How pedestrians lost out to motor vehicles: New York City
Top Image: Park Avenue, New York City, before 1922. Bottom Image: Park Avenue after 1922.
From the article:
Over time, without express agreement or even acknowledgment, the streets gradually became off-limits to the unwheeled. The pecking order was further clarified in 1950, when permanent street parking, which had long been forbidden, was allowed — you couldn’t walk in the street, but car storage was fine. Again the map was redrawn.
The increase in the numbers of bikes in recent years has put new pressures on the real estate of the street/sidewalk. The cyclist’s natural vulnerability in auto traffic has changed the stakes; you can say “share the road” all you want, but the mix is irrevocably divergent. ...
So what does this have to do with the New York streetscape? The retreat to what is left of the sidewalks changes the very essence of the common public realm, just as certainly as if, say, tourists had to stay within the arcades surrounding St. Mark’s Square in Venice, or look out on Red Square from the porch on St. Basil’s. New York’s gridiron allows precious few vistas or plazas, but a citizen could at one time have viewed each block as an entirety, with walls and a floor. Now everyone must hug the baseboards.
There are only a few places where one can recapture the old relationship of the buildings to the full width of the street. One is the annoying street fair. If you can survive the kielbasa smoke, you get the old, wider idea of the street, as easy and relaxed as the Piazza Navona in Rome. Streets closed for school recess do the same thing, as does the occasional oil truck blocking traffic — at those times, in those places, New York is a different city. And there are some streets entirely closed to vehicles, like several blocks of Broadway above 42nd Street, a change that has infuriated cabdrivers.
It is difficult to weigh the competing claims of the combatants in the current conflict — cars and trucks fully dominate the character of the city; bicyclists have the roadway and an increasing number of bike lanes; and pedestrians dodge traffic and hedge red lights with astonishing sang froid.
But as the domain of the pedestrian — the everyman of the city — is gradually curtailed, so too is the sense of the city as a democracy of public space, open to all.