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.
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.
Nearly 228 million Americans have a driver’s license. They are legally required for driving a car, of course. But they are also the most commonly used form of identification, accepted for everything from boarding planes to cashing checks. How did state governments get in the business of testing and licensing drivers? Why not local governments or the federal government—or, for that matter, private companies? It’s a story of law, history, scale, and role.
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.
With few exceptions, every time you travel on a street, road, or highway, you are on something built and maintained by a government. These are enormously expensive and land-hungry investments, but without them, modern life and a modern economy would be impossible. So, next time you walk, bike, or drive on a city street—or catch a bus to work—give some credit to government for making your journey possible.