Thursday, August 19, 2021

Tom Standage's "A Brief History of Motion"

Tom Standage is deputy editor of The Economist. His books include An Edible History of Humanity, the New York Times bestseller A History of the World in Six Glasses, and The Victorian Internet.

Standage applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next, and reported the following:
Page 99 of A Brief History of Motion is all about jaywalking, and the way the car industry weaponised the term in order to deflect criticism around rising numbers of road deaths. At the time, such deaths were mostly blamed on reckless drivers, who were denounced as “joyriders” and “speed maniacs”. So the industry decided to promote the stereotype of the jaywalker, and the idea that accidents were primarily caused by careless pedestrians, who needed to have new (car-friendly) rules drummed into them to keep them safe. Originally, “jay” was a slang term for a country bumpkin who was unsure how to behave in the city, and a jaywalker was someone who got in the way, either on the sidewalk or on the road. Around 1915 police officers who oversaw busy intersections began to describe pedestrians who would not follow instructions as jaywalkers. The word then came to mean something more specific, namely someone who crossed the road in the middle of a block, rather than at a corner. In footage of American streets from the early twentieth century, horse-drawn vehicles, streetcars, bicycles, and automobiles can be seen moving at roughly walking pace, with pedestrians weaving in between them. By the 1920s, cars accounted for most of the vehicles on the roads, and motorists were becoming increasingly frustrated by the limits this free-for-all approach imposed on their speed. Carmakers, dealers, auto clubs, and other pro-car interests, collectively known as motordom, duly launched a campaign to talk up the dangers of jaywalking. Outwardly this approach seemed to champion the safety of pedestrians, but by arguing that people should only cross at junctions and at right angles to the traffic, it promoted and reinforced the industry’s position that the streets were now primarily for the use of motor vehicles.

I think this is very representative of my book as a whole, for three reasons. First, it’s the quirky story behind something familiar to do with urban transport, which is the formula for the entire book. Second, it’s a reminder that things have not always been the way they are now, and could be different. In some parts of the world they are: street space is being taken away from cars and given back to pedestrians and cyclists, turned into green space, used for outdoor dining, and so forth. And third, it’s an example of how the world we live in has been reshaped by cars, in ways we may no longer notice. Today it’s easy to assume that roads exist solely for cars and trucks, and anything else is getting in their way. This is exactly what carmakers wanted us to think! But go to India, and you will see streets where pedestrians, cyclists, rickshaws, cars, trucks, and even cows and elephants all have to rub along. Or go to Helsinki or Oslo, where drivers in the city centre are made to feel like sheepish interlopers. Even in car-loving America, private cars have been banned from Market St in San Francisco!

My book is about the many things we take for granted about the modern world that are the way they are because of the influence of cars: suburbanisation, commuting, supermarkets and malls, fast food. It explains how things got that way, and also examines things like why red means stop and green means go; why some countries drive on the left and some on the right; and how cars defined the model for modern manufacturing and marketing (our smartphones are built in ways invented by Ford, and marketed in ways invented by General Motors). It looks further back into history, from the invention of the wheel around 3,500BCE to the advent of bicycles and railroads in the 1800s; and it looks forward, to consider the impact of electric and self-driving cars, and what a less car-dependent world might look like. It’s sometimes said that fish have no idea what water is, because they are surrounded by it all the time, so they just think it’s normal. We’re sort of like that about cars. So ultimately I’m just pointing out the water to the fish.
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--Marshal Zeringue