Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington is depicted in 1874. (National Archives and Records Administration)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week, we’re talking about car-free cities. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Shivani Radhakrishnan is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in n+1 and the Boston Review.

Picturing the American city calls to mind streets that are car-filled, and by comparison with European city streets, unfriendly to bikers and pedestrians. By and large, we take this as a given. Yet cars haven’t been around forever, and this isn’t the way things have always been, not even in America. The city as a playground for cars reflects a deliberate and troubling aspect of contemporary society: the commercialization of public space.

How did the American city become the automotive city? At the beginning of the 20th century, American motorists were seen as intruders on urban streets. City streets, like city parks, were public spaces. By the 1930s, however, the vision of streets as places exclusively for automobiles had triumphed, motordom along with it.

This wasn’t a matter of chance. Before streets could be physically reconstructed, allowing more room for vehicles, there needed to be social reconstruction. Streets had to become places where cars belonged. Automotive interests and engineers consciously shaped this vision of the city streets; today this image is so rooted that it’s hard to imagine a city otherwise. The history of this process, as well-described by Peter Norton and Clay McShane, suggests, though, that these transformations were less about safety and order than we might guess and more about transforming the way we think about public space.

During the 1910s and 1920s, there was fierce competition over the legitimate use of streets. Irritated drivers, convinced of the supremacy of the automobile’s claim to the streets, coined an epithet: “jay walker.” A jay at the time was an unsophisticated person; “jay,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, was a common insult in American slang.  To jaywalk was to cross the street in an unsafe way, the way a country dweller unfamiliar with city traffic might. The term was also controversial. The New York Times, in 1915, called the term “jaywalker” shameful and “highly shocking.” It rang of a pejorative class term, one used by wealthier drivers to refer to the carless.

In spite of initial reluctance to use the term, it stuck, particularly due to anti-jaywalking shame campaigns and the interests of the auto industry. In an April 1920 campaign in San Francisco, pedestrians were taken off the streets — to the amusement of the onlookers — and lectured in mock courtrooms on the perils of jaywalking. Sometimes the shame tactics were explicitly backed by auto interests. The Packard Motor Car Co., for instance, entered what would become a prize-winning float in a 1922 Detroit safety parade; the float was a mock tombstone, with an epitaph that read “Erected to the Memory of Mr. J. Walker: He Stepped from the Curb Without Looking.”

All of this might be dismissed as simply a matter of safety, but responding to genuine concerns about the well-being of pedestrians doesn’t mandate that streets are almost completely given over to the automobile (as recent debates about urban bike lanes makes clear). A narrative of “safety” doesn’t tell of aligned interests between auto groups that wanted physical restructuring and urban planners who thought they were the ones for the job.

Nor should we see our current streets as a feature of the evolution of a superior technology, with cars quite literally driving older forms of transportation out of the picture on account of consumer demand. This line of thought ignores how hard the auto industry worked — through shame campaigns and even legislation — to win public legitimacy for the car.

Our ways of speaking, too, are telling. We say that the streets are “closed” during parades and outdoor festivals, even if all we mean is that cars can’t access them. We have come to accept it as natural that pedestrians are to be cordoned off to sidewalks and allowed in the streets only at appointed places, such as crosswalks. The streets are no longer thought of as public spaces, and even the exceptions underline the rule.

Most worrying is that the market’s encroachment on public space isn’t limited to our streets. Today, there is a growing number of privately owned public spaces, with corporate interests looking to become more involved in running even libraries, swimming pools and public schools. This will impede the ways we use them.

It is hard to imagine, for instance, certain kinds of political and social organizing in semi-private spaces; it seems doubtful, for instance, that opposition movements such as Occupy Wall Street will be welcome. But the point is even more general: Even if we’re not a part of such movements, privatized public spaces are more about furthering commercial interests than fostering viable political and social communities. Open to the public, after all, is not the same as owned by the public.

Explore these other perspectives:

J.H. Crawford: The car century was a mistake. It’s time to move on.

Randal O’Toole: Transit is dead. Let’s prepare for the next mobility revolution.

Jarrett Walker: Why cars and cities are a bad match.

Donald Shoup: How parking requirements hurt the poor

Aaron Renn: Self-driving cars will change more than just traffic. Here’s why.