Sure it’s from 1906, but its a fascinating reminder: American streets have not always been the exclusive province of automobiles, where all other uses are forbidden on pain of death.
It’s an early film taken from the perspective of a San Francisco cable car. I’m fascinated by the functional chaos of the city: you’ve got pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages, and automobiles all mixing it up. (In particular, I love the fat truncheon-wielding cop who wanders by at about 30 seconds.) Personally, I’ve not seen anything quite like this is real life, except perhaps in a few locations in the developing world. But there’s a movement afoot to replicate the better parts of this experience—the “woonerf” or shared street – in a modern way.
And it does look like it could benefit from some 21st century improvements. I flinch seeing the cyclists ride parallel to the streetcar tracks, and I worry for the pedestrians scurrying out of the way just in time. (The 1908 Barcelona version is even hairier.) Yet there’s growing evidence that shared streets are actually safer than the segregated versions we use exclusively today.
For more on that, check out Linda Baker’s excellent 2004 piece in Salon:
“But as soon as you emphasize separation of functions, you have a more dangerous environment,” says Hamilton-Baillie. “Because then the driver sees that he or she has priority. And the child who forgets for a moment and chases a ball across the street is a child in the wrong place.”
When it comes to reconfiguring streets as community spaces, ground zero is once again Holland and Denmark, where planners are removing traffic lights in some towns and cities, as well as white divider lines, sidewalks and speed limits. Research has shown that fatality rates at busy intersections, where two or three people were being killed every year, dropped to zero when controls and boundaries were taken away.
Food for thought anyway.