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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.