A Brief History of Motion

Title: A Brief History of Motion

Author: Tom Standage

Completed: Dec 2021

Overview: Last book of 2021 and first book after transferring my book notes over to my public website. I enjoyed the way this book complimented many of the topics from Strong Towns and showed how close we were on several occasions to having either a car-free society or cars that ran on something other than fossil fuels. Overall it was a good read. I’ve also read “A History of the World in 6 Glasses” by the same author. He does a good job telling stories but sometimes the stories jump from one point to another with seemingly little connection. Still a fun tale.

Highlights:

  • The Horseless Age, a magazine founded in 1895 to champion the new technology, proudly declared that “in cities and in towns the noise and clatter of the streets will be reduced,” because of cars’ rubber tires—yet it is still difficult today to hear yourself think on Broadway. The average speed of cars in central London today is 8 mph, the same as it was for a horse-drawn carriage in the 1890s, belying predictions that cars, taking up less space on the road, would reduce congestion. Road accidents are a major cause of death and injury worldwide. Huge areas of land are devoted to parking, even as cars sit unused, on average, 95 percent of the time—making cities as much dormitories for cars as habitats for people.
  • Their cultural significance is apparent from the appearance of “wagon graves,” which have a wheel buried in each corner, so that the grave itself forms a kind of wagon, carrying its occupant into the afterlife. Such graves first appear on the Black Sea plains around 3300 B.C.E. The distinctive tradition of wagon nomadism in this region persisted for thousands of years; it is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century B.C.E., was adopted by the Mongols in the thirteenth century C.E., and survived into the modern era.
  • On the Via di Nola, for example, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, 89 percent of the wear marks are associated with right-side driving. Visual depictions of Roman funeral processions and chariot races, on funerary urns and in mosaics, also indicate a preference for driving on the right. This preference may have been practical in nature. Most people are right-handed, and when driving a cart or wagon being pulled by two or four horses, a right-handed person will prefer to sit on the left-hand side of the vehicle, or on the rearmost, left-hand horse, to be able to reach all the animals with a whip held in the right hand. And when sitting on the left, it is easier to drive on the right because it puts the driver close to the center of the road, providing better visibility of oncoming traffic and of vehicles passing on the other side of the road. For the Romans, right-side driving also had positive religious connotations. They likened life to a forked path where the virtuous choice was always on the right, and when entering temples and other buildings, they tried to ensure that their right foot was the first to cross the threshold.
  • American standard gauge (4 feet 8.5 inches, or 1.43 meters) does closely match the average Roman gauge (derived from wheel ruts) of 1.4 meters. But ever since the first wheeled vehicles emerged, their gauge has been consistent, falling in the range of 1.3 to 1.6 meters, with an average of 1.45 meters.
  • Facing the threat of the expanding Ottoman Empire, Hungarian commanders adopted a new tactic: arranging wagons on the battlefield in a ring and chaining them together to form a wagon fort, a mobile defensive fortification that could resist cavalry charges. The wagons, equipped with gunports, also acted as protected platforms from which men could fire a small cannon or an early form of gun called an arquebus. This cutting-edge combination of wagons and gunpowder weapons made armored knights on horseback look suddenly old-fashioned. And that may explain why men across Europe decided that riding in fancy wagons was not so embarrassing after all—provided they were referred to as coaches, a name borrowed from the country where this new idea had emerged.
  • experiments starting in the 1780s, John McAdam, a Scottish engineer, refined this approach with his proposal that roads be surfaced using small, sharp-edged stones made from crushed rock, rather than rounded pebbles. The straight edges of these small stones caused them to pack together more tightly as vehicles passed over them, rather than being scattered. McAdam’s approach, which became known as a macadam surface, was formally adopted in Britain in the 1820s and spread to other countries. (The treatment of macadam surfaces with tar, patented in 1902, led to the word tarmac.)
  • As its name indicates, the omnibus was open to all. It became a symbol of democracy, with good reason. Though omnibuses were mostly used by middle-class riders, some cities introduced subsidies to extend access to the poorest workers. Those who took advantage of these cut-price or “commuted” fares became known as commuters.
  • Railways had made possible the transport of people and goods at unprecedented speeds. But rather than liberating cities from their dependence on horses, they increased it.
  • unlike trains, which offered high-speed travel subject to a strict timetable and between fixed points, bicycles could go anywhere. Granting riders unprecedented autonomy and freedom, bicycles came to be seen as agents of wider social change. This was not simply because women cyclists challenged the impracticality of Victorian clothing and took to wearing trousers or bloomers instead. Beloved of suffragettes and socialists, bicycles became more broadly associated with personal emancipation and social progress. American civil rights campaigner Susan B. Anthony declared that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel. It gives woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.”
  • there were concerns that frequent cycling would lead to the development of “bicycle face,” a deformation of the features, or “cyclemania,” an unhealthy obsession with cycling at speed. Scandalized Victorians also worried that cycling made women infertile, loosened their morals, led them to develop overly masculine musculature, and generally threatened the natural order of things.
  • In a speech in 1906, Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, worried that loutish motorists were fanning the flames of resentment toward the rich: “Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of automobiles. To the countryman they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness.”
  • In 1908 Octave Mirbeau, a French writer, satirized such complaints from motorists: “How frustrating, how thoroughly disheartening it is that these pigheaded, obstructive villagers, whose hens, dogs and sometimes children I mow down, fail to appreciate that I represent Progress and universal happiness. I intend to bring them these benefits in spite of themselves, even if they don’t live to enjoy them!”
  • from 1914 Ford paid $5 for an eight-hour day, about double the industry’s going rate. Strange as it may seem, paying higher wages was yet another way of cutting costs and improving efficiency. In 1913, the year before the $5 wage was introduced, 71 percent of Ford’s new hires had left within five days. Paying higher wages reduced employee turnover, and hence the amount of time needed for training. Ford claimed that “the payment of five dollars a day for an eight-hour day was one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made.”
  • GM became the world’s largest company altogether. At its height it accounted for more than half of America’s automobile market, and more than 10 percent of its national economy—making it far bigger, in comparative terms, than any technology giant today.
  • The first traffic light was installed on Westminster Bridge in London in 1868, to improve the safety of pedestrians. John Peake Knight, a railway engineer, invented a set of semaphore arms, mounted on a tall post on the bridge, that could be raised and lowered manually by a policeman. Raised arms meant vehicles and horses had to stop “to allow the passage of Persons on Foot”; lowered arms meant vehicles and horses should exercise caution and “pass over the Crossing with care, and due regard to the safety of Foot Passengers.” Crucially, the arms were accompanied by colored gaslights for visibility at night: red for “stop,” and green for “caution”—the standard colors that had been adopted for signaling on railways in the 1840s (along with white for “all clear”). This pioneering traffic light did not last long, however. Less than a month after its installation, a gas leak caused it to explode, injuring the policeman operating it, and it was removed soon afterward.
  • In a speech to a medical conference in 1937, a leading German surgeon, Martin Kirschner, argued against the reimposition of speed limits. Even though he admitted such measures would save many lives, he maintained that impeding the progress of the automobile would threaten “our societal relations, our wealth, our industry, our agriculture, the ability to defend ourselves, our international standing, in short, of our whole civilization and culture.” Instead, he argued, he and his colleagues should focus on developing new approaches to trauma surgery as a way to reduce the death toll. This indicates the extent to which the adoption of the car, and the resulting danger posed to life and limb, had already come to be seen as an unfortunate but inevitable fact of life—an attitude that still prevails today.
  • Oslo raised parking charges and tolls to enter the city, established car-free zones around schools, and shifted some city-center deliveries from vans to electric cargo bikes.
  • Officials in Oslo talk of cars being treated as “guests” or “visitors, rather than owning the streets.” Cars are not banned entirely, but drivers crawling through the city center are made to feel like interlopers.
  • Perhaps the most striking example of the shared-space philosophy is in the Dutch town of Noordlaren, where a primary school was adjacent to a road where drivers tended to speed. The wall between the playground and the road was removed, and the playground was extended across the road, forcing cars to drive (carefully) through the middle of it. Amazingly, this eliminated speeding without causing any accidents.
  • This half-hour commuting distance may sound arbitrary, but an analysis of urban layouts by Cesare Marchetti, an Italian physicist, suggests that one hour is, on average, how long people are willing to spend traveling to and from work each day and has been for centuries. (Some people’s commutes are much shorter or longer; this is an average across a whole city’s population.) Marchetti suggested that this time limit defined the size of cities. No ancient walled cities, he found, had a diameter greater than three miles, so assuming a speed of 3 mph, walking to the center from the edge of such a city, or back again, took no more than half an hour. Faster means of transport, starting with horsecars, let cities expand as this half-hour average travel budget allowed people to go farther. Marchetti’s analysis found that the city of Berlin increased in size precisely in accordance with improvements to the speed of transport. Before 1800 its radius was about 1.5 miles, and as faster means of transport were introduced, starting with horsecars and streetcars, its radius expanded in direct proportion to their speed.
  • It is true that a GM-backed company bought some streetcar operators that were later shut down, but it did so only when the decline of streetcars was already a foregone conclusion, with the aim of ensuring the operators would switch to GM-built buses.
  • America’s highway-construction boom came to an end in the 1970s, as opposition mounted and the notion of “induced demand”—the realization that new road capacity attracts more cars—became more widely known and accepted, under the mantra “you can’t build your way out of congestion.”
  • A study published in 2014 analyzed the density, connectivity, and layout of street networks in twenty-four California cities and related them to local health outcomes. It found that more compact and connected street networks, which promote walking and cycling, were associated with lower levels of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Other studies have found that Americans who live in “walkable” neighborhoods weigh, on average, six to ten pounds less than those in less walkable neighborhoods.
  • winding suburban streets that are meant to reduce speeds and improve safety, meanwhile, seem to have the opposite effect. Curves encourage faster driving than right-angled turns, and wide streets with houses set far back give drivers a sense of space that also encourages them to accelerate. The most dangerous areas for pedestrians, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are no longer downtown streets but “newer, sprawling, southern and western communities where transportation systems are more focused on the automobile.” In short, suburbs.
  • in his 1925 book, The Revolution of Modern Youth. Advice on dating etiquette abounded in magazine columns; dating many partners was a way to demonstrate one’s popularity, and opting out of this contest by going steady with a single partner was frowned upon.
  • In 1897 the bestselling car in the United States was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia. Electric models were outselling both steam- and gasoline-powered ones.
  • in 1862 a tax on alcohol of $2.08 per gallon was introduced to fund the Civil War. This tax was intended to apply to beverage alcohol, but there was no exemption for alcohol produced for use as fuel. As a result, another hydrocarbon product—kerosene derived from crude oil—became the dominant fuel for lighting almost overnight, and many of the small distilleries that had produced fuel alcohol went out of business. The tax on alcohol was left in place after the Civil War as a temperance measure.
  • American engineers also concluded that alcohol was the most promising substitute for gasoline. “This fuel, far from being controlled by a monopoly, is the product of the tillers of the soil,” noted the Horseless Age with approval. Government agencies agreed: alcohol could potentially create a valuable new market for American farmers, by allowing them, in effect, to produce feed for cars instead of horses. Furthermore, noted Motor magazine in 1904, alcohol “is much cleaner, less odorous, and freer from danger of explosion” than gasoline.
  • in America, all efforts to exempt such “denatured” alcohol, or to repeal the excise altogether, starting in the 1880s, had failed. In part this was because Standard Oil and its allies, keen to protect their own sales, argued that a repeal would cause an increase in drunkenness.
  • One GM researcher concluded that alcohol was the “most direct route … for converting energy from its source, the sun, into a material that is suitable for a fuel.”
  • Cars offering rides in this way came to be known as jitneys, after a slang term for the nickel. Some drivers picked up a few riders while driving to or from their places of work. But an economic slowdown, which had begun in 1913, made operating a jitney an attractive option for those who had lost their job but owned a car and wanted a quick way to make a little money.
  • Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral. —Melvin Kranzberg, American Historian
  • In America the proportion of the population with a driving license declined between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. Young people are either qualifying to drive at a later age or not doing so at all. Since the 1980s, the proportion of Americans with a license has fallen from 46 percent to 25 percent among sixteen-year-olds, 80 percent to 60 percent among eighteen-year-olds, and 92 percent to 77 percent among those aged twenty to twenty-four, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Young people are also qualifying to drive later than they used to in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden. Even in car-loving Germany, the share of young households without cars increased from 20 percent to 28 percent between 1998 and 2008.
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