Sunday, March 11, 2012

Paris, 1928

Last year in a post entitled Barcelona, 1908 I shared an video shot from the front of a streetcar navigating the avenues of the title city a little over a century ago. As you'll remember (if you don't, feel free to go back and take a look), I commented on the complexity of the methods of mobility that took up street-space in relative harmony. From pedestrians, to bicyclists, to carriages, to even a few early automobiles, the streets were a genuine mix of modes of transportation. Now I bring you back to an early 20th Century European city, but this time it's Paris, 1928.

The differences are immediately apparent. There are many more automobiles, and pedestrians largely keep to the sidewalks instead of weaving in front of the streetcar-mounted camera as they did in Barcelona. It's interesting to see the changes and the prevalence of the automobile only twenty years after the first clip.

In 1928 Paris you will notice a city struggling with the pressures of this increase in automobile traffic. Street activity, largely unregulated and unsupervised before, now necessitates direction from officers who stand down oncoming vehicles. At the 1:18 mark, the camera captures the somewhat organized chaos of the bustling intersection where one car drifts into the flow of oncoming traffic. But no one really has right of way anyway and there aren't even lanes, so who is at fault here? Here's a frightening thought -- think of being on the road with that many new drivers, operating largely unfamiliar technology in a space with little oversight. No wonder the pedestrians stick to the sidewalks except to cross...

My takeaway from this video (in reference to the first) is the pace at which automobiles infiltrated the centers of these old cities that for centuries had operated largely on foot traffic as the primary mode of transportation. More autos traveling at higher speeds on cramped streets relegated pedestrians to the sidewalk where they understandably felt more safe. This separation transformed the function of these streets, and had serious implications for them as public spaces. This compartmentalization of uses is the challenge the shared space movement, and to a certain extent the complete streets initiative, attempt to correct through redesign and reprogramming of streets, thereby changing public perception of streets as car-only zones to ones accepting and emboldening of more diverse modes of transportation.

Sometimes we must look back in order to move forward.