Concentrated roadway power

Money is power and as Mancur Olson first explained in The Logic of Collective Action, not all money is created equal. Mancur was an economist with an uber-macho-sounding first name. It is pronounced ‘Man-Sir’ which sounds like the kind of caricature you would find in an irreverent youth novel by Louis Sachar. In Mancur’s theory, there are transactions costs that prevent large groups of people from engaging in political action. However, a wealthy interest group, even though it is a small minority, can politically dominate the political system because their financial resources are so concentrated. Even when the vast majority of voters have much more total money at stake in a political dispute, unless they can create a political organization where they can concentrate their money, they won’t be able to win a political dispute against more concentrated financial interest groups.

An example of this playing out is the transfer of property rights from pedestrians to automobile drivers back in the 1920s as Josheph Stromberg explains:

A hundred 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.

Fail to do so, and you’re committing a crime: jaywalking. In some cities — Los Angeles, for instance — police ticket tens of thousands of pedestrians annually for jaywalking, with fines of up to $250.

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 streets.

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.” … prior to the 1920s, city streets looked dramatically different than they do today. They were considered to be a public space: a place for pedestrians, pushcart vendors, horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, and children at play.

“Pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking,” Norton says… As cars began to spread widely during the 1920s, the consequence of this was predictable: death. Over the first few decades of the century, the number of people killed by cars skyrocketed.

Those killed were mostly pedestrians, not drivers, and they were disproportionately the elderly and children, who had previously had free rein to play in the streets.

The public response to these deaths, by and large, was outrage. Automobiles were often seen as frivolous playthings, akin to the way we think of yachts today (they were often called “pleasure cars”). And on the streets, they were considered violent intruders… As deaths mounted, anti-car activists sought to slow them down. …in 1923, says Norton, …42,000 Cincinnati residents signed a petition for a ballot initiative that would require all cars to have a governor limiting them to 25 miles per hour. Local auto dealers were terrified, and sprang into action… [This] …galvanized auto groups nationwide, showing them that if they weren’t proactive, the potential for automobile sales could be minimized.

In response, automakers, dealers, and enthusiast groups worked to legally redefine the street — so that pedestrians, rather than cars, would be restricted… But in the mid-20s, 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…

Even while passing these laws, however, auto industry groups faced a problem: In Kansas City and elsewhere, no one had followed the rules, and they were rarely enforced by police or judges. To solve it, the industry took up several strategies.

One was an attempt to shape news coverage of car accidents. The National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, an industry group, established a free wire service for newspapers: Reporters could send in the basic details of a traffic accident and would get in return a complete article to print the next day. These articles, printed widely, shifted the blame for accidents to pedestrians… AAA began sponsoring school safety campaigns and poster contests, crafted around the importance of staying out of the street. Some of the campaigns also ridiculed kids who didn’t follow the rules — in 1925, for instance, hundreds of Detroit school children watched the “trial” of a 12-year-old who’d crossed a street unsafely, and, as Norton writes, a jury of his peers sentenced him to clean chalkboards for a week… This was also part of the final strategy: shame.

In getting pedestrians to follow traffic laws, “the ridicule of their fellow citizens is far more effective than any other means which might be adopted,” said E.B. Lefferts, the head of the Automobile Club of Southern California in the 1920s… Auto campaigners lobbied police to publicly shame transgressors by whistling or shouting at them — and even carrying women back to the sidewalk — instead of quietly reprimanding or fining them. They staged safety campaigns in which actors dressed in 19th-century garb, or as clowns, were hired to cross the street illegally, signifying that the practice was outdated and foolish. In a 1924 New York safety campaign, a clown was marched in front of a slow-moving Model T and rammed repeatedly.

This strategy also explains the name that was given to crossing illegally on foot: jaywalking. During this era, the word “jay” meant something like “rube” or “hick” — a person from the sticks, who didn’t know how to behave in a city. So pro-auto groups promoted use of the word “jay walker” as someone who didn’t know how to walk in a city, threatening public safety…

“The campaign was extremely successful,” Norton says. “It totally changed the message about what streets are for.”

Although there were about thirteen times more pedestrians than automobile owners in the 1920, the automobile owners won the property right to exclude pedestrians from the streets because automobile owners had concentrated interest groups that could use their financial clout to push out propaganda to the newspapers, lobby politicians, and fight court battles in favor of changing American culture to transfer the right of way from ordinary pedestrians to large vehicles. The pedestrians were unorganized and lacked the kind of concentrated financial interest that existed among the automobile manufacturer corporations, dealerships, and owners’ clubs like AAA.

Those concentrated financial interests overturned traditions that had dominated the cultures of the world for millennia. It was a sophisticated campaign to not only change the legal rights to use the roadways, but also change the hearts and minds of every citizen to the point where it is hard to imagine the kind of street scene that was full of people walking along with busses, wagons, and carriages sharing the space.

The automobile lobby also succeeded in funneling government resources away from public transit into building more roads and highway systems and taking away valuable land along our urban roads that had been used by pedestrians and vendors as parkway/sidewalk space which was convered them into a massive socialist parking scheme that now lines the sides of most public streets in America.

Today, there is a new kind of industry that is creating a concentrated financial interest that is aligned with pedestrians and cyclists: the rental bike/scooter corporation. Although it is in its infancy, it is already helping to create a tiny counterbalance to the enormous political power of the automobile interests. The bike-share/scooter startup Bird plans to fund protected bike lanes and it is setting up the same kind of political advocacy groups that the automobile industry created a century ago.

The Los Angeles-based firm announced that it will form a new Global Safety Advisory Board led by David Strickland, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), …that will “create, advise, and implement global programs, campaigns, and products to improve the safety of those riding Birds and other e-scooters.” … In addition, Bird will begin steering revenue into a dedicated fund to expand transit infrastructure in the cities where it operates. The initiative would set aside $1 per day from each scooter in operation to help cities build new protected bike lanes, as well as maintain existing ones by repainting and repairing them.

Vox’s Umair Irfan points out that electric scooters have tremendous potential to encourage more public transit because they make the ‘last mile’ easier between a rider’s home and a transit station.

“There’s the West LA rail station that’s a 22-minute walk from me,” Taylor said. “I took a scooter the other day and it took me five minutes.” …”Today, 40 percent of car trips are less than two miles long,” said Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden in a statement in March. “Our goal is to replace as many of those trips as possible so we can to get cars off the road and curb traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.” …Scooter rides are typically less than 2 miles, which is often too short a distance for hailing a ride if you don’t already own a car. This is part of why ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are so keen on electric scooters: They fill a need their current services can’t… So scooter rides are going to displace car trips to an extent, which may reduce the number of cars on the road.

Fewer cars mean a little less political power for the automobile interests caused the rise of private corporations that can lobby in favor of multi-modal transit will help change the politics of road usage.

…perhaps one of the greatest benefits of scooters will be that they will force a larger discussion of whom or what we prioritize when we design cities.

For more on this topic, I recommend the 24 minute audio program, The Modern Moloch at 99% Invisible  and Peter Norton’s “Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street”  which is fairly anti-car, but well written.  

Posted in Public Finance

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