Knoxville's Streets: They Weren’t Always Made for Cars

The ongoing disputes between bicyclists and car drivers opens up kind of a sticky subject, and that’s history. “These streets were made for cars,” motorists who don’t ride bicycles like to say. That assumption comes with some asterisks.

For almost a century, Knoxville’s streets and roads were built mainly for pedestrians, horses, and horse-drawn vehicles. There were few rules, sometimes no rules. Horses were fairly courteous toward each other. There were occasional accidents, often when there was a problem with a steep hill and an overloaded wagon, but a horse’s natural inclination is to yield. Even if they have a hothead driver, or a drunk one, a horse doesn’t like to run into another horse, and usually chooses not to.

Bicycles appeared soon after the Civil War as novelties for clever hobbyists. By the 1890s, they were popular and practical. And by then, there were electric streetcars, on rails, sharing the same streets trod by horses. Bicycles were common in Knoxville, as in most American cities, decades before automobiles were.

Occasionally there was a bicycle accident serious enough to be reported in the paper, but rarely fatal. During the days of pedestrians, horses, and later bicycles, traffic rules consisted mostly of good manners.

And there was perhaps less sense of personal identification with one mode of transportation or another. Nearly every able-bodied citizen did a substantial amount of cross-town walking and occasionally rode the streetcar. Most had some occasional experience with a horse and buggy. Everybody was intermodal.

Bicycles were different in that they appealed mainly to an athletic minority, mostly young, mostly male. Horses were sometimes spooked by too-speedy bicyclists, which led to what may have been the city’s first speed limits, barely enforced by beat cops with pocket watches. Automobiles, which began showing up as rare curiosities around 1899—the first Knoxville automobile was assembled in a bicycle shop—but didn’t have a major effect on traffic until after World War I.

That’s when stricter rules arrived, just to deal with the defects of automobiles, which are faster, heavier, harder, and dumber than horses. Unlike horses, they couldn’t be expected to avoid colliding with each other, or with other things and people.

Automobiles forced everybody—pedestrians, bicyclists, and the few remaining horse and buggy drivers—to start obeying new laws about stopping and waiting at intersections. Today, bicyclists are expected to stop at red lights only because automobiles exist.

The recent discovery of a long motion picture of streetcars on San Francisco’s busy Market Street in 1906 was an interesting revelation. Even in that high-density city, it appears there were no rules restricting bicyclists and pedestrians. A street-crossing pedestrian had to contend with lots of horse-drawn buggies, electric streetcars, bicycles, and a few small automobiles. Except for the streetcars, which were governed by their tracks, all of the other vehicles and pedestrians flowed back and forth across one of the busiest streets on the West Coast, like birds. Watching it, you might discern that there was only one rule, more a suggestion, really: go where the other folks aren’t.

Crossing San Francisco, or Knoxville, on foot was faster than it is now, because it never required waiting, or even walking to a designated corner or crosswalk. Jaywalking is strictly a post-World War I, automobile-era concept. According to Webster’s, the word dates back to 1919. Google’s ngram registry of word frequency affirms that the term jaywalking became current in the 1920s.

Before that, the word didn’t exist, and apparently the concept didn’t, either. Traffic light, stop sign, these are all automobile-era terms. For centuries before automobiles, we just went where we wanted to go, and didn’t worry about it too much.

Automobiles are eternally the newcomers to this mix, the fifth general class of transportation to arrive, after walking, horses and horse-drawn conveyances, electric streetcars, and bicycles. For the first half of the history of Gay Street, cars did not exist.

History resonates: Downtown’s streets, where in 2014 we see the most pedestrians and the most bicyclists, are the streets that were originally laid out for non-motorized vehicles. Downtown saw an extravagant mix of transportation styles in 1890, and 1920, and today. However, lots of newer roads, especially highways and roads in certain suburban neighborhoods built between about 1950 and 1990, were built strictly for automobiles, without a thought that any other sort of vehicle would ever use them. Many don’t even offer accommodation for pedestrians.

But because they’re bigger and harder and faster and dumber, automobiles’ rules have come to dominate all the others. Does their existence demand that all other forms of transportation stand down and accept automobile standards?

Obviously, a lot of bicyclists think not. That light at Gay and Clinch, just outside our office, is run by bicyclists more often than it’s respected. That infuriates motorists, even if the bike’s not in the way. Most public bicycle advocates, like those at the Transportation Planning Organization, strongly disagree. Bikes should follow the same rules, they say. And so we should, until there’s a better plan.

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