Streets were not always just about movement. Before cars arrived, they were also places to spill onto, to meet, to play, to do business. Yes, there were there dangerous things like horses and carts on roads, but these jostled for space with other activities.
Once the automobile arrived it took over, forcing people inside and to the margins. But this auto-dominance was not inevitable: it was the upshot of a hard-fought battle by the motor world that changed how people thought about streets.
When cars first appeared they were seen as dangerous intruders on streets. So car makers spent vast sums (and still do) turning the car from a symbol of death and danger into a symbol of status and freedom. Their influence went beyond just car advertising, it also reached the media, legal and political decision-making and safety campaigning. As an example, car makers funded school traffic safety campaigns that taught children to look both ways and make way for traffic, rather than force cars to take responsibility for all accidents.
Today media reports of accidents and safety campaigns still blame pedestrians for accidents, or teach us that streets are not for people. Traffic engineering tools such as curbs, guardrails, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings still teach us to steer clear from roads. Car advertising still sells a promise of speed and freedom, not function or safety.
But surely we can remember a different imagination of the street, a more democratic version where people gain equal access. Let’s learn from schemes and experiments such as No Car Days in Bogota, or the Paris Plage, that re-imagine what streets are for.
Let’s also learn from success in other countries. It’s well known that cyclists take precedence in Dutch cities, but this was not always the case. Cars controlled the streets of the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s, but well-organised protests, campaigns and attentive, visionary politicians encouraged a different vision. Something similar is possible here. London is not so different.