Book Review: Tom Standage's 'A Brief History of Motion'

The Great Horse-Shit Crisis of the late 19th century imperiled Western cities with deluges of equine emissions. Population centers — including London and New York — were desperate for a solution to this ongoing crisis of public health and aesthetic decency. As mechanization began to take hold at the turn of the century, horse-free vehicles became an appealing alternative to the current biohazardous arrangement. Hence, the private automobile succeeded the horse and buggy, bringing (as we now know) its own perils to humans and the planet.

“In the year 1800, wooden vehicles pulled by animals were the most advanced form of land-based transit on the planet and had been for more than five millennia,” Tom Standage writes in his entertaining A Brief History of Motion. But there are capitalist wheels within wheels, as even an editor of the “liberal” Economist like Standage acknowledges.

Why were cities of the 1880s and ’90s suddenly filling up with manure after the five-millennia interlude? Another transportation tech innovation, the steam locomotive, is implicated. “Faster and more efficient transport between cities increased the demand for rapid transport of people and goods within them,” Standage observes. A Brief History of Motion is mostly about the automobile and its grip on the culture and economy of the 20th century pretty much everywhere. The paradigm is, of course, in the US, where capitalism’s first requirement — growth — brought crises at a suddenly cascading pace.

Pope Manufacturing's Columbia Motor Carriage.
Source: Museum of Connecticut History

After providing a potted and derivative history of the wheel and its uses before the industrial era, A Brief History of Motion moves quickly into the surprising number of possible choices available to the appetite for personal transportation as mediated by capitalist production. “In 1897, the bestselling car in the US was an electric vehicle: the Pope Manufacturing Company’s Columbia Motor Carriage,” Standage relates. Electricity, steam and then internal combustion fought for dominance; internal combustion won because steam was too cumbersome and battery tech was insufficient to meet the anxiety about running out of electrical power in the boonies. Also, the luster of electric cars was dimmed by stock market shenanigans and early executive misbehavior, a recurring capitalist narrative.

The American (and hence the worldwide) personal automobile could as easily have run on alcohol as gasoline were it not for timing; as autos boomed, the cost and availability of alcohol was wildly unstable while that of gasoline was not — capital made its choice and consumers largely followed. Henry Ford made one type of gas-powered car in a monochrome choice of black and pioneered socialist efficiency on the line while building a near-monopoly on auto sales. Famously, he built cars his workers could afford to buy. But General Motors outstripped Ford by the 1930s by appealing to commodity fetishism — a range of automobile brands graded by price so the consumer could demonstrate increasing personal wealth by moving up from Chevy to Buick while GM’s financial arm (GMAC) made such personal preening “easy” with time payments.

Standage doesn’t overlook technology transitions, especially when they meet cute. Well before Ford’s first Model T, Karl Benz made a pretty good gas engine vehicle in Germany. In 1888, his wife, Bertha, swiped his prototype three-wheeler vehicle to visit her mother 65 miles away, returning the next day — a protofeminist adventure that was widely covered in media and persuaded the diffident Benz to start making carriage-type versions: motorcars. Competitions among European prototype cars followed, building excitement and a community of innovators not unlike the autonomous-car DARPA trials over a century later.

Karl Benz and his Model T.
Source: Wikipedia

Early drivers, generally wealthy and often dissolute, are represented by the Mr. Toad of Wind in the Willows — careless and negligent. Automakers spent much money and thought making drivers appear more responsible and fighting off speed limits and other constraints, but it was the lowered cost and volume of auto production that added downmarket consumers and embedded the auto in everyday life.

In the US first, then around the world, the auto became the hub of culture and force-created new features of life to mesh with it, from the motel (including the hot-sheet variety) to the drive-in (with “car-hops” so one doesn’t have to leave the car) to the mall and the suburb. Many of the worst features of modern life in capitalism, in other words, grew from the need to abase ourselves before the almighty car — a reciprocal of growth. As the auto-centered society grew, it created the teenager/consumer, formerly known as the child, and the sexual license of the drive-in movie. More and more of the natural and social landscape is absorbed by the auto and its need for streets and parking.

Standage’s account, showing his trademark oblique-lens approach, makes it clear how overwhelmingly the private automobile, in harness with several myths like individual freedom, reorganized life in the US around driving — eating, moviegoing and fucking. The result was a concentration of commerce around endless parking lots, Levittown and suburbs, and the choking of city life into enclaves of activity surrounded and isolated by superhighways.

Patriarchy, in its modified form that would become NASCAR culture, is not blunted by other features of this new landscape. DARPA autonomous vehicle competitions replicated the early car contests in Europe and “brought together a group of people who would go on to define a new field build around a new technology,” including Elon Musk. In an extended Guardian excerpt, Standage notes: “Henry Ford bought his wife, Clara, a Detroit Electric rather than one of his own Model Ts. Some men may have liked that electric cars’ limited range meant that the independence granted to their drivers was tightly constrained.” Women were also considered less likely to want to hand-crank-start their autos. It has never stopped being a guy thing.

The attraction of personal car ownership was always tempered by its cost, well before the vehicles began to cost as much as many people’s first house. “Jitneys,” as they were called, were impromptu taxis operated by entrepreneurs (often with other jobs) for extra money in the very early auto era (1910s – '20s) — an undigitized and less exploitative version of Uber or Lyft. Because they were cheap and competed with municipally owned streetcar systems, cities tended to regulate them until they went away.

Standage puts his transport lens on the Montgomery bus boycott associated with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks to note that many churches supporting the boycott purchased their own large town cars and ran an alternative, though impromptu, transit system; the white city fathers of Montgomery, which was losing huge amounts of municipal revenue during the 11-month boycott, tried similarly to regulate them away but failed because the churches were careful to offer free rides (and take donations).

A 1915 Buick Jitney Bus.
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

Standage finds the current digitization of ride-sharing a mainly positive development despite the predatory behavior of Uber, which he acknowledges. Congestion and lengthy commutes have made the car a liability for more and more consumers, yielding “evidence for ‘Peak Car’ — … clear signs that enthusiasm for cars is finally waning” both inside and outside the industry. Cheap ride hailing in China is cutting that world-class car buyer population way back. Miles driven per car per person has been dropping in the US since 2004, a decline in urban driving as population is proportionally swelling in cities versus exurbs. Sporadic forms of networked travel — ride hailing, transit updates on the phone, etc. — have brought decline in personal car ownership.

And the big difference continues to be the trend of mode choices “all stitched together” on phones-as-computers. What Standage terms an “Internet of motion” can increasingly be managed by public not private Skynets. Helsinki is pioneering “mobility as a service.” Although the author is skeptical that autonomous vehicles will graduate to the safe and accepted level as soon as many believe, it will happen. By then they will be woven into the e-car tapestry as well. He notes the fairly obvious fact that e-cars will be only as green as the grids that charge their batteries. And he adds with concern that the coming “internet of motion” and “internet of things” both provide immense tranches of data about behavior and whereabouts of individuals, far exceeding the byproducts of ads on Google or Facebook. If the data are gobbled up by the public sphere, the authoritarian potential becomes as unpleasant to contemplate as the sly manipulation of consumer behavior by the capitalist class.

Even though the “path dependency” imposed by the needs of capitalism means paradigm shifts in technologies like transport have been slowed, Standage sees digital tech creating the everything bagel of motion, “weaving multiple public and private services together into a transport tapestry.” The notion that a public entity (as in Helsinki) could take the lead on this seems foreign to him, but in capitalist context even auto companies are diversifying into the motion network biz, “to shift from selling cars into the potentially more profitable business of selling rides” — a process one observer called “unbundling the car.”

Indeed, Standage’s deft history of how the auto and the other practices of bourgeois capitalism merged, making the auto the partner-cornucopia of goodies since the 1950s — radio, stereo, CB radio to smartphone, sleep anywhere, eat anywhere, fuck anywhere — goes on to show how it is now being dismembered to its component parts as its overwhelming scale of social use has, paradoxically, made it yesterday’s tech and tomorrow’s maximum climate danger. As it is unbundled, “the car can gradually be unpicked from the urban fabric, allowing streets and parking areas to be reclaimed for other uses.”

In his Guardian excerpt, Standage concludes: “the experience of the 20th century suggests that it would be a mistake to replace one transport monoculture with another, as happened with the switch from horses to cars. A transport monoculture is less flexible, and its unintended consequences become more easily locked in and more difficult to address.”

A good Economist company man, Standage sees a public-private weave in the tapestry of the next transportation revolution and acknowledges that regulation will be critical as consumer wants are tempered to needs by the climate crisis. His bow to the role of the state would be improved, socialists would conclude, by an up-front seizure of agency by a solidaristic worker-consumer class, rather than a passive wait for the next monthly bill.

Satellite photograph of Venture Out RV Resort in Mesa, Arizona, a leisure community built to accommodate RVs and the aged 55+ retirees trapped inside.

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