Horsepower vs Horse Power and Sustainability

Samuel Staley's picture
Blogger

How sustainable is the internal combustion engine? The answer depends, in part, on your historical perspective. This point becomes startlingly evident in a recent article by UCLA doctoral student Eric Morris in the most recent issue of Access magazine. The magazine publishes accessible versions of academic research and is published by the University of California Transportation Center at Berkeley.

In From Horse Power to Horsepower, Morris takes us back to the turn of the 20th century. Horses were the primary mode of transportation, and they were killing our cities. Not only were cities densely populated, but horses had to be stabled and fed. Virtually all goods and services had to be transported by horse. Rising incomes and trade meant horse power was even more accessible to a broader number of people and businesses.

The environmental consequences were staggering. In New York and Brooklyn alone:

·        3-4 million pounds of manure had to be cleared each day

·        40,000 gallons of urine had to be disposed of each day

·        15,000 dead horses had to be carted off each year

·        Fatalities from horses were 75 higher than today's fatality rate for autos.

What saved New York (and other big cities) from this environmental disaster? The automobile.

"As difficult as it may be to believe for the modern observer," Morris writes, "at the time the private automobile was widely hailed as an environmental savior." In addition, the broad use of the automobile allowed humans to significantly reduce their footprint on the earth as thousands of acres of land were no longer necessary to grow hay, oats, and other feed.

Morrris concludes:

Today, many observers believe that only a drastic reduction of travel and/or switch to slower and more inconvenient modes can mitigate transportation's negative externalities. But neither draconian regulations nor disincentives for travel were necessary to fix the horse pollution problem. Human ingenuity and technology (enabled by government, which provided infrastructure and regulations) did the job-and at the same time they brought a tremendous concurrent increase in mobility.

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Comments

Comments

The Advent of Cars: A Happily Ever After Story

What ever happened to those feed-producing fields that made up so much of the human's footprint on earth? I suppose they've transitioned to a state resembling nature preserves now that the number-one transportation mode doesn't need them?

Or maybe they've become ethanol fields? Or parking lots? Forget about cars reducing the human's footprint on the earth.

What happened

What happened to those feed-producing fields is exactly what you so cavalierly dismiss as fantasy. The New England hay fields of the pre-automobile age are indeed now forests.

What didn't happen.

The New England hay fields of the pre-automobile age are indeed now forests.

But a lot of that land was marginal - the Ohio Valley was far more productive as its soils were deeper and growing season longer. The point is that elsewhere, livestock feed is being converted to ethanol, which is part of the reason for the rise in meat prices.

Nonetheless, the "golly, technology sure is purty" argument recycled by Staley didn't happen to be anything but a distraction:

    But neither draconian regulations nor disincentives for travel were necessary to fix the horse pollution problem. Human ingenuity and technology (enabled by government, which provided infrastructure and regulations) did the job—and at the same time they brought a tremendous concurrent increase in mobility.

and - gosh - just so happens to neglect to mention that the increase in mobility has resulted in pollution far, far worse than horse poop.

The argumentation is so facile it approaches comedy.

Best,

D

Facile Argumentation

But a lot of that land was marginal...

And? And? Come on. This was a minor refutation of a single point and you cannot let it go. New England has reforested in the last 100 years. Accept it and move on.

...and - gosh - just so happens to neglect to mention that the increase in mobility has resulted in pollution far, far worse than horse poop.

And gosh, you have not even the first freakin' idea of the consequences of fly borne disease vectors and things like equine encephalitis. There is something far worse than horse poop and that is ignorant bullshit. Horse powered urban mobility was a nightmare that motorized transport solved. Rant all you want about their different set of problems but don't dismiss the massive quality of life health and safety improvements they brought to the urbanscape.

Cars Versus Horses

I agree that there was a tremendous environmental benefit to motor vehicles replacing horses in cities - but there was not a great benefit to the tremendous increase in mobility that the automobile brought, as Mr. Staley seems to think.

I have two pictures of the same corner in Harlem (Lexington Ave. and 116th St.) in 1907 and in the 1970s.

In 1907, there was only one vehicle there, a horse drawn wagon that was doing some sort of street repair. There were also wide sidewalks with lots of room for the people walking, and there was a big advertisement on one of the buildings that said "All cars [meaning streetcars] go to Bloomingdales [the department store]." The neighborhood looked like a pleasant, quiet, safe place to live.

In the 1970s, the buildings were almost all the same, except for one apartment building that had been demolished and replaced by a one-story store, so density was actually slightly lower. The streets were full of cars stuck in traffic. The sidewalks had been narrowed to accommodate all the cars, and pedestrians looked crowded and harried. The neighborhood looked like a congested, noisy, unsafe place to live.

If we had just replaced that one horse-drawn vehicle with a motor vehicle, motor vehicles would have been pure benefit to the neighborhood's livability. Since we also added all of the cars to transport the people who used to get around by streetcar, motor vehicles were a net loss to the neighborhood's livability. And looking at the congestion in the picture, you can see that it is also more frustrating to get around that neighborhood by car than it was by streetcar.

Overall, that tremendous increase in mobility made our cities less livable. Automobile dependency is also a huge economic burden for the average American. Even if we ignore the larger impacts of the automobile - such as global warming and wars for oil - we would be better off if we were less mobile, if we lived in compact, walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Mr. Staley wants to double-deck some city streets to build more freeways: that is his idea of human ingenuity solving the problem, but it would obviously make those streets miserable places for pedestrians and make cities even less livable

Charles Siegel

No great benefit?

Sure there was. In 1900, the economic engine centered on Manhattan provided what would today be considered a standard of living of crushing poverty and death-riddenness for the heavy majority of six million people. That only got worse for most people as the population packed to eight million in 1910 and ten million in 1920 (not until about then was the car prevalent enough to be considered more than a fad that was likely to pass as people in the future were too busy to drive themselves around). The auto-mobilized metropolitan area of the 1960s, for all its barren streetscapes, housed almost twice as many people (a good 18 million+), the majority of whom enjoyed a multiples-higher standard of living on account of the vast swaths of territory opened up to more diffuse forces of property values by wider automotive access. If you're going to bother paving over any land for any city at all, it might as well offer such a benefit over the old way; arguably the old New York was the more wasteful because what it did, it did worse for fewer. New York today has too many entrenched interests in property value protection to allow much of this progress to continue, but the car has, in effect, "opened up" the Sunbelt to Americans looking for a leg up, and hundreds of thousands leave the Northeast for it each year.

Neil Strickland
nstrickl at fas.harvard.edu

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

None of this makes much sense

Strickland writes:

"In 1900, the economic engine centered on Manhattan provided what would today be considered a standard of living of crushing poverty and death-riddenness for the heavy majority of six million people."

But poverty was crushing by modern standards everywhere in the U.S., not just in Manhattan. Until the second half of the 20th century, the South (not Manhattan) was the poorest part of the country.
See http://eh.net/Clio/Conferences/ASSA/Jan_98/McLean.shtml (in 1880, 11 of 12 poorest states in South; South continued to lag far below Northeast until after WW 2).

"That only got worse for most people as the population packed to eight million in 1910 and ten million in 1920 "

Since life expectancy steadily improved in the first half of the 20th century, I don't see what he's getting at here. From 1900 to 1930, life expectancy increased from 47 to 60 (http://www.baas.ac.uk/resources/pamphlets/pamphdets.asp?id=7 )

"The auto-mobilized metropolitan area of the 1960s, for all its barren streetscapes, housed almost twice as many people (a good 18 million+), the majority of whom enjoyed a multiples-higher standard of living on account of the vast swaths of territory opened up to more diffuse forces of property values by wider automotive access."

Only if you define "standard of living" narrowly as "living space." By that logic, someone living on acres of empty land in North Dakota has a higher standard of living than anyone in America, even if they live on welfare.

So if North Dakota is so great, how come it costs so much to live in the Upper East Side of Manhattan? If the market thought the corner of 86th and Lexington had a low quality of life, it wouldn't be expensive to live there.

"the car has, in effect, "opened up" the Sunbelt to Americans looking for a leg up, and hundreds of thousands leave the Northeast for it each year."

Does Mr. Strickland think the Sun Belt couldn't have been developed without sprawl? Surely he jests. There are pre-sprawl neighborhoods in most Sun Belt cities; I don't see any reason why the rest of the Sun Belt couldn't have been developed to look like the older parts of Charleston or Savannah.

_

"...Only if you define "standard of living" narrowly as 'living space.'"
This is untrue. No one pretends that a regular member of the lower middle class would be able to expand their central city business very well as it grows; suburban flexibility afforded them this capacity. Property values have always been relatively high on Manhattan because there has always been a comparatively high amount of value being created there by one sort of business or other, but this doesn't do any good to the working class family who have few but security, heavy labor and custodial jobs available because the inflexibility of the built environment and property values raise the threshold beyond their means to participate in that value-creating economy in an ownership role that can actually offer growth potential.

***
Below, the reasoning was analogical - prewar urban form typified by NYC : suburban-NY room for slop, with the effects above :: prewar urban form across the Northeast : suburban America room for slop, with the effects above.


"the car has, in effect, "opened up" the Sunbelt to Americans looking for a leg up, and hundreds of thousands leave the Northeast for it each year."

Does Mr. Strickland think the Sun Belt couldn't have been developed without sprawl? Surely he jests. There are pre-sprawl neighborhoods in most Sun Belt cities; I don't see any reason...

One last illustrative analogy.
American colonies, unlike New Spain, were fortunate to be settled at a time when the guild system had begun to lose its hegemony over the development of new work in urbanized areas. American cities were able to adopt new modern economic modes faster than anywhere else in the world, including Europe. Much of American expansion was financed by European capital - a tremendous advantage that Europe still possessed - but for all its means, Europe was encased in legacy interests that in many cases retarded its built environment, and it was outstripped by America. The social structure and monetary power in the North, which became more entrenched through the Civil War and Reconstruction, vested interests around current built form, and so forth now constitute for the Northeast a modern calcifying influence almost as real as the guilds' was for Europe. This, compared to the Sunbelt, may not extend accurately to a comparison between America and the flexibility of India or China, since India's and China's robustness is pretty shallow.

Neil Strickland

No Great Benefit - Very Great Cost

Actually, Harlem a hundred years ago was a quiet neighborhood and a pleasant place to live. And there were streetcar suburbs within New York a hundred years ago that were as pleasant as (or more pleasant than) any neighborhood in the country today, though they used only about one-third as much land as postwar freeway-oriented suburbs. Eg, see the picture at http://preservenet.blogspot.com/2005/07/streetcar-suburbs.html

As lewyn points out, there was crushing poverty throughout the United States a hundred years ago, not just in Manhattan. The question is what is the best thing to do with the affluence that developed during the twentieth century.

I suggest we would have been better off building rail and walkable suburbs around the stations, rather than building freeways and sprawl. That would have worked in the sunbelt as well as anywhere else. It would also mean spending less money on transportation, which would make it possible to have shorter work hours and more free time.

About the wonderful standard of living that we developed around our freeways: you are impressed by the fact that it involves making and spending lots of money - you call that a high standard of living, but you don't realize that it is not a good way of life.

It costs more to drive to a strip mall in a freeway suburb than to walk to the neighborhood shopping street in a streetcar suburb, but it is also uglier, more aggravating, and less healthy. I don't think we are better off because families need two full-time jobs to support the two cars that you need to live in freeway suburbs; we would be better off living in walkable neighborhoods and having more time for our families. But, measured in money terms, the strip malls and long work hours are a "higher standard of living."

At any rate, the sunbelt development that you admire most is not likely to last. Our wonderful standard of living is raising the world's temperature, and unless we change our ways, we will make the sunbelt unlivable in a few decades.

Charles Siegel

Clarifying sustainability argumentation.

don't dismiss the massive quality of life health and safety improvements they brought to the urbanscape.

Of course. Core diseases now in the west are diseases of affluence not of poor sanitation. But that's not the overarching point here.

As I said, it is all about scale. The recent technological impacts of improved mobility have a far greater scale, and Staley obfuscates this point.

Road apples stay on the road and in nearby receiving waters, whereas auto apples become well-mixed in the global atmosphere.

Best,

D

What Happened to the Fields?

All of them? Unless all the hay was grown a hundred miles out of the old New England cities it seems very likely that a substantial percentage of those fields are part of, or near, low-density automobile-age residential subdivisions -- so many cul-de-sacs from Boston to Manchester, for example. Some might be interspersed with woods, but that doesn't mean they're outside the human footprint.

I'm sure you're right that many fields eventually went unused and were reclaimed by nature, but the horse-as-transportation age was not a time when a huge proportion of people not in farming-related business regularly lived many miles out of the main cities and towns. Now people do live that way, and the landscape has plenty of development to prove it, even where not necessitated by population growth. Development is not everywhere, but in many places it's close enough to leave only slivers of land that don't qualify for the label "outside the human footprint."

Mr. Staley's article takes the automobile's environmental role out of context by suggesting that transportation's environmental impacts diminished once new technology arrived. The impacts didn't go away; they changed form and often grew.

Sustainability and Horse Power.

How sustainable is the internal combustion engine? The answer depends, in part, on your historical perspective

No it doesn't.

Sustainablitity has nothing to do with 'perspective', it has to do with scale, choices, policies, and resource exploitation, and Staley distracts away from what sustainability actually is:

    Brundtland defined sustainable development as: "a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with the future as well as present needs".

One can argue that 'perspective' means that "change doesn't necessarily happen to me, and it's other people that should have their investments changed as long as I can exploit resources at my current rate".

Best,

D

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

apples and oranges

A few thoughts:

1. It isn't fair to say that our only choices in the 20th century were horses and cars. There was an intervening period between the horse era and the auto era: the streetcar era. In the early decades of the 20th century, horses were being phased out, but autos were less dominant than today. So perhaps we had the best of both worlds.

2. The pollution caused by horses and that caused by cars are as different as apples and oranges. Horse poop, though (as Staley correctly points out) pretty noxious if you are a few feet away, does not have regionwide or global impact. Car pollution pretty clearly has regionwide impact and may (depending on its impact on climate change) have global impact as well.

Bicycles

During the period between horses and cars, we also had the rise and fall of bicycle use. Early calls for better, and paved roads came from bicycle advocates long before there was widespread automobile use.

Prepare for the AICP Exam

Join the thousands of students who have utilized the Planetizen AICP* Exam Preparation Class to prepare for the American Planning Association's AICP* exam.
Starting at $199
Planetizen Courses image ad

Planetizen Courses

Advance your career with subscription-based online courses tailored to the urban planning professional.
Starting at $14.95 a month
Wood necklace with city map

City Necklaces

These sweet pendants are engraved on a cedar charm with a mini map of selected cities. The perfect gift for friends and family or yourself!
$28.00
Book cover of Where Things Are from Near to Far

Where Things Are From Near to Far

This engaging children's book about planning illustrates that "every building has its place."
$19.95