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Everyone mixed on Pennsylvania Ave. a century ago

Before cities engineered their roads and traffic patterns for the cars, many modes mixed together.

Ghosts of DC got a hold of a video of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1909, showing horses, bikes, pedestrians, automobiles, and streetcars all chaotically, but successfully, interacting.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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This is great, thank you! Here is a very similar video showing the same sorts of interactions down Market st in San Francisco, 1905:

by alex on Nov 17, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

If by successfully you mean with daily major accidents, then you are correct---all you have to do is look in the old Washington Star front pages and pretty much every day "man hit by XXXX will lose legs" or something similar is there.

People back then had a much higher tolerance for Darwin

by TaL on Nov 17, 2012 1:21 pm • linkreport

There's something wrong with the sound. I couldn't hear any ragtime piano playing.

by TM on Nov 17, 2012 3:50 pm • linkreport

It's interesting to see Pennsylvania Avenue without the familiar Federal Triangle Buildings and other federal office buildings. Only the Capitol Building looks familiar. Judging from the vantage point of the Capitol, this looks like this was shot around 10th/12th Street?

by Adam on Nov 17, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

I'd venture the delta v--the difference between the fastest and slowest movers in the video--was under 12 mph. At that speed all travelers have some time adjust to one another...

But wasn't it fascinating to see cars, trolleys, pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and bicycles all managing to share the road, at least for the duration of the video?

by Kim on Nov 17, 2012 5:18 pm • linkreport

Well, you could shoot a video today at the same spot and see buses, pedestrians, segway tours, bikes, and such "chaotically, but successfully, interacting". But TaL is right, accidents were common then, many of them fatal.

by Tim Krepp on Nov 17, 2012 5:26 pm • linkreport

You say "chaotically," but there is a police officer directing traffic.

by Marc Brenman on Nov 18, 2012 6:10 am • linkreport

I really enjoyed watching this video. Watching trolleys was great. I can't wait for the trolleys to start running on H Street, NE.

by Michelle on Nov 18, 2012 7:37 am • linkreport

@Adam: The Apex building with its two tallish turrets, still standing in the 600 block of Pennsylvania, is readily recognizable to the left of the Capitol. It's close enough to the camera that I'd guess the scene was shot from 9th. 10th is possible, but from 12th I'd think the already built and still extant Old Post Office building would be visible on the right.

by A Streeter on Nov 18, 2012 10:44 am • linkreport

Love these old photos where EVERYONE is wearing a hat.

by Ron Eichner on Nov 18, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

Oh, the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

by Steve on Nov 18, 2012 8:34 pm • linkreport

People seem to still be using the street as if the fastest vehicle was a horse drawn wagon, crossing wherever convenient. I'd like to see the traffic fatalities graph showing the change as cars begin to move faster than the 12mph spread mentioned by Kim. Almost looks coreographed.

by Thayer-D on Nov 18, 2012 8:59 pm • linkreport

Loss of legs as a result of an accident was far more common then because of medical science. Things were done fast and cheap. Trauma surgery advanced a lot after WWI. In fact, not too many decades earlier they amputated for fractures that did not penetrate the skin, because they did not know how to properly stabilize a fracture.

But the biggest difference was the lack of antibiotics. People would die from a rose thorn prick. If you tried to save a seriously wounded leg, you had a very high likelihood of sepsis, which would kill the patient. Under those circumstances, it was better to just amputate.

All this is say that you cannot judge accident severity merely by the victim's outcome.

by SJE on Nov 18, 2012 9:18 pm • linkreport

Lets show this video every time we hear "roads are built for cars"

by SJE on Nov 18, 2012 9:21 pm • linkreport

@ A Streetcar -

A streetcar crosses Pennsylvania Avenue @ 0:07-0:11. At that time, the streets which had car lines crossing Pennsylvania Avenue were 14th, 9th and 7th. So the camera was probably right at 9th.

@ SJE -

Thanks for the historical perspective. It's amazing how far we've come in just a century and a half.

by Frank IBC on Nov 18, 2012 10:04 pm • linkreport

I've been to India, where this still happens. It isn't fun, and traffic accidents deaths are far more common.

by charlie on Nov 19, 2012 8:42 am • linkreport

Charlie: you see that in India also because of cost, which was a factor in the USA. If you are paying out of pocket, amputation is very quick and very effective compared to complex surgery and weeks of care.

by SJE on Nov 19, 2012 8:52 am • linkreport

Yes, this is totally the same, ignoring the fact that PA Ave didn't have 30K vehicles per day using it, or that the population of the District was half then what it is today, but yeah....other than those two minor issues, totally the same.

by Pa Ave on Nov 19, 2012 8:54 am • linkreport

@SJE; If anything, weeks of care are cheaper in India. You don't have emergency services and high level trama centers, true -- but if you think this video and/or Modern India are models for traffic regulation you've been digesting some high quality mescaline.

It is something like 5x the road death rate in US, with about 1/10 the number of cars.

by charlie on Nov 19, 2012 8:58 am • linkreport

This was almost certainly filmed well after 1909. There are at least 3 Model T Fords in this excerpt, a car that didn't go on sale until Sept. 1908 -- and only 800 copies were built in the first year.

I'm not an expert on brass-era cars, but I think it's a safe bet that most of the vehicles in this clip were made in the teens or early 20s.

by c5karl on Nov 19, 2012 9:53 am • linkreport

Keep Calm and No U-Turns

by MJ on Nov 19, 2012 10:21 am • linkreport

@Tal @Tim Krepp - there is at least one crash/day on the beltway/i-95/i-270 now, often fatal. I think your wrong that this slow moving traffic, the norm for transportation in 1909, was more dangerous and deadly than todays accepted norm of high speed high volume SOV craziness on the beltway.

by Tina on Nov 19, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

Charlie: weeks of care ARE cheaper in India. Its why some of my friends wait for their trips to India before going to the dentist, or getting any surgery. India has great hospitals etc at bargain prices by our standards.

However, for the hundreds of millions of Indians living on a dollar a day, a hospital stay is beyond their personal means. People die from all sorts of treatable conditions, all the time.

by SJE on Nov 19, 2012 12:20 pm • linkreport

Loved the car turning left onto Penn Ave in front of another car already on Penn... some things never change.

by Jack Love on Nov 19, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

Where are the women and children? I spotted only two women pedestrians (both with umbrellas); two woman automobile passengers (one with an umbrella); and one woman driving at the very end.

by tour guide on Nov 19, 2012 6:07 pm • linkreport

@Tina, It's apples and oranges, of course. Without numbers, we're just guessing. We move exponentially more people than they did in 1909, through different means, for much, much greater distances.

I'm simply saying that having spent a significant portion of my life looking through old newspapers, I would say that road accidents were a fact of life back then, with widely reported fatalities, injuries, etc.

Which leads to another issue: modern trauma care is fare better at patching us up. There's really no way to compare the fatality rate to today.

by Tim Krepp on Nov 19, 2012 9:40 pm • linkreport

@Tim Krepp -its not apples and oranges or any kind of fruit. Its 1)common modes of transportation and 2)crashes resulting in trauma.

If we move more people now its only b/c there are more people to move. People have been moving around for >100,000 years; in fact for most of our existence we were nomads moving about 16 miles a day. Distance and speed are the difference with technology, not the fact that people are moving about. In 1909, as you state, the modes were different than now.

You asserted and implied that the common modes of transport depicted in the video resulted in more traumatic crashes than what we have today. I disagree.

I expect the data exist to make a comparison.

by Tina on Nov 20, 2012 12:16 pm • linkreport

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