Sidewalks were invented in big cities in the 1800s as a way of separating people from the filth of streets. They found a second use in the 20th century as a way of separating pedestrians from automobiles. After World War II, sidewalks declined in popularity, only to rise again in recent decades along with urban trails. Throughout, governments have been the key to pedestrian access.
The principles behind public libraries—that they are open to any resident’s use, lend books for free, and be supported by taxes—were considered outlandish to most Americans in the mid-1800s. But an incredible act of philanthropy in 1883 changed how people thought about libraries, and local governments seized the opportunity to build and support these institutions. Today going to the library is twice as popular as attending sporting events. For these places of learning, you can thank both philanthropy and government. But mostly government.
Building codes show us how governments make our lives safer while reducing costs for everyone. They do so one construction project or remodeling at a time, so their impact is nearly invisible. Until, that is, you look at statistics on fire safety, energy usage, or water consumption over time, where you can see that government has made enormous progress but done it quietly, steadfastly, at scale, and often in collaborative ways.
It’s a small but important way state and local governments make your life safer: They inspect elevators. Actually, though, this is not a small task because there are 900,000 elevators in America, making them the nation’s most common form of public conveyance. A century ago, when governments got into the business of inspecting them, elevators had frequent and horrifying accidents. They don’t now, and you can give some of the credit to the governments that inspect them.
Public transit didn’t start out as a government service. For more than a century, it was a for-profit industry that government assisted and regulated. When ridership declined and corporations abandoned the business, governments stepped in to keep transit alive. Why? Because buses and trains help cities work better. They also make urban life more affordable and appealing.