From ordure to chaos and the search for a greener future: A Brief History of Motion reviewed

Bloomsbury, £20

Review by Susan Flockhart

In 1872, a contagious virus brought traffic in North America to a standstill, offering a tantalising glimpse of what life might be like if the streets weren’t dominated by clattering trucks and carriages. Equine influenza had removed hundreds of thousands of working horses from service and the comparative silence must have been blessed. However, with each animal depositing around 10kg of dung and a litre of urine daily, the resultant putrid, fly-infested quagmire would have lingered, reminding city-dwellers of the urgent need to resolve what US and UK health experts were calling “the great horse manure crisis”.

The invention of the internal combustion engine was embraced as the breakthrough that would liberate humankind from “the tyranny of the horse” and A Brief History of Motion tells the fascinating story of how we got there, reversing through 5,500 years of history to describe the evolution of the wheel, chariot, stagecoach, bicycle, omnibus and steam engine.

The ingenious inventors who literally raced to create a self-propelled carriage could not have foreseen the ways in which their creation would revolutionise society – spawning suburbia, motorways, automated work processes and even American romance, courtesy of canoodle-friendly drive-in cinemas.

On the flip side, the car actually exacerbated pollution and congestion and its capacity to kill and maim was presaged by an 1899 newspaper headline. “The automobile has tasted blood,” declared a report on the first US pedestrian casualty and as the death toll rose, motorists were demonised as speed-crazy toffs, cartoons depicted the Grim Reaper behind the wheel and child casualties were marked by black flags, church bells and memorials inscribed with the names of victims.

But a curious change took place in the 1920s. Within a few short years, the blame for road accidents shifted from motorists to pedestrians and in the US, a newly invented offence of “jaywalking” subjected anyone who stepped off the pavement at the wrong time to ridicule and fines.

As author Tom Standage reveals, this mindset-shift had been deliberately engineered by the increasingly powerful US motor industry, which opposed the introduction of speed limits and mounted an audacious propaganda campaign, infiltrating road safety bodies and even forming an “accident prevention department” dedicated to disseminating skewed interpretations of coroners’ statistics. In a Britain floundering in the wake of America’s petrol-fuelled economic boom, a parliamentary report on road safety explicitly recommended the use of “propaganda” to combat “prejudice” against cars.

“With government backing,” writes Standage, “behaviour had shifted entirely by 1930, and the default was that streets were for cars, and pedestrians should limit themselves to crosswalks. The industry had successfully changed attitudes from always blaming the driver to assuming any collision was … probably the fault of a reckless pedestrian – and that cars, not people, had the first claim on the roads.”

Almost a century on, the car’s dominance remains unchallenged, though with climate change forcing a drastic change in the direction of travel, Standage hopes a glance in the “rear view mirror” will prevent us from repeating past mistakes and saddling our children with an even bigger problem than the one we sought to solve.

In the spring of 2020, another contagious virus halted commuter traffic and birdsong replaced car engines as the soundtrack to our locked-down lives, offering a brief foretaste of an unleaded future worth striving for. With auto-sales slowing in China and fewer young people learning to drive, he detects signs that “peak car” has been reached. Yet while electric vehicles and smart technology promise to make ride-hailing, car-sharing and robo-taxis cheaper and more convenient than private ownership, thus liberating miles of urban-parking space for parks, playgrounds or pedestrian and cyclist access, he warns against replacing “one transport monoculture with another, as happened with the switch from horses to cars”.

The author of several history books and deputy editor of The Economist, Standage doesn’t vilify the motor industry and gives due credit to the engineering ingenuity that produced the automobile. Yet his book reminds us to beware slickly-packaged “solutions” to all our transportation and environmental problems. Informative and hugely entertaining, it should serve as a helpful manual for negotiating our future.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992