-modal transit areas cars are still a critical component of the transportation plan.  But perhaps the most significant contrast between the two places isn’t the obvious differences in infrastructure, but the more subtle differences in attitudes.

propaganda poster from 1937

Cars have been a foundational element of American culture since the early years of the 20th century.  Originally, however, cars were the interlopers on public streets and shared space with horses, buggies, trollies, pedestrians, and cyclists.  As Peter Norton explains in Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, a defining change occurred during the 1920s as AAA and other auto groups launched a wildly successful pro-auto lobbying and outreach campaign to redefine streets as the domain of cars and pedestrians as the interlopers.  They introduced the term “jaywalking“, and promoted the passage of laws across the country strictly limiting the legal boundaries of pedestrians.  By 1950 the cultural acceptance of the dominance of cars had so solidified in the American psyche that Disney made a depressingly prescient cartoon called Motor Mania featuring a Jekyll & Hyde comparison of road ragers.

In the years since, the position of pedestrians has eroded to the point that “I didn’t see them!” is often a perfectly acceptable defense in an auto/ped crash.  The police’s “No criminality suspected” line is a mantra of accident reporting.  There is a twitter feed you can follow to be alerted every time a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car in DC; as of the time of this writing we’re on number 225 for the year.  DC police assume that a cyclist hit by a car is guilty of causing the crash until proven innocent.  In Atlanta, a partially blind driver on a mixture of alcohol and pain medications struck and killed Raquel Nelson’s four year old son as she and her children were crossing a road after getting off a city bus a third of a mile away from the nearest crosswalk.  The driver, who fled the scene (making this his third hit-and-run conviction), was sentenced to six months in prison.  Nelson, however, was convicted of vehicular homicide and faced up to three years in prison.  She fought through nearly three years of appeals and eventually accepted a reduction of the charge to jaywalking and paid a $200 fine.

This is the real difference that sets those walkable, livable European cities apart from the US: an underlying respect, coded in law, for the primacy of an unprotected human being.  The attitude is the critical factor, the infrastructure is just the physical manifestation.  Consider that even in the crowded, car-happy UK there are no regulations on jaywalking.  This story of a British professor being tackled and handcuffed for jaywalking while at a conference in Atlanta (really Atlanta, again?) is a perfect illustration.

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the rise of the sharing economy

To end on a more positive note, it seems that over the past decade that attitudes in America are starting to change in a meaningful way.  A recent article by Jordan Weissmann begins with the observation that “Americans have… logged fewer miles on the road. They’ve been less likely to get a driver’s license. And they’ve bought fewer vehicles.”  Weissmann concludes that this isn’t just the product of our recent economic recession either, but could be the beginning of a lasting trend.  In a previous article, Weissmann points out that getting a first car is no longer the coming-of-age rite and symbol of freedom for young people that it used to be.  A bike boom is underway and expected to continue growing.  There are indicators that we may be witnessing the beginning of a very real generational shift and that the sharing economy (ZipCar!) may have a significant role to play.  And complete streets policies being adopted all across the country are possibly the most encouraging sign of all.

The Census Bureau expects the US to gain over 25 million more people in just the next 10 years – that’s more than the entire New York City combined statistical area.  We don’t have room on our streets for 25 million more F-150s (yep, even in 2013 the top two best-selling cars in America are still pickups).  Car-only planning doesn’t work now and certainly won’t prepare us for the future.  We need a fundamental shift in the way we perceive and utilize our public spaces.  It begins with a much needed attitude adjustment.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes


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