Pedestrians walk on a bridge above many lanes of car traffic in Las Vegas, Nevada

The American love affair with the automobile may be more of an arranged marriage: what do people prefer if they have free choice?

The “American Love Affair with the Automobile” is a flawed stereotype hampering the development of more walkable cities and concealing a century of persistent pedestrian practices amongst millions of Americans, according to a recent research article in Urban History by Professor Peter Norton [1].

A gigantic RV towing a large SUV with bicycles on its back, along a highway in western USA

RV towing an SUV with vacation bikes on the back: so what’s the preferred transport?

The love affair cliché, according to Norton, is based statistics of usage, not preference. “The leap from one measure to the other is fatal to validity,” he writes. “We cannot know what people prefer if they do not have good choices.”

Yet the cliché is not harmless: Norton says the claim that Americans prefer their automobiles to all other forms of transport is a major impediment (pun possibly intended) to a more walkable future. “The untold history of persistent pedestrianism gives us reason to doubt this common but historically naïve perspective,” writes Norton.

As Norton laments, historical statistics and large-scale surveys often omit pedestrianism entirely; yet digging into US urban history reveals a rich advocacy for pedestrianism away from the mainstream.

“Advocacy found expression from heterodox transportation insiders… it was expressed in popular fiction, in isolated acts of individual rebellion and in organist collective efforts. These advocates’ voices have gone almost unheard amid the din of the era’s automobile enthusiasm… promoted and amplified by powerful interest groups,” writes Norton.

Norton offers a energetic history of pedestrian activism, from hood-walking to the Baby Carriage Blockades, taking in Ray Bradbury, Jane Jacobs and heroes of the sidewalk movement… gem after gem highlighting “the “absurdity of the marginalisation of walking among a species that evolved to walk”.

[1] Norton, P. (n.d.). Persistent pedestrianism: Urban walking in motor age America, 1920s–1960s. Urban History, 1-24. doi:10.1017/S0963926819000956

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