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Lessons from Market Street

Some will recognize the image above as a still from the film “A Trip Down Market Street”, shot in 1906 in San Francisco by Harry Miles. Notable for capturing images of San Francisco only days before much of the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire, the film also depicts the American streetscape as it was before the private automobile became the dominant form of transportation.

The freedom of travel and vibrant street life on display is a world apart from today’s urban streetscapes: streetcars, horsedrawn carriages, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists move across an open, shared streetscape, unconstrained by lanes, speed limits, or stoplights. It’s a snapshot of an urban streetscape before private cars became the dominant form of transportation. For today’s urbanists, the democratic design of Market Street contains a lesson that can, and should, be reincorporated into today’s cities: a streetscape that gave each mode of transportation equal claim to the public right of way.

For those who say that the scene on Market Street looks patently unsafe, consider the speed at which the vehicles are moving. With the exception of some cars in the film (several near misses are captured in the film), the average speed is around 15 mph, well below threshold at which the risk of severe injury begins to rise exponentially. This makes Market Street far safer even than today’s local residential streets, which have an average posted speed limit of 25 and often a higher design speed, which can be 5-15 mph higher. Furthermore, in the state of Georgia, local police can only ticket drivers who are driving more than 10 mph above the posted speed limit, signaling to drivers that that 25 mph sign may as well read 35. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a pedestrian hit at 35 mph is more than 60% likely to incur serious injury, compared to just 25% when the car is moving 23 mph.

How do things look more than a century later? Let’s consider Peachtree Street in Atlanta, shown above near the intersection of Peachtree and Ellis, looking North. This is one of Atlanta’s most assessible districts: one can choose between heavy rail, streetcar, bus, car, or walking safely and comfortably; however, it falls short for those who wish to travel via bicycle or e-scooter. Those individuals, whose speed tops out at around 20 mph, are required to share a lane with cars following a posted speed limit of 25 mph. What results is a familiar scene: drivers are frustrated to be slowed down by cyclists and scooter riders, who are in turn frustrated at being forced to enter a frightening and uncomfortable streetscape. Each group feels that their right to use the public right of way has been violated.

The design, organization, and enforcement policy of our public roads is a constant reminder of which group currently reigns supreme on Atlanta’s streets. Atlanta’s treatment of the public right of way, in contrast to Market Street in 1906, indicates that we place the highest value on the right to fast and unobstructed travel through the city, rather than safely accommodating a range of transportation options.

There has been much media coverage of the deaths of two scooter riders killed on Atlanta roads this year, and a 2018 report from the Atlanta Regional Commission found that nearly 400 pedestrians and cyclists are seriously injured or killed in the Atlanta metro region every year. It’s clear that Atlanta’s Light Individual Transportation (LIT) infrastructure is lacking. In a “free mobility market,” in which each mode of transportation was equally safe, commuters could base their decision on which option was most affordable, comfortable, or convenient, depending on their personal priorities. In Atlanta, the lack of adequate LIT infrastructure discourages many commuters from choosing to walk, bike, or ride a scooter, because sharing a lane with motor vehicles brings elevated risk of serious injury or death.

We believe that people should be able to choose how to travel around town according to what is most affordable, convenient, or comfortable for them – not which option is safe. To make that possible, we must continue to advocate for the expansion of non-car mobility options in our cities, and all the associated systems that support non-car travel: LIT infrastructure, elimination of parking requirements, congestion pricing, etc. Not everyone can afford to own a car, and urbanists and researchers are increasingly understanding that mobility is closely tied to affordability. If our elected leaders truly hold increasing affordability as a top priority, they must recognize and prioritize improving access to all mobility options. Similarly, if they hold combating climate change as a top priority, they must prioritize improvements to LIT infrastructure immediately.

P.S. The buildings may have changed, but Market Street in 2019 functions an awful lot like it did in 1906:


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