The Rules of the Road. How Did We Get Here?

Colin Fiske, Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities

Children playing in the street. New York City, 1909.

One of the first major steps toward designing American communities for cars was the adoption of rules of the road that favored drivers over other street users. Or actually, the adoption of any rules of the road at all. Prior to the twentieth century, there were no laws at all about how to use streets and roads, and very little need for them. Pedestrians and horse-drawn vehicles traveled slowly and navigated around each other on a mostly ad hoc basis, aside from a general custom of keeping to the right. They also had little problem navigating around other accepted street users, including children playing and people selling various goods. 

When cars were introduced to the streets, they threw this long-established order on its head. For one thing, cars had the ability to move very fast, and therefore posed a much greater safety threat to other road users than any previous mode of transportation. Indeed, cars were deeply unpopular for decades in most cities and towns, because they killed other street users—particularly children—with horrifying regularity. 

The class implications were hard to miss. Automobiles were often referred to as “pleasure cars” and, at least initially, were mostly driven by wealthy hobbyists. The people they killed were more often members of the poor or working class. This tragic inequity continues to reverberate today. Car ownership is still too expensive for many people, and low-income people are still more likely to be killed by drivers while walking1. 

But in a sign of things to come, the first rules of the road were designed not to protect safety but to move traffic more quickly and efficiently. At the time, the concept of traffic “congestion” had not yet been invented by engineers, and few people considered slow speeds a problem on public streets. William Phelps Eno, scion of a wealthy New York family, however, felt differently. He became singularly obsessed with traffic efficiency and speed, and dedicated his life and his family’s sizeable fortune to imposing his ideas on cities from 1899 onward. 

Eno’s first major success was convincing New York City to adopt his “Rules for Driving and the Regulation of Street Traffic” in 1903. It was the first set of official traffic laws ever adopted2, and was concerned primarily with ensuring that drivers behaved in a predictable and orderly manner and that other street users did not interfere with the movement of vehicles. Indeed, the Rules asserted that “the roadbeds of highways and streets are primarily intended for vehicles,” a claim which at that time would have seemed positively absurd to most people, and for the first time directed pedestrians to enter the street only to cross at right angles, “preferably at a regular crossing.”3 

The Rules for Drivers were quickly copied by other cities and towns, thanks in no small part to Eno’s advocacy, and became the basis for traffic regulation in the United States. (They were also influential in Europe.) Eno continued to proselytize successfully for his vision of speedy, efficient, free-flowing traffic for decades. He is credited with inventing or popularizing one-way streets, traffic lights, stop signs, and medians, among other “traffic-flow innovations.”4 He created a foundation to promote his vision which is now called the Eno Center for Transportation and is still one of the most influential organizations in transportation policy today. 

Of course, while Eno’s money and influence had a significant impact, no single person is responsible for the modern paradigm of traffic regulation which promotes the speedy and efficient flow of vehicles above all else, and makes other traditional street users into interlopers. Notably, this vision was also promoted by a generation of engineers beginning in the 1920s, who were mostly hired by downtown merchants worried that their business prospects were threatened by the mess automobiles had made of city streets. These first traffic engineers approached the problem the same way they did other civil engineering problems of the day like sewer and water systems—as a problem of flow—and their recommendations were widely implemented by cities thanks to their influential benefactors. The engineers organized as the Institute of Traffic Engineers in 1931. Now re-named the Institute of Transportation Engineers, it is still extremely influential. William Phelps Eno was made an honorary member.5

Today, increasing evidence suggests that road rules that prioritize vehicular speed over everything else are partly to blame for the daily carnage on streets and highways. In fact, one school of thought holds that eliminating traffic rules in cities and towns altogether is the key to improving road safety. This philosophy is epitomized by the Dutch idea of the “woonerf” or “living street,” where many uses—including children playing—are allowed, and drivers are responsible for operating their vehicles slowly and safely. The fact that this idea seems so radical in the US is a reflection of the success of Eno and his contemporaries at shaping our laws, our culture and our communities over the last century.

Note: Much of the information in this article is drawn from historian Peter D. Norton’s masterful 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. Any otherwise uncited facts can be assumed to derive from this source.


1Smart Growth America. 2022. Dangerous by Design.
2Henebery, Ann. 2015. The Rules of the Road: Then and Now. Eno Center for Transportation.
3The full text of the original Rules can be found here:
4Henebery 2015.
5Robinson et al. Undated. Pioneers of Transportation.

History of Cars Timeline 

Living in a modern American community, the fact that it’s generally easier to get from one place to another in a car rather than by foot or bike or bus might seem like a natural state of affairs. After all, cars are big powerful machines that can take us long distances with little physical effort. Aren’t they just a naturally superior way to get around?

Think again. The comparative advantage of cars and trucks only exists over relatively long distances, on wide, well-paved and graded roads with controlled access (so other uses don’t get in the way) and plenty of space to store your vehicle wherever you might want to go. EcoNews will be publishing a series of articles exploring how American communities ended up as just such places. Hint: it wasn’t an accident, or a natural evolution. It was the result of a series of economic and political power struggles that played out over decades, starting around the beginning of the twentieth century. This is the first article in our series that explains the origin of traffic laws which promote car dominance in American communities.