As urban bike fans already know, one of the world’s greatest cycling cities is Copenhagen, and one of the Web’s best reads is Copenhagenize, a wide-ranging, erudite forum for cycling and related urban transport issues produced by Copenhagen-based filmmaker and consultant Mikael Colville-Andersen.

There was an especially fascinating post over at Copenhagenize the other day about “The Anti-Automobile Age” that got me thinking – not about cyclists but about pedestrians. The post is a sort of review of Peter D. Norton’s book "Fighting Traffic," focusing on the widespread protest and controversy inspired by the arrival of the automobile on city streets around the world. As Colville-Andersen notes, the transformation of streets from multi-use public spaces to high-speed transportation corridors exclusively for motor vehicles required not just a boom in car sales but an intensive public information campaign across several decades.

One aspect Colville-Andersen mentions in passing got sort of stuck in my head: “The whole invented concept of jaywalking.” I was dimly aware this was true, but I hadn’t ever thought about how jaywalking was invented. It occurs to me, though, that the story of how people were cleared off the streets might teach us something about how to reclaim some part of those streets today for walkers and cyclists and other non-motorized forms of city life.

Norton’s "Fighting Traffic" tells much of the story. He explains how, in the first years of the 20th century, cars were often seen as dangerous, unwelcome intrusions in the urban landscape, piloted by “joy riders” and “speed maniacs” with little regard for the safety of children playing in the street. They inspired outrage and protest, particularly over the staggering number of fatalities they caused. These responses, Norton writes, “reflected the unspoken assumptions of their time: that people on foot, including children at play, had a rightful claim to street space.”

To make way for the automobile, urban dwellers had to be re-educated. One particularly effective tool was the epithet “jay walker.” The term was derived from a common insult – a jay was a simple-minded rural hick, someone who didn’t know how to act in the city. Initially, the term jaywalker applied to pedestrians wandering carelessly in the way of other pedestrians, but motorists and their allies soon seized on it as a way to clear the road for cars.

Popular Mechanics reported the introduction of a municipal ordinance against jaywalking in Kansas City as early as 1912. Over the next 10 years, “city safety weeks” spread to cities across America, talking up the public menace of crossing the street indiscriminately. Police and Boy Scouts handed out wallet cards about the dangers of jaywalking, while the Packard Motor Company erected fake tombstones for deceased jaywalkers in Detroit.

Anti-automobile advocates tried and failed to spread the use of the term “jay driver.” By the mid-1920s, streets across America were mostly people-free, and laws against jaywalking eventually spread to Canada, Australia, Spain and Poland, among others.

Curiously, some jurisdictions never embraced the idea. In Germany and the Netherlands, the onus remained on cars to watch for people; in the U.K., pedestrians were trusted to cross safely without the threat of legal action. This led to a tragicomic scene at an academic conference in Atlanta in 2007, where a British history professor crossed the street in front of the conference hall and was wrestled to the ground by an Atlanta police officer and hustled off to jail.

So there’s the full circle of 20th-century street life in miniature: to cross the street, or linger in it, or even play there – actions assumed by every democratic citizen in 1907 to be a basic right – represented, by 2007, such an act of reckless disregard for public safety that it required police intervention, handcuffs and a jail cell.

And so where do we go from here? How do we begin to find space for people in our streets? The answers, of course, are many and varied, and I’ve discussed some of them in previous posts on this blog already. Street design can do a lot all on its own – see, for example, the revolutionary Dutch concept of the woonerf – and wider sidewalks, separated bike lanes, and outright motor vehicle bans (such as the one in New York’s Times Square) do the trick as well. But these are just physical changes.

The simple brilliance of the jaywalking idea is that it changed the mental landscape of the city. A space that had once been for everyone – the street – was now just for cars. To challenge the automobile’s dominance was to be reckless and dumb and behind the times – a fool, a hick, a rube.

The real street-level challenge for sustainability advocates today is to again reorder the mental landscape. To get people thinking of drivers, not pedestrians, as the ones who are out of touch and behind the times. I wonder if it could start with some new terminology. “Jay driver” seeems too old-fashioned. Combusters, perhaps? Tailpipers? Or simply dinosaurs?

Feel free to post your own suggestions below.

To talk up reclaimed streets 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.

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