Wednesday, June 21, 2017

100 Years Ago: Debate over Curbside Parking

Here's a moment 100 years ago when public space we call a "street" was a still a multi-modal jumble and our current mode of temporary car storage, as well as its direct and indirect subsidy, had not yet become convention and norm. Public space was being contested, and one of the elements in that contest appears to be a might-makes-right take-over of curb-side space by autos and their owners.

Note the requirement for back-in parking, as well as the fact that there are still horses and carts being used. Though bikes have largely passed out of the news at this time, almost wholly surpassed by the scale of money and the number of technological advances in the car trade, they are still important transport for many.

June 20th, 1917
Level Headed Farmer Asks Pertinent Question - Have Bikes Any Rights?

Complaints have been made to Chief of Police Cooper about automobiles, when being parked, backing into bicycles standing at the curb. Who is to blame? he asks.
Back-in parking at the Reed Opera House,
a few years later in 1920s
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
The city ordinance, he points out, requires automobile owners to back their machines against the curbing when they wish to park them, and when they do that and strike a bicycle are they liable for damages?

The bicycle owner is prohibited by ordinance from leaning his bicycle against a building, so should his wheel not have the protection of the law when it is left standing at the curbing?

These are questions which are agitating the chief of police.

On the other hand a farmer, who has not advanced to the automobile class yet, asked Chief Cooper what would the police do if he came to town with his team and wagon before the automobiles had occupied all the available room along tho street, and backed his wagon to the curb, unhitched, and left his wagon standing there all day.

"I couldn't arrest him," said the chief, "but it might open the eyes of some of the automobile owners who leave their machines standing in front of business houses all day.

"Personally, I am in favor of passing on ordinance requiring the parking of automobiles in the middle of the street. That would leave room for farmers and others who have business at the stores to get in and out. I would also like to see an ordinance passed defining the rights of a man with a bicycle."
For context, Marion County had 2,873 and Polk County had 895 cars registered at the end of May 1917. Multnomah County had the bulk of them, and the statewide total was 38, 230.

Automobile registrations, May 1917
(composite of June 10th and June 16th)
Marion County's population was about 45,000, and Polk's a little under 14,000, about 60,000 in total.

Real demographers can figure out the number of adults or households, but as a straight percent of population (including kids), that's about 6% of people have a car here in the early summer of 1917.

And here also is what I think is the first "Salem River Crossing" traffic count from September 1916:

October 16th, 1916
Daily average crossings: 700 autos, 343 horse-drawn buggies and carts, 462 motorcycles and bikes and people on foot, and 31 head of stock.

Though the proportions downtown might be different, at least on the bridge the ratio of cars to horse-drawn vehicles was only 2:1. It is not difficult to see how curbside access could be an issue in 1917.

Cars were not yet everyday transport for most people, and routinely we forget how much of a mixed system we had in the first half of the 20th century. Because they were fancy, advanced, and costly, cars dominated the headlines and photographs at this time. But it took a few decades for cars and autoism to achieve the invisible and normative supremacy that they enjoy today. It was contested and it required choices in public policy. Autoism is not some "natural" evolution, and we can today make new choices for a healthier, more pleasant, and more efficient transportation mix.

For more on the history of parking, see "Parking Meant Beauty and Landscaping, not Car Storage, 100 years Ago."

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