... and the invention of the sidewalk

The debate over the place of cars in cities may seem like a recent one, but in fact was raging well before the first automobile even saw the light of day.

To better understand, let us take a look at the streets of Paris when the French Revolution was in full swing and when all the "cars" were still horse-drawn. Even then, speeding carriages in densely packed urban areas could be deadly, and they raised the same essential questions as cars do to today – in particular the relative importance of orderly behaviour, traffic management, freedom of access and the right of way.

In 1790, an anonymous Parisian printed a pamphlet with a surprising modern title, "A Citizen's Petition, or A Motion against Coaches and Cabs". Passionately written, this 16-page text is simultaneously a moral treatise, a police memoir and a legislative motion, since it also contains propositions intended to be forwarded at the French National Assembly.

Little is known of its author except that he was probably a well-to-do citizen – perhaps a doctor – as he declares that he owns "a coach, a cab and four horses". These, however, he is ready to "sacrifice on the altar of the country", scandalised as he is by the brutality of drivers as they cross the city and disgusted by the "idleness and sloth of the rich". Swayed by the ideas of the Enlightenment and praising the contributions of the Revolution, he asks: What is the worth of a free press, religious tolerance and the abolition of state prisons if "one cannot go on foot without being exposed to perpetual danger?" Indeed, at a time when universal human rights were being proclaimed, Parisians continued to be killed by cars, to the complete indifference of legislators. The pamphlet's author therefore proposed to "fulfil" the work of the Revolution by prohibiting the use of coaches in Paris.

In 1790, a year after the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen", the political situation in Paris was in many ways unprecedented. On the roads, however, the domination exercised by coach drivers over pedestrians remained unchanged.


The author of the pamphlet is fully aware of the implications of his pamphlet, "You will object that I will ruin a large number of Citizens." Limiting the individual usage of horse-drawn cars would necessarily affect a whole section of the urban economy: the "wheelwrights, painters, leather-workers, saddlers, coachbuilders and farriers" but also "those renting out carriages, the coachmen […] and servants ". He argues that by multiplying the number of sedan chairs, many new jobs would be created. More porters and craftsmen capable of manufacturing sedans would be needed. Savings would also be made by those having to pay for the food, care and stabling of horses. The stables themselves, occupying much of the habitable ground floor space of the capital, could be replaced by housing for "all our inhabitants living in mediocrity". As to the courtyards, the pamphleteer suggests that their cobbles be removed and be replaced by lawn, vegetable gardens and orchards. Already, the car-free city pointed to another utopia, that of a leafier, greener city.

The invention of the sidewalk

The anonymous citizen – who was also an anglophile – further proposed to generalise the construction of sidewalks, as these existed in London. He called for each new street to include a "sidewalk not be less than four feet wide", about 130cm. Because the proposal was perceived as difficult to implement economically and politically, and potentially socially explosive, it was never discussed in the National Assembly. 

This idea fared better in history, however, and suggests that the choice to develop cities by separating the flows of cars and pedestrians, and by reserving for the latter a portion of the street, was favoured very early by urban governance policies.

Under the Romans, for example, sidewalks existed, but gradually disappeared during the Middle Ages, as their layout was considered too restrictive for medieval cities. London and the larger English cities were the first in Europe to replace the medieval road stones and ramparts with sidewalks during the end the 17th century. In Mexico City, about 10 km of sidewalk were built in the 1790s.

At the time that the "Motion against Coaches and Cabs" came into print, sidewalks were almost totally absent from Paris, and existed only along the Pont Neuf, the Pont Royal and the Odeon. During the 19th century, they became more numerous, especially in the city centre. The suburbs were serious under-equipped until the early 20th century,