There’s a new ad for car tyres, featuring an Aamir Khan character imploring his fellow people attending a wedding to not dance around on the road “because road is for traffic”. The ad then says Khan’s character would be the model person, and cuts to a ridiculous scene of Khan and others spilling onto the roads and continuing their revelries there, while the voiceover continues: “But until that day comes, motorists will have to deal with people like [Khan’s character].” The visual cuts to a car suddenly slamming the brakes, its tyres in focus, while Khan’s character breaks into an avuncular nagin dance.

Most of us know how annoying wedding-celebrators taking over the roads are, but watching the ad, it struck me that in the tyre-manufacturer’s view, the road sounds like it’s been vouchsafed for motorists – which then made Khan’s character’s dance right in front of a car seem like the perfect protest. Enough of the road being for motorists. Enough of the road being for wedding dancers, too, whose incursions – beyond that one 🖕🏾 moment – stem from their collective sense of entitlement. Let’s have more of our roads for us – pedestrians, walkers, strollers, joggers, ‘jaywalkers’, pretty much anyone who wants to use these pathways without motorised vehicles, without bothering others and in as minimally rivalrous a way as possible (and, oh, without 🐕 as well).

Here’s an extended excerpt from Ben Green’s 2019 book, The Smart Enough City (which is available to read on an open-access license), in which he explains how car-makers fundamentally altered the meaning of our streets – and therefore how much we must reclaim:

At the start of the twentieth century, it was commonly accepted that streets were public spaces where streetcars could run, people could walk, and children could play. When cars were introduced in large numbers onto the streets of American cities in the 1920s, they brought chaos and conflict. Gruesome accidents horrified the public. Parents feared for the safety of their children. Downtown business owners worried that congestion would diminish profits. Early attempts by police officers to create order in the streets proved fruitless. There seemed to be no way for cars to peacefully coexist with pedestrians, children, and streetcars.

The car was an “intruder” in the existing balance of city streets, writes the historian Peter Norton in Fighting Traffic. As a new technology “incompatible with old street uses,” Norton explains, cars “violated prevailing notions of what a street is for.” The resulting destabilization instituted a period of “interpretive flexibility,” during which social conceptions of cars and streets were in flux. Motorists, families, police, businessmen, and automotive manufacturers all jockeyed to define how cars should be used and who had a rightful claim to the street.

In need of a neutral way to mediate between these parties, cities turned to engineers for a solution. Despite the contentious nature of managing urban streets, traffic engineers were trusted as “disinterested experts” to solve the problem. Because they “made [deductions] in a scientific manner,” it was commonly believed that engineers could devise an objective and socially optimal solution.

Over the previous several decades, engineers had displayed technical expertise in helping cities efficiently manage overburdened public utilities such as water and electricity. There was no reason to think that traffic was any different. To engineers, writes Norton, “City streets were … like water supply, sewers, or gas lines: a public service to be regulated by experts in the public interest.” Engineers derived new methods (such as the traffic survey) from their work managing these other utilities. Likening the flow of traffic to the flow of water or sewage, they were confident that “scientific organization of traffic … could cut traffic congestion at once by half.”

Improving traffic flow came at a cost, however, for optimizing one aspect of urban life requires restricting others that would impede that efficiency. Motorists may have benefited from the updated signal timings that enabled the faster flow of cars, but pedestrians discovered that these changes had made streets inhospitable. Navigating city streets became, in the words of a 1926 Chicago Tribune report, a “succession of heart thrills, dodges, and jumps.”

By focusing on vehicle speeds and ignoring the needs and behaviors of pedestrians — who were left out of the equations entirely — traffic engineers increased traffic flow but, in the process, Norton explains, “helped to redefine streets as motor thoroughfares where pedestrians did not belong.” In turn, streets became “socially reconstructed as places where motorists unquestionably belonged.” Through a process known as “closure,” the interpretive flexibility about streets created by the introduction of cars yielded to a social consensus that streets were for vehicles and that pedestrians who got in the way were troublesome “jaywalkers.”

This shift in social conceptions prepared the way for the auto industry to promote self-serving arguments that cities should be redesigned to prioritize and facilitate the passage of cars.

Ben Green, The Smart Enough City

Featured image: Aamir Khan in the tyre advertisement. Source: YouTube.