Ah, the automobile. What would we do without it? Unfortunately, our love affair with our set of wheels has a downside.
Today cars are blamed for everything from global warming to funding terrorism through dependency on oil. But it wasn’t that long ago that the old gray mare was held responsible for the social and economic ills of the world.
In 1898, delegates gathered in New York city for the world’s first urban planning conference. The main topic was not housing, land use or economics. It was horse manure. At the time it was feared that if something drastic wasn’t done about the problem, manure would rise as high as third story windows.
During the late 19th century it was estimated that New York City alone would save more than a million dollars a year by banning horses from its streets. That’s how much it cost to clean up the tons of manure clogging the roadways each year.
Horses were also blamed for traffic congestion, traffic deaths, diseases and, of all things, noise pollution. Hooves clattering on cobblestones were said to aggravate nervous systems.
Delegates to the planning conference were unable to come up with a solution and the conference adjourned in three days instead of the scheduled ten. The problem that stomped those delegates was not new. Julius Caesar banned horse-drawn carts from ancient Rome during the day in an effort to curb congestion and other problems. Even Benjamin Franklin complained about the “thundering of coaches, chariots, chaises, waggons, drays and the whole fraternity of noise” that assailed the ears of Philadelphians.
At first it seemed like the railroad would solve the horse problem, but it only made matters worse. Goods transported by rail had to be picked up and distributed locally, and that required even more horses.
Accidents were common. Two hundred deaths were recorded in New York in 1900 due to horses. That’s seventy-five percent more traffic deaths per capita than was recorded in 2013.
There was also the cost of feeding horses. A single horse consumed the product of five acres of land each year, enough to feed six to eight people. It was estimated that fifteen million acres was required to feed the entire horse population in the 1800s.
Hard as it is to imagine, the automobile was originally hailed as the savior. It was thought that it would make the world a safer, saner, quieter and healthier place. It was also hailed as being more economical.
Today, automobiles share the blame for global warming, the rise in obesity, social isolation and urban sprawl. Engine noise can supposedly cause headaches, hearing losses and that old bugaboo; nervous disorders. Automobiles are also blamed for our crumbling infrastructure.
The next so-called “savior” is now thought to be the new driverless cars. We’re told that these cars will eliminate traffic jams (no rubber-necking), lower fuel costs through efficiency, and virtually do away with accidents.
So what do you think? Will the new robot cars live up to their hype? Or will the law of unintended consequences send more problems our way?
Coming in November: Left at the Altar
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