"Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street"

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"Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street" Norton, Peter D. Technology and Culture, Volume 48, Number 2, April 2007, pp 331-359 (Article)Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.


Peter Norton revises the history of the negotiation between pedestrians and motorists in the early twentieth century American urban landscapes. He argues that in previous interpretations that either "urban transportation evolved in response to consumer preferences" [333] or, that, "in crowded cities, mass demand for automobiles could not automatically transform transformation," - thus elites would have to act to resolve the tension between pedestrians accustomed to an environment that accommodated a range of activities, ranging from play to transport. Instead, Norton advances the argument that motorists society exerted active agency in appropriating the term "Jaywalking" as a pejorative for pedestrians who failed to yield to motorists. The AAA and other motoring groups co-opted newspapers, Boy Scouts and city councils to adopt this language to socially construct their desired outcome of an automotive-centered street. Pedestrians actively resisted with their own language. However, Norton notes that though, “each side had power. Motorists through superior horsepower could drive people off the street wherever police were not there to stop them.” Trapped between the new semiotic landscape of motorists and the brute power of automobiles (and the fatalities incurred by them), pedestrians ultimately yielded.


Roger D. Connor, Spring , 2012

Norton’s narrative of how an “obscure Midwestern colloquialism” became the dominant terminology defining the pedestrian-motorist negotiation in the control for the street is useful as we ponder his questions: “Who belongs in city streets? Who does not belong? What are streets for?” [331]. However, there are some areas of concern in his approach. One is the technology itself. From a modern perspective with the benefit of anti-lock brakes, we can easily visualize how some reasonable traffic restrictions might allow something than an all-or-nothing approach to the automobile in the street. This does not take into account the poor braking of automobiles and the general cacophony of the street.

Another issue is the terrible reality of fatalities that must have done much to make the motorists case, even without the socially constructed language. Other than an aside from a coroner, the experience of the pedestrian in seeing a frequent tally of deaths and injuries in newspapers or as eyewitnesses must have been staggering. One wonders whether the Boy Scouts carried this much influence.

Lastly, with the mass democratization of the automobile in the 1920s with more than 10% of the population having automobile access (and with a continuing dramatic rise through the decade), motoring in urban streets became aspirational for pedestrians. It was one thing when haughty elites were running down your neighbor’s children, but another when it was your peers in the same vehicle you were saving for. Unfortunately, Norton does not address this critical argument.

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