The Rules of the Road: Then Versus Now

October 29, 2015

The 20th century brought with it many things, but the most notable (for all us transportation nerds) may have been the automobile.

The automobile not only changed how people traveled from one place to another, but also changed streets themselves. Suddenly, the road became a mixture of not only pedestrians, street cars, and carriages but also fast-moving motor vehicles. This caused massive traffic jams and congestion in cities like New York and London (see the below YouTube clip). As explains very well, roads were chaotic and dangerous. People quickly realized that something needed to be done to combat the gridlock and keep pedestrians and drivers safe.

Enter William Phelps Eno.

William P. Eno is internationally recognized as an original pioneer of traffic regulation and safety. He authored the very first Rules of the Road, which were adopted by New York City in 1909 and by London and Paris in the years following.

He was dubbed the “Father of Traffic Safety” and many of the traffic-flow innovations that we now take for granted were a result of Eno’s hard work. He is credited with designing Columbus Circle in New York City and the traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. He was the mastermind behind one-way streets, traffic lights, and passing on the right.


He is also credited with helping invent and popularize stop signs, taxi stands, pedestrian safety islands (also known as medians to your average pedestrian), and the hard left turn (see here).

Fast forward almost 100 years later to 2015 and we have cars that can drive themselves, mega cities that are home to billions of people, and ever-evolving modes of transportation.

William Eno, while a visionary and genius in his own right, could not have anticipated these massive changes to the way and the frequency with which we use our roads.

So the questions become;

How do the rules of the road that Eno penned at the beginning of the century need to adjust to account for new technology and stakeholders?

Who are the most important stakeholders of the road?

And how can we continue to combat congestion and keep our roads safe?

These are questions that are not answered easily. Not only because of the complexity of our roads today, but also because of the speed at which technology is changing. While law makers and transportation experts have started to address these changes, often by the time consensus is reached the technology has changed yet again.

While the road may have been a simpler place for William Phelps Eno in the early 1900s, we believe that if he were alive today he would still be in the thick of the transportation world, working to improve the way we move on a day-to-day basis. To keep up what Eno started, we are proposing a new look at the old rules of the road. These new rules need to address the world we live in today in the context of the new technology and stakeholders that help us move from place to place.

Our Policy Summit on November 12 of this year will examine new trends in mobility and technology, and how those trends are affecting the use of streets and roadways. Traffic laws still target automobiles, but recent increases in bicycling and walking—particularly in urban areas—require a reexamination of how each mode shares the roadway space.

These New Rules of the Road also have to consider technological impacts. Advancements such as speed cameras, electronic navigation, and smartphones have created distraction and confusion among drivers. Roads that were designed to maximize the speed of automobile traffic are now being used for many other purposes, leaving all users (drivers included) uncertain of the appropriate rules of the road.

What worked then does not necessarily work now. Thoughtful and innovative changes are necessary to keep our roads as safe as possible and to help move people quickly and safely to their destinations.

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