I never really gave sidewalks much thought. If I had thought about them at all, I would have imagined they had always existed, which is only partially true.

The first sidewalks came into being around 2000 B.C. – a millennium or two after the invention of the wheel. Here’s the interesting part: they were rare luxuries in most of the world until as late as the 19th Century.

Ancient Roman road with no sidewalk

That’s when big cities like London and Paris built hundreds of miles of sidewalks to deal with the chaos in the roadways. Until then, “For most of human history, vehicles, pedestrians, vendors, musicians, drinkers and strolling lovers all mingled in the same amorphous muck of the avenue.” Washington Post, June 30, 2019, “The Death of the Sidewalk,” by Avi Selk.

The 1800s saw the first attempt to make the roadways more efficient by dividing them up into sections with regulated use designated for each section. The word “jaywalking” didn’t even exist until the early 20th century. That’s the first time pedestrians were fined for using the part of the street where they weren’t supposed to be.

Non-walkers were also penalized for using the sidewalks without proper authorization. Cities started prohibiting and/or regulating all kinds of sidewalk activities, like vendors, food stands, musicians, panhandlers, and prostitutes.

Cobbled street with narrow sidewalk

The division of space into walkers and vehicles eroded over time with bicyclists and stationary homeless people, among others, invading the precious territory of the walkers. Cities kept coming up with new limitations, like bike lanes, to try to deal with the problems that came up. But as vehicles became more prevalent, from horse-drawn carts to trolleys to cars, streets got widened and sidewalks narrowed.

Urban bike lanes

In 1896, The Times started a “Crusade against the sidewalk grabbers.” It wrote, “The pedestrians now … must spend their time in a hurdle race over skids, climb platforms, dodge moving boxes or else run the risk of being crushed under horses’ hooves in the street.” Washington Post article cited above. Apparently, pedestrians felt they had to fight for a safe walking space among the vendors and construction crews that were encroaching on their walking space.

Today there’s a new threat to the safety and sanity of pedestrians all across America.

Electric scooters are usurping sidewalk space at a dangerous, 10, 15 or even 20 miles per hour. They clog the sidewalks, endangering walkers and creating obstacles when they are left strewn carelessly in the streets. There have been many reported injuries from collisions as well as from people tripping over randomly abandoned scooters.

Scooters on a modern city street

As in the past, there’s a backlash of pedestrians trying to “… restore the sanctity of the sidewalk, with anti-scooter vigilantes appearing wherever the machines do.” Washington Post article. Disgusted pedestrians are throwing scooters into dumpsters and rivers, setting them on fire and hanging them from bridges. So cities now have to try to make peace in the scooter/pedestrian wars. Washington, D.C is experimenting with solar-powered charging docks in the hopes of getting people to stop dumping scooters wherever they happen to stop.

Another possible solution is limiting scooters to the bike lanes, where those already exist. Nashville gave up trying to negotiate a cease-fire and is trying to ban scooters from the sidewalks entirely.

Scooters left randomly on the street

Understanding the history of urban roadways gives perspective to the current sidewalk wars. This situation keeps cropping up periodically as new uses for sidewalks come into vogue. Cities have been dealing with these issues for centuries so this will be resolved over time – until the next sidewalk crisis emerges.

Categories: Paths, Roads, Urban Landscape

Tags: , , , , , ,

20 replies

  1. One interesting thing we noticed while in China was they have main roads for cars and secondary roads for bicycles and then sidewalks for pedestrians. These roads were separated by trees and boulevards. If a car did venture down this side road their destination was near and they travelled more slowly. At one point most Chinese were riding their bikes. Today the car traffic in major cities of China is horrific.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We have bike paths too, but they are pretty “out of the way.” To get your bike to them, you really need to put them on your car and drive there. The roads are nice — or were when they were new, but because they are so off the beaten path, they don’t get a lot of use.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The bike path system ran parallel to the regular road system. The bikes were a major source of transportation so they had to do that. We have a bike path system in Canada but is more recreational not practical…


    • Fascinating to hear that the chinese have already dealt with this problem by separting lanes of traffic for different types of travelers. Very smart. But do they have more space than we do? In some places there is just no room for a pedestrian sidewalk and a bike/scooter lane. And can bikes and scooters safely share a lane? I don’t know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve noticed that the roads are very wide. The side lanes no so big but they wouldn’t carry the major traffic. They are tearing down their little Hutong communities and building more modern home sites. The Hutongs, in most cases were too narrow for cars. They are doing a lot of clever city planning. If you get a chance have a look on YouTube to see some of their cities. They are quite beautiful. Car traffic is becoming a problem but there are still a lot of people on bicycles and a lot of people walk. In Wuhan they have a large downtown area where there are no cars, I don’t think they even have bicycles there. You just walk and it’s really a great social experience.


  2. Mother in law (88) commented VERY early about the phenomena, certainly about the speed and making no noise. They come and before you realise it, they throw you in the street… Also, for people with poor eyesight and/or bad hearing, this newish development is a one sided joy.
    HH and I got the shock of the month in our town, when the Maire (mayor) returned home at night and we, walking in the middle of the very narrow lane, nearly jumped out of our shoes when the guy rang his horribly loud klaxon of his new electric car.
    He was apologetic when we said that we nearly wd have preferred to be run over than ,that,….. and said that this happened all the time and that car makers wd have to learn to add some kind of noise to their new vehicles, or else…..
    It is interesting to read between the couple of you, the Armstrongs and Rich, all of you with different styles, ideas and knowledge. You should have, years ago, have formed a comune (house sharing). You would have been just fine together, all with their appartment but some shared rooms and maybe shared cooking, employing some help and mostly having the time of your life, remaking the world to be a better place, sharing radio shows, discussing old films, helping each other…. What do you think?


  3. Walking needs to be encouraged and it is intriguing to read how long ago the poor pedestrian had to fight for space on the pavement/sidewalk. Whether in charge of young children or an elderly person worried about falling, we pedestrians need plenty of safe space.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Through much of history it was every man for himself. So pedestrians had to share space with horses and later carts and wagons and eventually cars. Noone thought to protect anyone. We’re beginning to have a similar problem today because pedestrians now have to share space with scooters and often bikes, which can be dangerous for walkers. Cities will have to address the problem as scooters become more prevalent and public opinion begins to demand protections.


    • Tidal, I agree walking needs to be encouraged. It’s great exercise. But it’s hard to do when your town skimps on sidewalks. Maybe the selectmen need to make it a priority. Build the darn sidewalk and walk on them to greet the constituents who put you in office.
      In the olden days, we used to walk on the sidewalks to school. Much of our social life was on the neighborhood sidewalks.


  4. Sidewalks are pretty rare out here in the desert too. Most are downtown and in fairly new developments where they are deemed more necessary, but in most residential neighborhoods, they are often left out.., and nobody seems to care. Maybe it’s a money thing with builders? It might cost less to just leave them out?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, we don’t have sidewalks and the ones in town are so broken and based in, they are more rubble than sidewalks. I do remember when we lived in Uniondale, they would put in a new sidewalk and a month later, they’d dig it all up again because they hadn’t coordinated the addition of the sewer changes under the sidewalks. That’s also a big problem with the roads, too. They fix the runs. They tear them up a month later, but the next paving isn’t as good as the one they destroyed and then winter comes and trashes whatever is left.


    • SIdewalks didn’t exist through most of history so it’s not uncommon to hae areas without them. I live in a rural/suburban area with roads but no sidewalks. The sidewalks are only in the ‘city’ portions of the county, where there are stores lined up and interspersed with office buildings and libraries and restaurants. some residential areas have small sidewalks as well as roads but not all.


    • Bro, are sidewalks passe? You notice we have an absence of sidewalks in Uxbridge. Maybe it’s a budgetary thing?


  5. Well=researched and interesting,Ellin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • WHo’d of thought that sidewalks would be an interesting topic to write about?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I know. The mind can make fodder of anything.


      • Ellin, your missives are so ecletic.
        Love the song, “The Sidwalks of New York”. It’s playing on the juxbox in my brain. Continuous loop.

        Our front walk – along the front yard where the furry kids play — needs to be cleaned daily. I wear rubber gloves and hold my nose. Not sure this is befitting a multi emmy award winning journalist. Then, again, there are suggestions that some of my stories smelled like the doggies front yard and walk.

        This calls for Dustin Hoffman’s — “Hey, I’m WALKIN’ here!”

        Sidewalks are at a premium in Uxbridge, especially on our Aldrich Street. Pedestrians walk — at their own risk.


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