Library of Congress

An increasingly relevant history lesson.

"History loves smooth transitions," writes Brandon Keim in the new Nautilus, in an essay debunking one of the more endearing tales about technological transformation in American cities. According to this simple history lesson, cars saved our cities from horses. Until they came along, city streets were ankle-deep in manure. Thankfully, by eliminating the need for horse-drawn carriages, cars eliminated all that unsanitary waste, too.

In this telling, the motor vehicle was a kind of environment solution for another century's sustainability problem. That's a tidy narrative we've come to think of today, when cars pose their own environmental problems in need of yet more technological innovation.

The real story was, of course, much more complicated. This history of cars replacing horses forgets the intervening rise and fall of the streetcar. It forgets those long decades after the invention of the automobile but before its widespread adoption. It forgets all the laws and infrastructure and social mores that we needed to construct around the car. It forgets the influence of industry in devising new deviant behaviors like "jaywalking."

It also forgets that most of our sanitation problems a century ago had nothing to do with horse shit. In fact, Keim writes that we repaved many urban roads with asphalt for the first time only after digging them up to lay modern sewer systems. That infrastructure made our cities cleaner. It also happened to make them more convenient for cars. But that doesn't mean that cars cleaned up our cities.

All of this is relevant today as we think about the next technological transformation beyond cars (or beyond cars as we know them now).

"What might be learned and applied to our own automobile-troubled historical moment?" Keim asks. "The foremost lesson, say historians [Christopher W.] Wells and [Peter] Norton, is that the march of progress is neither straight nor technologically preordained."

The march of progress also depends on social engineering as much as technological change:

In short, the automobile didn't arrive as an “environmental savior,” a solution to urban waste epitomized by horse manure in New York City streets. The poor horses, in fact, were only a small part of the problem. The car emerged with an orchestrated push by the auto industry, and its reign was paved by a rising demand for gasoline and government investment in highways, roads, and zoning regulations. Similarly it was a democratic drive, with legislation to follow, that gave us sanitation laws and cleaned up our streets.

Keim's essay is a nice companion read to this recent New Yorker piece on the engineers behind Google's autonomous cars. In their push to replace human driver error with computer precision, these engineers appear not to have thought too much about this other side of technological transition: all the social stuff, the laws, the consumer expectations, the cultural preferences for owning cars and driving them ourselves.

Whether you believe the future of transportation lies in driverless cars, or more efficient public transit, or a million e-bikes, this history lesson is a good reminder that new innovations don't overpower the old ones simply by virtue of technology alone. If we come up with something significantly better than the internal combustion engine car, we'll still have to do a whole lot of work to spread it.

Hat Tip Per Square Mile.

Top image of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park in New York City: George Grantham Bain Collection  in the Library of Congress.

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