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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ain't no jaywalking happening here

To amplify a point I made in an earlier post about stop signs, I offer this fascinating video from 1906. It's a trolley ride down Market Street in San Francisco, just days before the devastating earthquake and fire. This video is shown at San Francisco's Market Street Railway transit museum, where it is explained that the frame skips are unavoidable. And the motor cars you see were hired by the filmmakers to circle around, giving the impression that San Francisco--which had only 200 cars in the city at the time, sigh--was "modern."

Despite the far greater numbers of bicycles then in use in the city, there are actually few bicyclists shown in this footage, which may be understandable considering the cobbled pavement of this street. Other streets were more bike-friendly dirt.

What is relevant to observe here is how freely pedestrians, carriages, and trolley passengers move about. Without the potential high speeds and threats of automobiles, traffic regulation is nonexistent. No stop signs, no red lights, all travelers respectful of each other, a smooth flow, vibrant life everywhere. It's the heyday of the "naked streets" concept that many would like to reintroduce. There is no concept of "jaywalking," since pedestrians are free to exercise their fundamental right to mobility.

Sadly, within a few years of this video the vibrant pedestrian life was pushed out of the streets, replaced by the deadening traffic of automotive monopoly. The privilege granted to motorists superseded the mobility right of pedestrians, bicyclists, and kids at play.

We should be mindful of this historic inequity when motorists condemn stop sign running by bicyclists. Motorist use of the road is a privilege; they have duty of care for the risk they introduce into the public realm. Encouraged by government policy, media images, and automotive marketing to feel a sense of entitlement to exclusive use of streets, motorists generally forget this.

Bicyclists likewise have a responsibility to operate safely. However, the risk bicyclists create is minimal. As vulnerable riders lacking the protection of two tons of steel, the possible harm we might cause would impact us as seriously if not more seriously than others in the streetscape.

Again, when someone gripes that "bicyclists don't respect traffic laws," retort that "motorists don't obey traffic laws." And then hope that a broader discourse might occur that would illuminate the dangerous spaces our streets have become.

Visit: San Francisco Market Street 1941,
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

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