Tag Archives: planning

Murder Most Foul: how our roads might have been

I discovered J.S. Dean’s 1947 pamphlet Murder Most Foul: a study of the road deaths problem by way of a great series of articles about the fear of bicycling at Copenhagenize. The entire piece is available here; Howard Peel’s summary is required reading for anyone interested in how we get around our cities these days.

Dean was writing at an important turning point in transportation history: the automobile culture had not yet claimed dominance in the UK, and was still in its early years in the US: the first section of the M1 motorway opened in 1959, and construction on the Interstate Highway System began in 1956. Traffic on the roads was still mixed: not only trucks and cars, but also pedestrians and cyclists, shared the same paths. Dean documents the ways in which traffic law, supported by lobbyists for the automobile and transport industries, gradually usurped the dominant position on the roads until now pedestrians and cyclists are largely segregated into “safe” zones and many places can be reached only by car. He also draws chilling comparisons with Nazi Germany, called by the British automotive press before the war “a motoring paradise.” (Many quite disturbing quotations from British periodicals about the glories of Hitler’s Autobahn can be found here.)

The automobile has given us many things that we take for granted: mobility and freedom unknown before in human history, the ability to move goods over vast distances, economic boons in terms of manufacturing and construction jobs. The car is a wonderful tool not only for travel but for shaping culture and society in ways that we barely even notice anymore.

Which is why it’s often difficult to see the costs associated with cars. They’ve shaped our residential geography into vast ribbons of sprawl; they’ve contributed to social anomie by giving so many of us self-contained spaces in which to travel without interacting with our neighbors or our surroundings; they’ve alienated us from our geography and from the other modes of travel available to us; they’ve sped up the flattening of our regional cultures into a national culture, arguably as much as television and radio. Not to mention costs of environmental and aesthetic degradation, social dislocation as whole neighborhoods (like St. Paul’s Rondo) were razed for highways, dependence on fossil fuels, and the health impacts of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. On balance, the trade does not seem to have been beneficial to us in the long run.

What’s most striking is that the trade off was a choice, sometimes active and sometimes passive. We chose to push bicycles off the main roads and onto paths better suited for leisure riding than practical travel; we chose to engineer our roads for the efficient movement of cars and trucks rather than for pedestrians and bicycles in a mixed environment; we chose to create neighborhoods segregated from work, play, and commerce. Though we imagine speed to be our telos, it’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy: as our roads became increasingly inhospitable to non-automobile traffic, the disappearance of people walking and cycling has made higher speeds and blank distance the norm. These decisions have sometimes tragic consequences: the suburbs can be a deadly place to travel outside a car, leaving people isolated from the world or dependent on the automobile; indeed, as a University of Virginia study found, the suburbs can be even more dangerous than the city in terms of traffic deaths.

Dean’s pamphlet encourages me to imagine an alternate past, one where the arguments against the automobile won out and the car didn’t come to dominate our lives. It’s a past where the decision was made to encourage the most efficient means of travel for the task at hand: cars have their place for inter-urban and cross-country travel, but cede the ground to buses, trolleys, bicycles, and feet in the urban core. The landscape of such a place would be very different than what we have now: more vertical, perhaps, than horizontal, with more open space around denser cities.

Of course, alternate pasts aren’t of as much use as alternate futures; and we need to imagine our way out of the world we’ve created: sprawling, dangerous, and increasingly unhealthy. There are models available, like Copenhagen’s extensive bicycle infrastructure and Makkinga’s “shared space” experiment. Any change is likely to be met with resistance and skepticism, because changes to how we travel will likely lead to changes in how we live. But surely it’s time that we recognized the choices we continue make, and the consequences those choices have, and accept that we are, so to speak, in the driver’s seat.

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