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A Brief History of Motion, by Tom Standage

Tom Standage’s new book A Brief History of Motion promises a little more than it delivers, but it is still a very entertaining and informative book. My one qualm is that it begins with its promised history of all sorts of human mechanical motion, but midway through veers into the single lane of how the car gained primacy. 

The book begins with an environmental catastrophe that confronted humankind in the late 1800s, as a way of setting the stage for his end-of-book optimism about changing the gasoline-based car culture before it is too late in our current time. That earlier catastrophe was horse manure.

Horse manure was already a problem in cities by the mid-Nineteenth Century, when a newspaper described New York City streets as “one mass of reeking, disgusting filth, which in some places is piled to such height as to render them almost impassable.” By the 1890s, the problem had become dire. With the growth of city factories, steam locomotives boosting intercity travel, and the development of inner suburbs served by horse-drawn streetcars, horses became more vital than ever to the economy. The number of horses increased fourfold between 1870 and 1900, while the human population only doubled.

New York City now had 150,000 horses, each of them producing the rank stew of 22 pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day, turning the streets into rivers of filth in wet weather, and the air into clouds of foul dust in dry weather. In addition, some 15,000 horses died each year, and were often left rotting on the street for days. (Methane gas was less of a problem; horses produce only a small fraction of the gas produced by cows.) Traffic was often impassable with the crush of horse-drawn vehicles.

An interesting aside is that an outbreak of the equine flu in 1872 sidelined horses and mules for weeks, crippling the economy. “The present epidemic has brought us face to face with the startling fact that the sudden loss of horse labor would totally disorganize our industry and commerce,” wrote The Nation. Sort of like what happened with Covid, or what will happen with a crippled internet or electrical grid. Economies seem to hang on an over-reliance on the technologies of the day. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

From this feculent introduction, the book takes us through the development of the wheel, horse-drawn transportation, steam locomotives and the bicycle. As is humankind’s wont, a skeptical eye on every change to the status quo. People who chose horse-drawn carriages over walking or riding a horse were initially seen as likely to become debilitated. In the words of one pamphlet, “those who travel in these coaches contracted an idle habit of body; became weary and listless when they rode a few miles.” Later, as shared coaches became common, pundits fretted over the consequences of the mixing of classes in such proximity. There was the widespread fear later on that the human body could not withstand the hurtling speed of the locomotive. Suburbs were warned to be potential brewing grounds for loneliness, alienation and juvenile delinquency with their bland uniformity and isolation. Society was scandalized by the prospect of teenagers indulging in passion in their cars or at drive-in movies.

He successfully ties all this together in leading up to the development of the automobile: the horse crisis brought on by growth of cities; the bicycle as a democratizing mode of travel that allowed people to travel at the speed and distance of horses but without the expense; and train travel proving great distances could be covered at great speed. All this came together to compel inventors to work toward solving the horse problem with some mode of transportation that combined the advantages of train travel with the advantages of personal means of transportation as represented by bicycles. Voila! The automobile!

From this point, the book focuses almost exclusively on the car. It’s an excellent overview, covering the triumph of gasoline over steam or electric, the development of ‘rules of the road’, and the second-class status of pedestrians, the growth of car-centric suburbs after World War II, the creation of the interstate highway system, the carving-up of inner city neighborhoods where minorities lived to create urban freeways and more. He discusses the roads not taken, where electric cars became the norm, where ethanol became as widely used as gasoline, where cities were built for people. But one alternative seems to fall by the wayside.

In discussing the limits of horse-drawn streetcars in reaching suburban communities, he gives a mere three sentences to electric streetcars. In the chapter on the expansion of suburbs in the post-war years, a paragraph is given over to the widespread switch from streetcars to buses in public transportation and a couple paragraphs about retrofitting suburbs around transit stops. The chapter on the rise of car-sharing like Uber begins with a look back at jitneys and taxis, with a side slide into civil rights and Blacks relegated to the rear of buses. But as the book closes, Standage remains focused on the car in offering possibilities for a better future: ride-sharing, electric vehicles, self-driving vehicles. It seems to leave out a lot of other forms of public transportation.

In all, a very good book, informative and fascinating. Yes, I didn’t expect it to be so car-centric, but that may be in part due to my own prejudices. I didn’t even learn to drive until I was 60 years old. Most of my life was spent in Philadelphia, and public transportation was an easy and cheap option. My wife had a drivers license, and for some time owned a car, but we gave that up and used Philly Carshare, a rent by the hour company with available cars scattered throughout our neighborhood. I’ve used public transportation to explore the US and the world. I even once wrote an article for Transitions Abroad about how easy it was to access inexpensive campgrounds using public transportation in cities throughout Europe.

It was only when my wife and I moved to Arizona five years ago that I gave in and learned to drive. It’s tough to avoid here. But driving still seems insane to me: jockeying back and forth at high speeds in multi-ton metal boxes (the book’s account of how road rage came on the scene right along with the earliest automobiles is amusing). I don’t think I’ll ever fully embrace car culture. Watching people lined up at drive-through fast food joints and Starbucks strikes me as the height of insanity.

So maybe I have a prejudice towards public transportation. If someone wants to write about that, I second that in-motion.