It’s a Wonderful Study of Transportation and Urban Design Through Time

25 Dec

This weekend, I was enjoying an annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life.  No Christmas is complete without it.  

What I found interesting was the ‘progression’ of transportation through the years and the way that the small town of Bedford Falls adapted around it.

See below for descriptions and short clips of various snapshots of Bedford Falls through the early 20th century.


In 1919, there was a nice mix of horses, pedestrians, bicycles, and even automobiles.  Walking is the most common mode of transportation, and the cars on the street move slowly to accommodate the other road users.  Notice the car waiting behind the kids walking down the center of the road at 5:08.   The kids weren’t run over or honked at.  The car driver was frustrated, but he didn’t act like he owned the road or anything like that.  What’s also cool is that kids can walk unattended to the soda shop.  No minivan or SUV escort is required.  

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)  


In 1928, Bedford Falls is still a really nice place to live.  Although it is worthwhile to notice how cars are much more prevalent. now.  Horses are absent and bicycles are also on their way out.  Pedestrians still rule the day, but they have strong competition now.  I think it is worth noting how the pedestrian was treated at the 13:56 mark of the clip.  Unlike in 1919, this time the car nearly runs the man over for being in the road.  He has to jump and scamper to the safety of the sidewalk.  Cars are taking ownership of the streets.

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)


This is a scene away from the downtown area in 1932.  What I find fascinating is the complete lack of automobiles.  There are  many pedestrians and one bicycle.  Take a look outside your window right now.  Unless you live in a dense urban area or  Europe, you probably won’t see a single pedestrian.  These people have nice big yards and still manage to walk.  I’ve been told that such a thing is impossible.  I kind of want to live here.

(Feel free to stop watching after 15-20 seconds.  All these clips will play the entire movie.)


 Check out Bailey Park in 1935.  I know George is trying to do a good thing here, but his design is all wrong.  This neighborhood is 100% car centric.  It is away from town.  There are absolutely no sidewalks.  There are no pedestrians.   There are no bicycles.  The pedestrian-friendly grid from 1932 is done away with.  What a shame.  Bailey Park is the death knell for small town Bedford Falls.


If Bedford Falls was a real place, what might it look like today?  Seneca Falls in upstate New York claims to be the Real Bedford Falls; the inspiration for Capra’s Bedford Falls.  Even if Seneca Falls was not the basis for Bedford Falls, they did have many of the same characteristics.

Physical similarities between Seneca Falls and Bedford Falls are striking. In addition to the architecture along the main street and the steel truss bridge, Seneca Falls has many Second Empire Victorian homes (like the large, old house George and Mary owned in the movie). Both towns have a canal. In 1945, when the movie was shot, Seneca Falls was a mill town, just like Bedford Falls. Seneca Falls had the globe street lamps seen in the movie and even had a median on a portion of its main street.

-The Real Bedford Falls

See the Google Street View of what Seneca Falls looks like today.   The small walkable town is still there, but there are very few pedestrians or bicycles.  The median is gone, the road has been widened to accommodate faster cars and parking.  Pedestrians are now an afterthought.  It’s nice to have a crosswalk, but in 1919 Bedford Falls there was no need for a crosswalk.  Pedestrians had the right of way by default.  It was the cars that had to look out for them, not the other way around.  It has been 93 years since that scene in Bedford Falls took place.  At a glance, it appears that Bedford Falls is a much worse place to live now than it was back then.  But hey, we can drive fast though the middle of town and there is plenty of parking.  That’s what it’s all about right? Free parking?


One Response to “It’s a Wonderful Study of Transportation and Urban Design Through Time”

  1. Kylie January 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Pretty amazing that the director got the details “right” in representing each of these eras, and also, it’s pretty amazing that you noticed them. Thanks for bringing this to light. This would be a great foil for a presentation explaining walkability. Nice work!

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