History of Traffic in NYC
Prior to 1890 Manhattan
streets functioned much like parks are supposed
to today. Not that they were lush green gardens
(although Park Avenue was) but rather streets
were thought of as public spaces and they were
used by the public in various ways. They were
used as town squares, as markets, they were a
place where people socialized, and children played.
People moved around mostly by walking but also
by a diverse public transportation system of ferries,
stage coach, omnibus, trains, cable cars, El's,
and street cars. The average speed of a horse
through city streets was 3 times the speed of
an automobile through midtown today.
In 1868, Velocipedes, what we now call bicycles,
were brought from France to New York. It's impossible
to recreate the feeling of hope the first site
of a man traveling on his own power as swiftly
as a horse must have instilled on those who
witnessed the transition from animal to mechanical
transportation. A bicycle physically represented
all the symbolic ideals of America's democratic
freedoms. Unlike horses, bicycles didn't have
to be fed, or stabled, or cared for when sick,
yet they exponentially increased the distance
that a person could travel in a day. Improvements
like pneumatic tires, the freewheel, the safety
frame, and brakes came quickly which literally
led to an explosion in cycling.
In the 1890's
there were 1200 makers of bicycles and parts
in New York City with 83 bicycle shops within
a one mile radius of lower Broadway . By comparison
today there is one bike maker in New York City,
no makers of parts, and less than 83 bike shops
in all of Manhattan.
For a short
period of time the bicycle industry was driving
our nations economy. In the mid 1890's there
were two patent offices. One for cycling, and
another for everything else. Unfortunately,
you never get a sense of this from period photographs.
were responsible for early surface improvements
in roads, road signs and mileage markers. But
cyclists also acted as if the streets belonged
to them and no one else. This pattern of selfish
behavior was quickly adopted by automobile owners
as cars experienced the same explosive growth
as bicycles had in the previous decade. However,
in fairness to the early cyclists, this has
to be put in historical context. Their machines
were truly something new, and rules of the road
were not yet in existence.The first set of traffic
rules was written by Phelps Eno in 1901 and
was passed into law in 1903.
In 1904, the first line of the IRT was opened.
The decision to power NYC subways by electricity
seems obvious now. It wasn't, as at the time
there was no precedent for such a power source.
Today no one thinks of the IRT as a crowning
technological achievement of an era, or a point
of civic pride. But it was. And not just because
of its power-source but also because of its
40-mph speed. Imagine being able to move from
one end of the city 7 times faster than a horse
for a nickel? And then there was the wow factor.
Here's how the New York Times described it opening
7:00 PM (Oct. 271904) the IRT opened its doors
to the public. Men and women who had been waiting
all afternoon for this