Vox tells the story of how the automobile industry used public relations tactics to change the way we used our streets.
100 years ago, if you were a pedestrian, crossing the street was simple: you walked across it.
Today, if there’s traffic in the area and you want to follow the law, you need to find a crosswalk. And if there’s a traffic light, you need to wait for it to change to green.
To most people, this seems part of the basic nature of roads. But it’s actually the result of an aggressive, forgotten 1920s campaign led by auto groups and manufacturers that redefined who owned the city street.
The idea that pedestrians shouldn’t be permitted to walk wherever they liked had been present as far back as 1912, when Kansas City passed the first ordinance requiring them to cross streets at crosswalks. But in the mid-twenties, auto groups took up the campaign with vigor, passing laws all over the country.
Most notably, auto industry groups took control of a series of meetings convened by Herbert Hoover (then Secretary of Commerce) to create a model traffic law that could be used by cities across the country. Due to their influence, the product of those meetings — the 1928 Model Municipal Traffic Ordinance — was largely based off traffic law in Los Angeles, which had enacted strict pedestrian controls in 1925.
“The crucial thing it said was that pedestrians would cross only at crosswalks, and only at right angles,” Norton says. “Essentially, this is the traffic law that we’re still living with today.”