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mma, inc. September 15, 2018

Autonomous Arlington – Issue 1

Muscle Power: There has always been a cost associated with transportation

by Brandon Utterback

There has always been a cost associated with transportation. Movement of goods and people require resources of time and energy. Throughout civilization, cities were defined by density and gained strength as a result. Early cities in America were designed based upon their European predecessors. These predecessors had large central squares typically built at the feet of a church, palace or governmental building. With the limited range and capabilities of transportation powered by muscle, living farther from the central square was less desirable. This made the space at the center (nearer the town’s square) more valuable as people traveled to conduct their daily business. [1]

Prior to the invention of the car, terrestrial transportation was limited to the modes of pedestrian, bicycle, and horse. Of this, most travel occurred on foot rather than horseback as the horses and the carriages they could pull were slow and rough riding. [2] The streets accommodating this traffic were narrow and unpaved as they meandered through the urban landscape from place to place. Streets were primarily centers for market transactions and socialization as transportation specific infrastructure was not as imposing and specialized as it is today. This would leave little space for modern infrastructure that would need to expand with technological advances as other modes of transportation developed.

For thousands of years the horse was the main mode of transportation for carrying loads, and to traverse long distances. Today the horse is looked upon with romanticism of a simpler, cleaner, and healthier time. However, this was not necessarily the truth. “By the late 1800’s the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts… including urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents.” [3] It was estimated in New York that “Every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure.” [4] To mitigate the problem there were people known as ‘crossing sweepers’ who, for a fee, would shovel a path through the manure for pedestrians to walk.” [5]

Horses were also dangerous. In addition to the manure and carcasses that drew flies and spread diseases, the transportation on and around them would prove deadly as well. “Data from Chicago show that in 1916 there were 16.9 horse-related fatalities for each 10,000 horse-drawn vehicles; this is nearly seven times the city’s fatality rate per auto in 1997.” [6] Other negative aspects associated with the horses included noise. The clacking of iron horseshoes on hard pavement was attributed to nervous disorders, particularly in cities where the occurrences were more common than in rural areas [7] This is something that many would say about today’s traffic.

As mechanical technology advanced with steam power and the rail, one would think that the train would have freed the horse and its associated problems from the city. However, it made the problems much worse as “nearly every item shipped by rail needed to be collected and distributed by horses at both ends of the journey.” [8] There was also push-back from the public against the railroad infiltrating their streets. In 1840 women and children of Kensington, Philadelphia rioted against a steam railroad planned for construction through their neighborhood. This threatened the current uses of the streets as playgrounds for children and social spaces for homemakers. These protesters pointed out the negatives, as accidents and pollution would be the result of allowing the railroad to infiltrate their space. Steam locomotives were serious fire and safety hazards, as they threw sparks onto neighboring houses and businesses and were also subject to boil over explosions. This threatened to lower property values and coat the adjacent landscapes and its people in suit.

This allowed the private automobile to be seen as an ‘environmental savior.’ This is difficult to understand from today’s perspective as cars are now a key focus of the causes of global warming and pollution. However, at the time, the automobile solved the problems that “had strained governments to the breaking point, vexed the media, tormented the citizenry, and brought society to the brink of despair.” [9] This would aid in the transition from the horse and offer a safer and cleaner alternative to the rail as acceptance of the personal automobile gained momentum.

I ask the readers of this blog to ask themselves, “Just how dirty and dangerous are today’s automobiles with drivers?” Consider all the time and resources that individuals commit to private car ownership. With the capabilities of companies like Uber and Google looking to provide all your door-to-door and on-demand transportation needs, what will motivate you to give up your car? Which issues would make the most impact and help you make the decision to switch; the environment, economics, safety, convenience? Perhaps it is a combination of all these problems together that will move us all to take action.


McShane, Clay. Down the Asphalt Path. Columbia University Press, 1995. Morris, Eric. “From Horse Power to Horsepower.” ACCESS Magazine, vol. 1, no. 30, Apr 2007.

About Brandon

Brandon Utterback is a grad student at the University of Texas at Arlington. His undergraduate degrees include horticulture and interdisciplinary studies with a minor in environmental sustainability. Brandon will graduate in the fall of 2018 with a master in landscape architecture and a master in city and regional planning. His hopes for the future are to develop an A-Team of designers that inject magic and awe into the experience of place, and work creatively to usher in the age of autonomous vehicles.

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