Peter Norton, Historian of technology, engineering and society at the University of Virginia:
A hundred years ago of course roads were not for cars, because cars were rare, and to make roads places where cars could go, they had to be redefined.
It helps us understand what the street was like to city people then, if we think of what a city park is like to us today. It’s a place where we think of everybody as welcome, provided they don’t get in the way of others, don’t make a nuisance out of themselves, and don’t endanger other people. And it was in the nature of cars to be nuisances and dangerous, and so the early response was to blame the car and to restrict the car.
This started to change partly because people, who had an interest in selling cars and in a good future for cars, saw that this would really limit their future, this attitude would limit their future and that they would have to change it.
And to do it, they had to do a number of things at the same time: one is to try to teach children to stay out of the streets. They could not rely on parents to do this because parents at that time thought of the street, at least residential streets, as proper playgrounds for children.
So auto dealers and auto clubs did things like promote the construction of playgrounds, they got involved in school safety education where they taught children to look both ways before they crossed; they started sponsoring school safety patrols where the children would guide each other as they crossed the street, and most importantly, would teach children that the street is a place for cars and not for children
They also had to get adults to concede the street to motorists as well, and reaching them was harder, and they did it in a number of ways, but I think the most effective and most interesting was a campaign to redefine walking in the street as an inappropriate thing to do, an inappropriate use of the street.
And one way they did this was to invent a new term of ridicule, and direct that against pedestrians walking in streets. They used a mid-Western American term ‘Jay’ which was an insult; it meant that you were uneducated and rural, and they connected it with ‘walker’ and invented the term ‘Jay walker’ and it was used as a term of ridicule against pedestrians.
Thanks to Stephen Ingrouille, from his Transport Newsletter.