The thing is that I can't come up with a single magic bullet, because there are multiple factors involved: vehicle speed, driver inattention, driver entitlement, low visibility. There are numerous changes that have gone on since the picture above was taken that have increased the danger on our streets. The most obvious is that horse-drawn carts and carriages have been replaced by cars, and the cars have been "improved" to the point where they accelerate faster and reach higher speeds. As they have been outfitted with more comfort, better windows and better sound systems, drivers have become more insulated from the outside world. Cell phones, music and food distract them from the street.
The law plays an important role. In his book Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton describes changes in the laws that gave priority to drivers and placed the fault of a crash on a pedestrian who was outside the crosswalk. Sarah Goodyear has a nice summary. The police cooperated, to the point where at least once a week Streetsblog has a post on a crash where a pedestrian or cyclist is killed or severely injured, but the NYPD undermines or blocks the course of justice.
But it wasn't just the cars that allowed drivers to go too fast for safety. The streets allowed it too. Even before the automobile was invented, there was a fad in North America for wider streets. Nathan Lewis calls it "19th Century hypertrophism." It included a number of arbitrary criteria, such as that a carriage driver had to be able to turn a team of horses around in the main street.
This width gave drivers lots of room to maneuver around each other and around streetcars and other things in the road. They responded by driving at high speeds; this is played up in the 1928 comedy "Speedy," which features lots of great location scenes in New York streets; here's a clip where taxi driver "Speedy" (Harold Lloyd) gives Babe Ruth a ride to Yankee Stadium.
The nice thing about having so many factors involved is that it gives us lots of options for rolling them back and regaining safety. Of course, with so many factors, any one of them is almost certainly not going to do enough.
- Make cars slower
- Make cars less comfortable
- Make people stop using cell phones, listening to music or eating on streets
- Change the laws to give pedestrians higher priority
- Set a lower speed limit
- Hold drivers accountable
Those aren't the only factors. If they were, I'd be discouraged because so many of them are politically difficult. In a future post, I'll talk about parking. In the meantime, what do you think of these?