clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

8 photos that show how cars seized city streets from pedestrians

Roads were not always the domain of cars.

In the early 1900s, "pedestrians were walking in the streets anywhere they wanted, whenever they wanted, usually without looking," Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia, told me for a recent article about the creation of the crime of jaywalking.

Obviously, that didn't last long. As cars began to spread, accidents increased, and automakers embarked on an aggressive campaign to redefine who belonged on the roads, eventually restricting pedestrians to crosswalks.

It worked so successfully that, today, few people are aware that city streets were once a bustling mix of pedestrians, streetcars, pushcart vendors, and children at play — an environment that Norton likens to a city park.

Look through old photos, though, and the transformation is stark. Here's a look at US cities, then and now.

Chicago: La Salle and Monroe, 1912 vs. today

(University of Minnesota/Google Street View)

Chicago: State and Madison, 1904 vs. today

(Chicago Loop Alliance/Google Street View)

New York: Mott St., 1900 vs. today

(Library of Congress/NYC Grid)

New York: Canal St., 1880s vs. today

(George Brainerd/Jordan Liles)

New York: Broad St., 1905 vs. today

(Library of Congress/NYC Grid)

Philadelphia: Market St., 1905 vs. today

(Center City Team/Google Street View)

Denver: 17th St., 1884 vs. today

(Denver Public Library/Google Street View)

San Francisco: Market St., 1906 vs. today

(Miles Brothers/Google Street View)

That 1906 San Francisco photo comes from the fascinating film "A Trip Down Market Street," filmed by a crew of four brothers from the front of a cable car. It's a rare video time capsule of life in a US city during that era — and another view into how much our notion of a city street has changed. Watch pedestrians casually mingle with horse-drawn buggies, street cars, and slow-moving early automobiles:

Read more: The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of "jaywalking"

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.