70 years after Berenice Abbott

Three things that struck me when viewing the New York Changing exhibit at the City Museum in NYC:

# The amount of texture in the city has decreased thanks to Modernism, and perhaps proportional to increasing clutter in the rest of our mindscape.
# Industrial decline has opened up waterfronts, for better or worse. (I’m too young to remember the working waterfronts of yore.)
# The invasion of cars has changed the city in truly profound, but now forgotten, ways. More obviously, their sheer bulk makes streets feel unpleasantly crowded, as a view down Seventh Ave. shows. More subtly, their unprecedented (and ever increasing) momentum, and thus their capacity to injure those in the public way, resulted in an alarming increase in regulation of street use, as government attempted to mitigate the invading cars’ size and speed — most notably parking restrictions, one way designations, and the ubiquitous all-way stops, all seen in this otherwise unchanged view at 39 Commerce Street. Two way streets were converted to one way operation to remove the annoyance of yielding when passing on narrow streets; stop signs and speed bumps appeared to keep speeds down and to avoid crashes, as intersections could accommodate only one car at a time; licensing of drivers and vehicles began only after the first cars were involved in deadly hit-and-runs.

In that brief-but-glorious era when bicycles were the second most popular vehicles on American city streets (after shoes), there was precious little need for such over-regulation of traffic flow. Critical Massers understand that large numbers of cyclists can pretty spontaneously organize and police themselves. Even if bicyclists (with 2% the weight and 0.2% the horsepower, and thus about 0.004% the motive force of an SUV) who slow down and yield, rather than stop, at stop signs violate the letter of laws created to regulate autos, I’d argue that we respect the intent of the law (i.e., slow, quiet traffic flow with orderly queueing). Just because we don’t trust drivers to drive politely and let one another in in traffic — which we might accomplish with, say, yield rather than stop signs — hardly means that pedestrians or bicyclists can’t be trusted with the same.

I understand that the laws we have now are the laws we should observe, but a fairly good historical — not just logical — argument exists to grant bicycles leeway on traffic regulations. And if today’s federal judges can “revive the Constitution in exile” and impart judgment based on “historical intent,” then surely we can find some judges to revive 19th century, pre-Auto Plague traffic codes for bicycles!


6 thoughts on “70 years after Berenice Abbott

  1. Interestingly, I recently read that the laws that give pedestrians unconditional right of way at crosswalks (and even, in some jurisdictions, elsewhere) date back from the time when cars were considered unwelcome, intruding nuisances on roads dominated by pedestrians.

  2. gosh, Tribune commenters are the biggest bunch of crybaby gripers I’ve ever encountered. as a response to whining posted as commentary on an article entitled “Is Chicago bike friendly?”:

    I love the double standard here. Cyclists are demons for not yielding to pedestrians? When was the last time a Chicago driver stopped to let a pedestrian cross at a midblock crosswalk? Or heck, even looked for pedestrians before plowing ahead to turn on red? At least once a week, I have to play “crossing guard” so that I can escort a carriage-pushing mother across an intersection — all because the drivers just can’t be bothered.

    Meanwhile, take a look at old photos of the city: 90% of the stop signs and lights have been installed within living memory, to slow down cars speeding through neighborhoods. Cars have 300 to 1,000 times more accelerating power than bicycles; it’s nonsense to hold the two vehicles to the exact same standards. I love the approach I saw out West: use speed humps and curves to slow all traffic on some side streets to 15 MPH (i.e., bicycle speed), and replace the STOP signs with YIELD signs.

    City streets are public spaces that we all have to share, and I think it’s most incumbent on the strongest, most powerful road users (cars) to play nice first. Yes, my fellow bicyclists need to be respectful to everyone else, as well, and I try to do my part to educate others. I hope you do, too, instead of simply making broad generalizations that pin the blame on a convenient target.

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  5. Texture slows the city down. “New York has these sorts of mental speed bumps,” said Mr. Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces, “but we’ve slowly degraded them by designing a more and more frictionless city for fast walkers and fast drivers.” But street-level friction, he said, is actually good. – quoted in Jeff Byle’s NYT article on 10 street design techniques that are “Taking Back the Streets”

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