When cars first became common about a century ago, they shared city streets with all manner of transportation. As seen in a video shot on Market Street in San Francisco just before the 1906 earthquake, the mix of horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, street cars, and of course pedestrians on foot created a sort of controlled chaos.
In Detroit, which then as now was the center of the automotive industry, cars were more plentiful. “Everyone from nearly all incomes was driving,” according to The Detroit News. This caused carnage in the city’s streets until rules such as speed limits and right of ways—new concepts at the time—were established.
After a brief tug of war across the US over whether streets were primarily for cars or a shared space (for pedestrians, horses, vendors and even a place where children played), cars eventually won out and continue to dominate roads in most cities today. Now with new forms of personal transportation competing for city streets, including shared bikes and scooters, some are wondering if the car’s dominance is set to decline.
Biking and bikes lanes on city streets have proliferated in the past decade. More recently, bike-sharing has been on the rise. Companies ranging from Ford to Lyft, which recently bought the country’s biggest bike-share operator and launched its own Lyft Bikes service, are jumping into the space.
The dockless scooter craze has added another way to get around cities. Uber recently added Lime scooters to its app as well as Jump electric bikes. The swiftness with which dockless scooters have swarmed urban areas is reminiscent of how quickly Uber and Lyft took over from taxis cabs—and has inspired a similar backlash and even vandalism.
A recent Curbed column by urban transportation observer Alissa Walker calls for cities to rethink how they allocate street space. She recommends less reliance on cars and more space to accommodate modes of transport including bikes, scooters, and skateboards. But what works in San Francisco won’t work in, say, New York.
And rumors about death of the car in cities has been greatly exaggerated.
Streets Are for Cars in NYC
Besides cluttering streets, one of the biggest issues around bike-sharing and dockless scooters is mixing with other traffic on the road, leaving sidewalks for foot traffic. Although I’ve never lived in New York, I’ve spent enough time driving and walking in the city to know that the streets are meant for cars. New York drivers aren’t exactly known for their courtesy, or for cutting other motorists and pedestrians any slack.
And while scooters and bikes can be ridden year around in sunny California, imagine trying to make your way through Manhattan or another northern city completely exposed on two wheels during a snowstorm or when temperatures dip below freezing. While technology will change how people get around in cities—and shared bikes and scooters will be part of the mix—I believe autonomous vehicles (AVs) will eventually make the biggest impact. Self-driving vehicles can provide people with efficient and (hopefully) low-cost personal transportation, along with some personal space and protection from the elements.
Of course AVs will need street space, but perhaps less of it. This could free up more space for bikes and scooters. But I still see motorized vehicles continuing to take precedent on urban pavement.
And I certainly don’t believe we’ll be going back to the chaos seen on San Francisco’s streets and those of most cities a century ago.