“Adam Ruins Everything” Explains the Origins of “Jaywalking”

Think the origins of “jaywalking” in 1920s car industry propaganda are too esoteric for a mainstream audience? Watch this clip from truTV’s “Adam Ruins Everything” that adapts research from Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic, a history of how motordom conquered American streets in the early 20th century. It’s a good sign when productions backed by the entertainment industry start devoting attention to topics like this.

Hat tip Michael Briggs.

  • AlexWithAK

    Worth mentioning that the entire episode is devoted to explaining why cars are a terrible primary mode of travel. He also addresses induced demand, how we tore apart cities to build freeways, and our glut of parking. He even speaks to an animated Donald Shoup! You can see the whole thing online if you have a cable login.

    Full disclosure: I work for truTV but was floored when this episode came in so I’ve been shilling it pretty hard.

  • Joe R.

    One thing I’m especially puzzled at is how cars became attractive for long distance travel. To me a car is a horrible way to travel long distances. It’s noisy, smelly, bumpy, and cramped. You need frequent average speed killing stops for food, bathroom breaks, fuel, or rest. Even without these stops, cars are less than half the speed of state-of-the-art rail. On top of all that, they’re expensive. I might understand cars as the primary mode in low density suburbs for errand trips or commuting. I can’t for the life of me fathom why on Earth people ever though using them to travel long distances was a good idea.

  • omaryak

    Carmakers created the mystique of the open road as an expression of American independence. It’s worked so well that Tea Partiers think any attempt to get us out of our cars is a one-world government conspiracy

  • HamTech87

    @alexwithak:disqus Is the full episode available on the internet?

  • mckillio

    I agree with you to an extent but driving is a great way to see the country. Unfortunately our national rail program is a joke, it tops out at 55mph for going cross country for most of it and it’s not cheap. I think that if we can get trains that go twice as fast as cars but half the cost of planes, they could really take off in the US. Seeing the country by rail is great too.

  • Joe R.

    That’s probably not that high of a bar to reach, either. If trains traveled at 125 mph with relatively infrequent stops average speeds could be over 100 mph, or roughly twice the average speed of car travel once you count gas/rest/food/bathroom stops. If they were heavily patronized, trains should end up costing less than planes.

    I personally can’t ride in cars for any length of time (allergic to gas fumes) and I refuse to fly, so fast, inexpensive trains would open up a new world for me. I’ve never been more than 400 miles from where I was born but I would like to eventually see more of the country than just the NY metro area.

  • davistrain

    The problem with increasing train speeds to over 90 mph is that the tracks must be maintained to a much higher standard than the typical freight railroad. Grade crossings must be eliminated, and strong right-of-way fencing is a requirement. Right now, trains are restricted to 79 mph unless the track is equipped with Automatic Train Stop, and 90 with ATS, and over 90 only after specific improvements are made. Here in California, there’s a high-speed rail project that’s actually started construction, but it’s attracted a lot of political opposition, and for me it’s one of those “I should live so long” programs.

  • davistrain

    One of the advantages of cars is that it doesn’t cost any extra to carry more people. Some years ago a colleague asked me about taking his family from the Los Angeles area to San Diego on the train. I just happened to have a spare Amtrak Surfliner timetable handy, and gave it to him. Next time I saw him I asked about the train ride, and he said, “Didn’t take the train after all. When I found out the fare for me, my wife and three kids, it was a lot cheaper to drive.” And until we have the high-speed train to the Bay Area, one can drive from LA to San Francisco in about 6 hours, while the Coast Starlight takes 12. I usually take the San Joaquin, which is a bit over 9 hours, but involves a bus ride from LA to Bakersfield.

  • It was said a couple of times on the show that cars are good for long-distance travel.

    The theme of the show was the folly of using cars as the primary means of getting around within a city, and the error of having designed our cities around the car instead of around subways and streetcars.

  • Joe R.

    If the US stopped subsidizing the trucking industry with free highways most freight would go to rail, and there would be a demand for high-speed priority freight, in addition to regular lower speed bulk freight. As such, there would be an economic case for freight railroads to electrify and upgrade their right-of-way for much higher speeds. Or perhaps they would just eliminate grade crossings, keep the current tracks as is, but build one or two parallel, high-speed, electrified tracks equipped with ATS. Either way they would be able to accommodate higher speed passenger trains.

    A third way is to just do what the US should have done decades ago, which is to build high-speed electrified passenger routes on a national scale. For extra revenue those same tracks could be used for priority package freight at night when passenger traffic is light.

    Regardless of which option would be built, the point is that there can potentially be a huge market in the US for both freight and passenger traffic on high-speed railways. I’m sure there’s a large subset of people who can’t drive or can’t afford a car, and refuse to fly (or can’t fly for medical reasons), who might use this system. Virtually everyone who ships packages would use it. If we frame it that way, there probably would be a lot less opposition. That’s especially true as rising fuel prices make the alternatives a lot less attractive.

  • Ken

    Agree with you. Driving costs the same per mile whether you have one person in the car or four. The difference is that commuting, which constitutes something like half of VMT (at least in the SACOG region), primarily constitutes single-occupancy vehicles at peak periods, whereas non-commute trips have higher vehicle occupancies (at least according to the new SACOG RTP/SCS).

    I also think few think about cost in a true apples to apples manner. You don’t pay out of pocket for every mile you drive. You either make your monthly payment or it’s paid for. You only “pay” at the pump (especially in a state without turnpikes or pumps). If you evaluate your trips on the basis that it basically costs 60 cents a mile to drive anywhere, plus parking, it puts things in perspective and can make you rethink that trip to the big box home improvement store versus the small hardware store, even though you may spend a buck or two more at the latter.

    As for trains, California has this horrible “I took the train” campaign. For trips from Sacramento to the Bay Area on Capitol Corridor (Amtrak), the time difference is nowhere near as bad when you start factoring Bay Area traffic. Plus you can bring your bike on the train or have good options for transit or bike share when you get into the Bay Area. Even if the train takes a little longer, you can use that time differently on the train. You can work, read, nap, play video games, watch movies, get up and walk around and stretch, eat, drink. You definitely can’t do drink in the car! My friends who have taken the train from Sacramento to the Bay Area for baseball games really seem to like this last advantage…

  • Joe Enoch

    This is the best description I’ve ever seen of how the automobile criminalized walking.

  • davistrain

    To paraphrase the gun-owners’ mantra “I will give up my car (or pickup, or SUV, or minivan) when they pry my cold dead hands from the steering wheel”. My first wife had some bad experiences riding local transit
    as a teenager; once she scraped together enough money of a third-hand clunker, she never set foot in a bus again.

  • davistrain

    A number of US railroads investigated electrification back in the 1960s and 70s, and Union Pacific reportedly built (but didn’t energize) a few miles of overhead wire structures in Wyoming to see how it would stand up under the severe weather in that area. But they could never justify the capital cost of installing trolley wire over hundreds of miles of track. The one major electrification in the West was on the Milwaukee Road, and it was abandoned around 1980. The Pennsylvania RR had a lot of electrified freight operation around Philadelphia, but with decline of heavy industry and the perfection of the diesel locomotive, this was abandoned or de-electrified in the 1970s. This whole report is sad for me because I’m a long-time electric railway enthusiast who remembers electric freight service on the Pacific Electric line going by my house when I was a boy. Here’s a photo of me running a preserved PE car at Orange Empire Railway Museum:

  • Joe R.

    It may well be time for freight railroads to look at electrification again. My understanding is once diesel went above ~$1 per gallon the operating costs would be less with electrification. Of course, you would also have to amortize the huge costs of stringing wire and buying new locomotives. However, even accounting for those things you probably don’t push the point where it makes sense to electrify much past $2 per gallon diesel. It’s fairly obvious to me we’re not dropping under that again.

    I think a major part of the reluctance here to electrify stems from the short-term view of CEOs, indeed of today’s society in general. Any railroad CEO who decides to electrify will likely be stuck in a situation where profits are reduced or nonexistent for a decade as the costs of electrification are paid for. Of course, after that profits will be higher than before indefinitely into the future but by then that CEO will likely be long gone. Nobody wants to be responsible for reducing profits on their watch. The only way out of this quandary might be if the government pays for the electrification, perhaps under the condition the freight railroad guarantees slots for x number of passenger trains.

    Another reason electrification seems to have little traction is because not too many people in charge these days have first-hand experience with electrified railways. The abandonment of many electrified lines decades ago, which you mention in your post, has had that unfortunate end result. Outside of the Northeast, most of the country hasn’t seen railways running under the wire in decades. If you’re not familiar with something, it’s hard to advocate for it.

    You look like you’re having a good time in that picture. How long is the right-of-way where you run those things? And are you actually able to take them up to a decent speed? I think museum demos of rolling stock like that getting put through their paces would expose quite a bit more of the general public to something most aren’t familiar with. Those who know Amtrak only via its diesel locomotives have no idea how fast and quiet electric trains are. I still recall my college days when I rode the NEC regularly. Usually it was on a set of Arrow IIIs. Occasionally I rode on Amtrak behind the then new AEM-7s. Pretty awesome seeing one of those accelerate a 6-coach train from a dead stop to 100 mph in about 2 minutes. I just wish more people had that experience.

  • davistrain

    Regarding the photo: Orange Empire (oerm.org) has about two miles of main line track, plus a loop for streetcars and quite a bit of yard track. We started out as a trolley museum, but now run steam and diesel locomotives and vintage passenger cars as well as trolleys. There are a couple of museums that have longer electric lines than we do–one near Sacramento CA, and one about 50 miles west of Chicago.

  • Not quite, it sounds like grade crossings are permitted for service up to 125 MPH and Amtrak already operates several 110 MPH trains in areas that definitely aren’t sealed, as can be seen by the scores of videos on YouTube.

  • davistrain

    Thanks for the correction–I was giving “off the top of my head” info. Be that as it may, eliminating grade crossings is an important way to lessen the possibility of collisions, even in lower-speed situations.

  • Ken

    I found the whole episode and it’s great! There is an animated cameo that the geeks among us will love and immediately recognize and I won’t spoil it except to say it’s about parking.

  • Joe R.

    It’s probably a good idea to eliminate grade crossings anyway for higher speed service for both safety and noise reasons. A frequent complaint from locals is often about trains using their horns near grade crossings.

    The bigger show stopper to implementing more 110 mph to 125 mph service is the lack of electrification. Electrification is needed for these kinds of speeds even if some diesel locomotives can technically reach them. Electric locomotives bring the train up to speed much faster than diesel locomotives. It’s hard to imagine 125 mph diesel service. By the time the train hit 125 mph, it would likely need to start braking for the next stop.

  • neroden

    “One thing I’m especially puzzled at is how cars became attractive for long distance travel.”

    Extremely low population density. In the 1920s, we had a comprehensive passenger rail network, but honestly, the rail lines across the Great Plains and the Rockies and West Texas and so on were unsupportable economically given the very low population densities out there. Meanwhile, the very low population densities meant that there was very little traffic…

    Population density was still relatively low in the 1950s even in places like Ohio (which did support lots of train service economically), when the active campaign to destroy America’s rail network started in earnest. So motorists were still looking at the “open road”, rather than endless traffic.

    By the 1970s, with population density much much higher in places like Ohio and much much higher in places like Denver, the situation looked quite different….

  • neroden

    FWIW two of the largest freight rail users in the country are… FedEx and UPS. They do want faster freight rail.

  • neroden

    FWIW the Milwaukee Road was quite spectacularly mismanaged. An expert report told them to fill in the gaps in their electrification, but instead they ripped it out. They also dismantled the profitable part of their network and kept the unprofitable part based on bad accounting. (Really.)

  • I’d certainly agree there, but I’d hate to see promising upgrades shelved solely because of grade crossings (notwithstanding any community opposition). I do agree that electrification would be quite beneficial, but diesel service at those speeds isn’t a problem for longer runs as the acceleration time becomes a smaller part of the total journey. We here in SoCal are investing in [F125] locomotives for Metrolink which I presume means that they’re looking to implement at least 110 MPH service on some lines at some point in the future. That would be great for the express trains that make limited stops and especially for the concept of running Metrolink trains all the way to San Diego. Those higher speeds would mean that the LA-SD trip time could be in the order of an hour and 45 minutes, which is certainly way faster than I-5. Ditto for establishing commuter rail service to the Coachella Valley, though RCTC is looking to Amtrak for that since Union Pacific doesn’t want to allow any passenger service on their tracks. That route also has long segments with nothing where diesels could certainly stretch their legs.

  • steely

    Adam is MCing our vision zero conference at NYU next month. we can’t wait!

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