A History of Sharing the Road

A History of Sharing the Road

This op-ed appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 1, 2017 — I wrote it earlier that spring, as bike lanes became (strangely) a wedge issue in the Pittsburgh mayoral race. 


Ask any two-year old: sharing is really important, but it is also really hard.

No matter their age, coming to fair agreements about the apportionment of shared resources is perhaps the most difficult problem that humans face. Basically, politics is the way we have managed the business of sharing; an always-imperfect and constantly-renegotiated agreement divvying up what everyone needs.  

I first started to think about cities as the result of debates over shared resources when I was a student living in Pittsburgh in the 1990s.  I was mostly thinking about air quality at the time, and the city’s history of environmental politics.  I didn’t bike commute for a few reasons: the city’s biking renaissance hadn’t yet caught on, and the daily climb out of Panther Hollow seemed a bit much.

Since 2000 a new bicycle boom has swept through cities across the nation, and even though I no longer lived in Pittsburgh, I began to think of ways to understand the conflicts over the return of the bicycle.  Some recent news out of Pittsburgh’s political debates and bike lane proposals reminded me of these conflicts.

I’ve found that it’s useful to think of city streets as a commonly-held resource, or “commons.”  In the same way that pastures, airsheds, forests, fisheries or even radio spectrums need to be used in different ways by many different groups, streets have always been filled with all kinds of users.  Just like those other limited resources, the streets could be despoiled by overuse or a failure to share.

For centuries and millennia, humanity’s public roads have been a resource shared between many different — often conflicting — needs.  They are an easement on property rights for the public good.  Humans take property ownership seriously, so any infringement has to have a very good reason.  The good reason is that if all land was divided into privately-owned lots and landowners forbid anyone to cross, we’d all be stuck.  

European history of Roman surveyors (right) engineers (middle) and long-lasting roads (top); detail from
Histoire des grands chemins de l’Empire Romain (1728)

The famously-engineered roads of the Roman empire were protected in civil law so that people walking, riding horseback or guiding oxcarts could move for the good of commerce.  Since the early modern era English courts called that protected movement eundo et redeundo, or the free movement of the people back and forth, to make social and economic exchange possible.

Language reminds us of this.  A “thoroughfare” is a street that goes (fares) through (thorough) someone else’s property.  Highway did not originally mean interstate; it was the King’s High Way, on which all travellers were protected by the King’s word.  When we say “right-of-way” we mean both “who has priority” and “the strip of land in which free travel (way) is protected by law (right).”

Through the early modern era, common law and legislation covered a bewildering variety of travel modes; all were allowed as long as they were not nuisances to others. Detail of “High Street, Whitechapel,” (1837)

These English common-law protections soon came to America, so throughout the 18th and 19th century streets were legally used as marketplaces, playgrounds, public squares, trolley car lines, freightways, promenades for people and droveways for animals.  

Along with horseback riders and pedestrians, all kinds of conveyances travelled on the roads: sleds, surreys, wagons, trams, and carriages. The courts began calling them “vehicles,” and guaranteed all the right to use the road so long as they didn’t endanger or block others.  When bicycles came along in the late 19th century, after some confusion, the courts included them in the category.  A few decades later, the law could declare newly-popular self-propelled machines to be “motor vehicles”; they were rightly perceived as being more dangerous, so a new regime of regulations was created to include them safely in the shared space.

The legal and political institution of the street takes all comers, even as uses change over time.  Trolleys have gone and Segways did not last, but newly-autonomous vehicles will be permitted so long as they pass regulatory muster and don’t endanger the use of others.

Today, our city streets are shared spaces for movement.  Below the asphalt run storm sewers, water, telecommunications, steam and effluent.  Above them run power and even more communications.  Along their length people walk, strollers stroll, and a menagerie of vehicles roll: construction and delivery and emergency vehicles; tractor trailers and oversize loads; scooters and Harleys; Teslas and Yugos; bendy buses and paratransit and maybe even Uber.  And while the law can regulate them, it generally can’t ban them — to limit who could travel on the street would call into question that need to take private land for the public good.  

One user group — privately-owned automobiles — had enormous success in the 20th century, fueling a mobile society and economy.  The growing movement (and, strangely, storage) of automobiles has crowded out other uses on the public street, making walking dangerous and creating intense tribal conflicts when other users make competing claims.

But the car is not the only user, nor is it guaranteed that its dominance will continue.  Bike lanes, busways, sharrows and sidewalks do not represent encroachments on a space that is the exclusive province of the automobile. They are reminders of the underlying legal reality of this inherently shared space, attempts to build structures to protect multiple users and limit overuse.

There’s no doubt sharing is hard, but if two-year olds can figure it out, surely we can too.


James Longhurst completed his Ph.D. in history and policy at Carnegie Mellon University in 2004. He is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and author of “Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road” (2015).

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