Pat Tassoni's History of the Sidewalk

Its more interesting than the title would suggest...

I was going to do like an academic masters degree thingy on the history of traffic laws as a political social struggle -- but then Asphalt Nation came out and I abandoned any idea that I could be a master of the subject.

Traffic laws come about only with the intermixing of new modes, with the exception of one law founded in christian morality that dates back to the 17th century in America: Under the colonial law sections related to gambling, it is illegal to race horses on Sunday. In urban areas in the late 18th century where there was a conflict between the modes of horses and pedestrians, it became illegal to ride horses on sidewalks. This had more to do with horses coming off the dirty and muddy roads and destroying the raised wooden sidewalks [really porches] in front of buildings. At this point the porches and any awnings were property of the building owner. This private benefit would change to public property as it became the role of government through taxes to build roads and sidewalks during the next century.

Although during the mid-1800s the first speeding law made was to protect the pedestrian from horses so horses could not run through densely populated urban areas, real speed limitations came with the introduction of railroads through urban areas. Another pre-industrial traffic law is still seen today: why the fuck do we drive on the right-side of the road - at least most of us? To regulate too many horses and carriages going over urban bridges that were built to human scale.

With industrialization in the late 1800s came the beginnings of non-dirt roads as people using those new fangled modes of transportation -- bicycles -- lobbied for better roads. So we got brick, cobble stone, granite slabs before the recipe for concrete and asphalt was developed. Olympia still has some stone and brick streets downtown, paved over though. It also became illegal to ride bicycles, like horses, on sidewalks [still wood]. I don't think it is illegal to race them though on Sundays. Personally, I think it is an antiquated law that doesn't fit downtown Oly because there is not the density here as evidenced by the frequent cops riding their bikes around without problems. [Oooo!, I remember once an OPD cop harassing some food not bombs people using a shopping cart and threatening to charge them with the long-standing law of stealing a cart. That law makes reference to a horse-drawn carriage and dates back to a time when you could essentially shoot someone for stealing your horse]. During this time too, urban areas required horse drawn carriages to carry bells and lanterns to warn pedestrians of their comings and goings. Trains too, and then cars.

At the beginning of the 19th century new laws were developed first to restrict automobiles and to protect pedestrians and horses from them. But the rich ended up having continued lobbying effect, roads and cities became paved and the car has won out and pushed away horses, marginalized bicycles and all but criminalized pedestrians in public spaces. The automobile industry also has a history of illegally controlling the development of other modes and destroying the existing ones in their favor. At least Ralph Nader pushed back.

But there was a brief moment in American history when the vast majority of people were by one definition poor and the few cars were just monstrous toys of the rich. Marketplace democracy prevailed for a while as the rich were heavily regulated to keep their cars out of sight and away from people [and horses]. Now we have lost that perspective and our pedestrian rights to the roads and public property.

Eat the rich.


Blogger crenshaw sepulveda said...

I love this post. A sidewalk is such a simple thing, simple enough to ignore as we go about our daily lives. And yet if you really look at what sidewalks are all about you find that the life on the sidewalk is far from simple and the uses of the sidewalk are far from easy to explain. I'll come out and say it, a sidewalk, being a public place, is about democracy. Let us not lose our right to have our space on the sidewalk, public spaces are rapidly diminishing and the sidewalk may be the last public space we can inhabit.

3:52 PM  

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