Whose Streets?

Market and Kearny and 3rd Streets, 1909. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

“Whose Streets? OUR Streets!” yell rowdy demonstrators when they surge off the sidewalk and into thoroughfares. True enough, the streets are our public commons, what’s left of it (along with libraries and our diminishing public schools), but most of the time these public avenues are dedicated to the movement of vehicles, mostly privately owned autos. Other uses are frowned upon, discouraged by laws and regulations and what has become our “customary expectations.” Ask any driver who is impeded by anything other than a “normal” traffic jam and they’ll be quick to denounce the inappropriate use or blockage of the street.

Bicyclists have been working to make space on the streets of San Francisco for bicycling, and to do that they’ve been trying to reshape public expectations about how streets are used. Predictably there’s been a pushback from motorists and their allies, who imagine that the norms of mid-20th century American life can be extended indefinitely into the future. But cyclists and their natural allies, pedestrians, can take heart from a lost history that has been illuminated by Peter D. Norton in his recent book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. He skillfully excavates the shift that was engineered in public opinion during the 1920s by the organized forces of what called itself “Motordom.” Their efforts turned pedestrians into scofflaws known as “jaywalkers,” shifted the burden of public safety from speeding motorists to their victims, and reorganized American urban design around providing more roads and more space for private cars.

Typical street scene in 1909, long before private cars had become a major problem. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

For decades, over 40,000 people have died each year in car crashes on the streets of the United States. This daily carnage is utterly normalized to the point that few of us think about it at all, and if we do, it’s like the weather, just a regular part of our environment. But it wasn’t always this way. Back when the private automobile was first beginning to appear on public streets a large majority of the population, including politicians, police, and business leaders, agreed that cars were interlopers and ought to be regulated and subordinated to pedestrians and streetcars.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the speed with which conditions on urban streets changed at the dawn of the motorized era. Here’s a quote from the California Automobile Association’s Motorland magazine in August 1927 describing the rapid growth in car ownership:

In 1895 there were four cars registered, in 1905 there were 77,400 in use, in 1915 the total had risen to 2,309,000, and in 1925 there were 17,512,000 passenger automobiles on the highways, and the total is now in excess of 20,000,000.

Motorland magazine cover, July 1927

With over two million cars clogging city streets in 1915, and death and injury tolls rising, cities took various measures to address the problem (quoting from “Fighting Traffic”):

From 1915 (and especially after 1920), cities tried marking crosswalks with painted lines, but most pedestrians ignored them. A Kansas City safety expert reported that when police tried to keep them out of the roadway, “pedestrians, many of them women” would “demand that police stand aside.” In one case, he reported, “women used their parasols on the policemen.” Police relaxed enforcement.

Pedestrians on Market Street, 1937. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

The common usage of the streets by all was considered sacrosanct and attempts by motordom and/or police to regulate people’s use of the streets was widely resisted. Plenty of police didn’t agree that pedestrian behavior should be criminalized on behalf of motoring:

New York police magistrate Bruce Cobb in 1919 defended the “legal right to the highway” of the “foot passenger,” arguing that “if pedestrians were at their peril confined to street corners or certain designated crossings, it might tend to give selfish drivers too great a sense of proprietorship in the highway.” He assigned the responsibility for the safety of the pedestrian—even one who “darts obliquely across a crowded thorofare”—to drivers… By 1916 “jaywalker” was a feature of “police parlance.” Police use modified the word’s meaning and sparked controversy. “Jaywalker” carried the sting of ridicule, and many objected to branding independent-minded pedestrians with the term… The New York Times objected, calling the word “highly opprobrious” and “a truly shocking name.”

Typical of auto industry-sponsored advertising shifting the burden for road safety from motorists to the children who had customarily been able to play in the streets safely. (Motorland magazine)

Anti-jaywalking campaigns came to San Francisco too.

In a 1920 safety campaign, San Francisco pedestrians who thought they were minding their own business found themselves pulled into mocked-up outdoor courtrooms. In front of crowds of onlookers they were lectured on the perils of jaywalking.

In 1941 jaywalking became a topic of interest in local papers, with several images captured of women jaywalking. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
Clearly 20 years of anti-jaywalking campaigns in San Francisco and the country as a whole had not convinced people to abandon their customary ways of crossing public streets. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
In 1942 this shot at 5th and Market shows the women walking against the signal. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

As the 1920s continued, more and more cars were being sold, and the streets were both crowded and contested. Streetcar operators blamed cars for clogging thoroughfares and slowing down their lines, causing late runs and generally inconveniencing passengers. Motorists parked everywhere, jamming curbsides two-deep, when they weren’t weaving through chaotic urban streets. Attempts to regulate and standardize traffic patterns began during this era, with lanes, crosswalks, traffic signals, and parking regulations slowly emerging as “solutions” to the problems created by tens of thousands of private cars filling the streets.

February 3, 1927, Van Ness and Fell Streets, with helpful labels to show what motorists are doing wrong. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
More 1927 instructional photography. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

When sales slumped in late 1923 and into 1924, analysts speculated that the market for cars was saturated (at about 7 Americans per car at the time). The car industry consisted of dozens of companies, who began to fail or merge during this first contraction in sales. The industry reorganized its public relations and launched concerted efforts to redefine “saturation”:

There was no “buying-power saturation,” [motordom] said. The real bridle on the demand for automobiles was not the consumer’s wallet, but street capacity. Traffic congestion deterred the would-be urban car buyer, and congestion was saturation of streets.

By the late 1920s, a young graduate student named Miller McClintock had become the nation’s pre-eminent traffic researcher thanks to his 1925 thesis “Street Traffic Control.” His career is a window into the process of private corruption of public interests that riddles American history up to the present.

In his 1925 graduate thesis Street Traffic Control, the old McClintock had maintained that widening streets would merely attract more vehicles to them, leaving traffic as congested as before. The automobile, he wrote, was a waster of space compared to the streetcar, noting that “the greater economy of the latter is marked.” “It seems desirable,” McClintock wrote, “to give trolley cars the right of way under general conditions, and to place restrictions on motor vehicles in their relations with street cars.” He described the automobile as a “menace to human life” and “the greatest public destroyer of human life.”

Two years later all had changed. McClintock wrote of “the inevitable necessity to provide more room” in the streets. He called for “new streets” and “wider streets.”… In 1925 McClintock virtually ruled out elevated streets as expensive and impractical; two years later he urged that they be considered.

What had happened in the two years between the diametrically opposed advice given by McClintock? He had been hired by Studebaker’s Vice President to head up the new “Albert Russel Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research,” which was first placed in Los Angeles where McClintock was teaching at UC, but a year later moved by Studebaker to Harvard University, where the car company continued to fund the ostensibly “independent” institute. As the years went by McClintock became one of the foremost authorities on traffic planning, though his organization dropped the “Albert Russel Erskine” from its name when the chairman of Studebaker Motors committed suicide in 1933!

McClintock came to San Francisco early in his career. In the August 1927 Motorland magazine, he penned an article summarizing his research “Curing the Ills of San Francisco Traffic”: “… it is recognized that an ultimate requirement for the solution of street and highway congestion is to be found in the creation of more ample street area.” And sure enough, it was in this exact period that San Francisco embarked on a series of street widenings throughout the city, including for example, Capp Street and Army Street in the Mission District. Interestingly, McClintock’s traffic study shows the predominant car-free life of San Franciscans at the time:

On a typical business day studied by the traffic survey committee, 1,073,963 persons entered and left [the central business] district during a fourteen-hour period from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Vehicles of all types, including streetcars, carried 744,667 people in and out of the district, In addition, 329,296 pedestrians entered and left the district during the same period… In no other city is there such a large pedestrian movement into the central district, nor such a large outrush of people during the noon hour. Both of these conditions may be attributed to the large capacity of apartment houses immediately adjacent to the district…

Incredibly, streetcars were used by 70 percent of the people depending on some kind of transportation to get downtown, while only a quarter used passenger cars, but the latter made up 61 percent of vehicular traffic as compared to 11 percent for the streetcars! What has been poorly understood in the triumphant narrative of the private automobile is how cars benefited from enormous public expenditures, even when they were being used by a relatively small minority of the population. New infrastructure to accommodate motorists far outstripped any public investment in public streetcar service, let alone any subsidies for the privately owned lines. Meanwhile, electric streetcar companies were slowly going bankrupt, with their fares publicly restricted and the public streets on which they operated slowly being taken over by private vehicles.

Traditional use of the streets by pedestrians was being criminalized by new traffic codes. McClintock put forth a new Uniform Traffic Ordinance, adopted by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, which was intended to “legislate jaywalkers off the streets,” crowed a Motorland magazine editorial. In 1915, Ford already had a factory at 21st and Harrison in the Mission making Model-T’s, and by the mid-1920s, the new car business was fully ensconced along Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco:

Chevrolet dealer at Van Ness and Sacramento, 1933. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
Rambler dealer, Van Ness Avenue, August 1964. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
Interior of Don Lee Cadillac showroom (now AMC Theaters). (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
Don Lee Cadillac dealership, Van Ness and O'Farrell, 1928. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Miller McClintock continued his work on behalf of the auto industry from his bought-and-paid-for perch at Harvard University.

Miller McClintock [became] the impresario of a new kind of highway road show. In the spring of 1937, the Shell Oil Company combined McClintock’s traffic expertise with the talents of the stage designer Normal Bel Geddes to build a scale model of “the automobile city of tomorrow.”… Others interested in the rebuilding of cities for the motor age adopted Shell’s technique. At the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, United States Steel displayed its vision of San Francisco in 1999, with wider streets, cloverleaf intersections, and an elevated highway.

Overshadowed by the far more successful World’s Fair in New York City, and in particular by the tone-setting “World of Tomorrow” exhibit there built by General Motors, the 1939 US Steel vision of San Francisco in 1999 is worth peeking at:

"San Francisco in 1999" Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939. US Steel financed this diorama, meant to reinvent San Francisco as a Corbusian radial city with a new rationalized and centralized port combining all piers in a single monumental jetty extending from 16th Street. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)
This close-up from the US Steel 1939 vision of San Francisco in 1999 shows the intersection of 7th and Howard streets with elevated roadways passing under each tower. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Here’s a description of the exhibit by Richard Reinhart in his book on the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition “Treasure Island: San Francisco’s Exposition Years”

Artist Donald McLoughlin had prepared a dioramic view of San Francisco in 1999 for the US Steel exhibit in the Hall of Mines, Metals and Machinery. This prognostic nightmare showed the city stripped of every vestige of 1939 except Coit Tower, the bridges and Chinatown. All maritime activity had disappeared from the Embarcadero. Shipping was concentrated at a super-pier at the foot of 16th Street.

North of Market Street every block contained a single, identical high-rise apartment house. South of Market, sixty-story office towers of steel and glass alternated with block-square plazas in a vast checkerboard pattern. Elevated freeways ran through the geometric landscape.

McLoughlin correctly anticipated the removal of maritime activity from San Francisco’s waterfront, though his massive modern pier is spread along the Oakland bay shore rather than on a prominent pier jutting out from 16th Street. Visions like this, and the better known version in New York, informed the post-WWII population as it fled cities for the suburbs. Those who remained though, had a different idea of what our cities would become, and thanks to their stopping the highway builders in their tracks in the late 1950s and early 1960s, San Francisco was not crushed in this way.

Interesting to recall that while 30,000 citizens were mobilized to stop freeway building in San Francisco (the very same elevated, pedestrian-free streets McClintock had come to endorse as an industry flack) thousands more, mostly African American and white youth, staged a vigorous civil rights campaign along auto row, demanding that blacks be given equal treatment in hiring by auto dealers, especially Don Lee’s Cadillac dealership.

Crowd cheering civil rights employment settlement with auto dealers, 1964. (Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Contrary to the fervent wishes of today’s motorists, streets have not always been the domain of cars. Clever marketing prior to the Depression led to radical redesign of both the physical streets and our assumptions about how public streets should be used. As we ride to and from work on our bicycles these days, or get together in Critical Mass or Bike Party social rides, we are participating in a new push to redefine how streets are used, and most importantly, how we think about public space. While we haven’t yet found a new consensus, the rising tide of bicycling, parklets, Sunday Streets, car-free zones, etc., all amply demonstrate that the private car’s days are in decline. Add a dollop of global warming and a couple of scoops of cheap fossil fuel scarcity, and the question of Whose Streets is once again a key issue of social contestation. Perhaps at least we can stop blindly accepting death and mayhem as an inevitable and natural consequence of our social transportation choices!

Cartoon by Jean-Francois Batellier, a French artist who sells his art and books on the streets of Paris.

  • mikesonn

    Well put. Very well put. Thanks for the write-up.

  • The fact is, is that cars won’t be leaving anytime soon. Although I agree that bikes definitely need their space on the roads, it’s hard for people to see how having bikes on the roads benefits everyone as a whole when cyclists break road rules all the time. As a person who rides their bike to commute and also drives, things like Bike Party and Critical Mass, although fun does the exact opposite of what cyclists want to achieve. It gets car drivers mad and instead wants cyclists off the road altogether. I think the correct approach would be to use the designated bike lanes and follow road rules. Only then, will a car-centric nation start to see that cycling is a legitimate form of transportation and not just a nuisance on the road. Sure, streets weren’t always the domain of the automobile but today, they are and that’s just how it is. Cyclists can’t whine or push their way back into taking the streets, it unfortunately, has to be done in humility to the automobile. There are more investments being pumped into alternative fuels and fuel-efficient cars than there is in creating a healthy biking infrastructure so although private cars are in decline, they won’t be disappearing anytime soon. I think the solution is a harmony between automobiles and bikes. As a person who enjoys both modes of transportation, I think we need to first stop demonizing each other and think of ways, instead, to coexist. Like how pedestrians and cars were eventually able to figure out a compromise. Note that I’m not being anti-bike and/or pro-car. I’m just trying to be reasonable. It’s very easy to only see one side when you’re clearly only on that side.

  • Er!k

    Pedestrians and cars never found a compromise. People just got tired of being killed and began to stay on the sidewalks out of fear for their lives. It was the drivers who “broke road rules all the time” that secured access to the roads by intimidation and the sheer mass of a vehicle that was vastly more dangerous to a bystander that to its operator.

    I’ve never once almost killed a driver while cycling. Yet rarely do I have a day on my bike (and I am one of the few who obey all traffic laws) when I don’t have a close encounter with a careless or aggressive driver.

  • Anonymous

    Fantastic blog post.  The key is to break the religion of the dogmatic primacy of motor vehicles, a religion which has been the payback of billions of dollars of advertising and lobbying by the auto and oil companies.

  • mikesonn

    “Sure, streets weren’t always the domain of the automobile but today, they are and that’s just how it is.”

    Yeah, why bother?

  • peternatural

    People like to overstate the problem of bicyclists not obeying traffic laws. Most bicyclists ride safely and courteously and yield when they should. So what if that rarely involves stopping at stop signs? If anything needs to be fixed, it’s the laws, which outlaw behavior that is safe and sensible.

    I run red lights every day. Deserted ones. I stop at intersections that actually have traffic, as do the other bicyclists I see. I rarely have any close calls or incidents with pedestrians or other road users, despite motorists who frequently run stop signs and red lights and turn abruptly without signaling. (The body language of cars is telling). I’ve also learned not to run green lights, since cars running red lights in excess of 40 mph happens more often than you might hope. (Be sure to “look” before you “book” 😉

    And if anyone has a problem with SF bike party, they can lump it!

  • =v= As oil becomes more prohibitively expensive to obtain and alternative means of fueling cars remain uninspiring, it is definitely time to work out better uses of public space than we have.

    Plus, there’s nothing unreasonable about being anti-car. We’re talking about the greatest waster of human lives, ecosystems, and economies we’ve got, as well as a top motivator of most of the wars waged during its existence.

  • Comatus

    Bicycles could not break the Traction Trusts. Automobiles did. Historically, you ignore that distinction at your peril. Know what a “dodger” was? Vehicular rights-of-way predate the car by decades.

    Viewed from outside The City, you write as if “in thrall to the trusts,” as they used to say.

  • The fact is, if you’re under 55 and earn less than $200 K, you can be assured that some kind of non-automobile mode of transportation is in your future. (If you’re over 55 and have a high income, you may just be able to ride the peak oil curve down to your waning, infirm years.)  Arguing for the preeminence of cars is arguing for the privilege of what will become a fairly narrow elite, as it was when motoring first began. If you’re certain you’re going to be in that elite, then it makes sense to talk about whining and humility.  If you’re not so sure, you might consider that creating viable alternatives now that are safe, convenient and pleasant is in your future best interest.

    We will find that we are living in the century of energy. Or lack thereof. At present there isn’t enough alternative fuel or electricity available to power ten percent of our current fleet of cars. Even if we had a collective epiphany that caused us to suddenly start allocating sensible amounts of resources and effort towards future energy supply, we face at least a couple decades of low-energy living due to our utter lack of preparation for the predicament we face. Maybe our descendants will get solar and wind built out at the scale humanity needs. Maybe they’ll have a truly innovative breakthrough and discover a source of cheap, boundless, sustainable energy that humans will delight in until the end of time. We can certainly hope. But as things stand right now, peak oil, the export land model, the declining Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) on all forms of fossil fuel, and the incredible amount of resources (water and energy) needed to turn tar sands or corn into fuel (or, for that matter, to maintain an enormous military to conquer and defend fragile oil infrastructure in far off lands) mean that the U.S. is going to have many fewer cars coming soon to a city near you.

    I drive half of all my trips, so I do see both sides. And I see that any country that currently imports more than half its oil is not sitting pretty at this moment in history.

    Love all the photos of old San Francisco.  I also like how these articles help us connect the dots between what was and what is, the choices and politics involved. I trust this series will eventually be turned into a book?

  • Charles_Siegel

    What was a dodger?  I have been interested in that for a long time. 

    There is an old folk song where a dodger means a sort of swindler.  “The preacher is a dodger,”  etc. 

  • Charles_Siegel

    Here is a quotation from John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer, which shows that pedestrians fought back in the early days of automobiles:

    At the next corner, a crowd was collecting round a highslung white
    automobile. Clouds of steam poured out of its rear end. A policeman
    was holding up a small boy by the armpits. From the car a redfaced man
    with white walrus whiskers was talking angrily.

    “I tell you
    officer he threw a stone. . . . This sort of thing has got to stop.
    For an officer to countenance hoodlums and rowdies. . . .”

    woman with her hair done up in a tight bunch on top of her head was
    screaming, shaking her fist at the man in the car, “Officer he near run
    me down he did, he near run me down.”

    Bud edged up next to a young man in a butcher’s apron who had a baseball cap on backwards.

    “Wassa matter?”

    I dunno. . . . One o them automoebile riots I guess. Aint you read
    the paper? I dont blame em do you? What right have those golblamed
    automoebiles got racin round the city knockin down wimen and children?”

    “Gosh do they do that?”

    “Sure they do.”

  • Odm2

    “I think the correct approach would be to use the designated bike lanes and follow road rules. Only then, will a car-centric nation start to see that cycling is a legitimate form of transportation and not just a nuisance on the road.”
    Yes, because we all read the part where our cities were motorized with automobile infrastructure because of the wonderful behavior of people who were driving cars.


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