September 30, 2011

The Automobile and the City

In late-19th century Detroit, the primary modes of transportation were walking or using horses. Although the invention of the "safety bicycle" in 1885 and the reinvention of the pneumatic tire in 1888 finally made bike riding widely available, they were never a chief mode of transit, let alone the transportation of goods. Using a bicycle to get to work in Detroit in February probably wasn't seen before asphalt streets were plowed by gas-powered trucks.

Cyclists in Detroit, c. 1890.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The overwhelming majority of people in the city simply walked where they needed to go. Only rich families could afford horses of their own. Horse-drawn wagons delivered goods, and locomotives were used for long-distance travel--but the city itself was designed for pedestrians.

The first public street car in Detroit ran along Jefferson Avenue 1863 and was pulled by horses. Although there was some (unsuccessful) experimentation with electric streetcars in the 1880s, major lines didn't begin to be electrified in this city until 1892.

Horse-drawn streetcar, Baker and Congress Street Line.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

However, the presence of horses in major cities became an increasingly serious public health issue throughout the 19th century. At one point, there were as many as 200,000 horses in New York City alone. Large workhorses each produce over twenty pounds of manure a day and more than quart of urine. In dry weather, manure would crumble into to dust and get blown into the faces of city dwellers. When it rained, the street would become a river of liquid feces. Collecting and storing tons of stinking manure every day was an urgent problem in urban areas, and vacant lots were piled high with animal waste. Incredible swarms of flies hatched in the manure and transmitted deadly pathogens to humans, including typhoid fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and anthrax--all before the age of antibiotics. Granaries at the horse stables attracted disease-carrying rodents. By some estimates, horse manure indirectly led to as many as 20,000 human deaths in New York City annually.

Human beings weren't the only victims. According to another source:
The average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of about four years, and it was common to see drivers and teamsters whip and abuse their horses to spur them to pull heavy loads. Overworked and mistreated urban horses often died on the city streets. In 1866, the Atlantic Monthly described Broadway as clogged with "dead horses and vehicular entanglements," and in that year the mistreatment of the urban horse stimulated Henry Bergh to found the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Streets paved with cobblestones or asphalt were slipperier than dirt roads, and a horse that broke a leg would have to be destroyed. Veterinarians recommended that city draft horses be shod with rubber covered horseshoes, but few followed this advise. In 1880, New York City removed 15,000 dead horses from its streets, and late as 1916 Chicago carted away 9,202 horse carcasses.

Dead horse on Fort Street, Detroit.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Due to the costs of feeding the animals and stabling them on expensive urban land, it made ļ¬nancial sense to rapidly work a small number of horses to death rather than care for a larger group and work them more humanely. As a result, horses were rapidly driven to death; the average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of barely two years.
The Detroit Animal Welfare Association was formed in 1912 in response to the cruel treatment of work horses in the city. In 1913, Arthur C. Curtis became its sole employee. He worked without pay until funds were available.

Arthur C. Curtis with an emaciated horse.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The inhumane treatment of and health issues associated with horses continued to be a problem in major cities even after the electrification of streetcars. Until one day...

If you don't know who this guy is, then you're
probably... I don't know... Canadian or something.

Upon the mass production of motor vehicles, city planners and public health officials fought to ban horses from urban areas. Eventually the disease, flies, stench, and extreme animal cruelty were greatly diminished.

Automobiles were initially more dangerous than horses, but today that is far from being the case. For example (PDF):
In New York in 1900, 200 persons were killed by horses and horse-drawn vehicles. This contrasts with 344 auto-related fatalities in New York in 2003; given the modern city's greater population, this means the fatality rate per capita in the horse era was roughly 75 percent higher than today. 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.
The automobile may have saved more human lives than perhaps any invention second only to indoor plumbing, and certainly no other technological advancement has saved more animals from cruelty. American cities were on the brink of becoming uninhabitable cesspools before the mass production of the internal combustion engine. The automobile has made the city a safer, cleaner, and better place to live.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That was Phase One of automobile history, which you might call, "The Automobile Serves Humankind". That era is over. We are now well into Phase Two, "Humankind Serves the Automobile". After cars became the universal mode of transportation in American cities, our urban planners decided that our entire environment should be reinvented for the convenience of the machines that once worked for us. Roads were widened, on-street parking was often eliminated, neighborhoods were destroyed in order to build freeways, and an inconceivable amount of urban and suburban land is now dedicated to asphalt parking lots.

"There is nowhere to park downtown!"

The operation of motor vehicles did not in and of itself destroy the urban fabric of the city. Our civic leaders urban planners created zoning ordinances that deliberately and systematically killed life on the street under the hysterically delusional view that shaping the environment to benefit automobiles is the same thing as benefiting the human beings inside of them.

This is what the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Church Street looked like in the 1930's--a dense, functional, intimate urban environment:

Note the building that now houses Nemo's Bar & Grill on the left side of the road.
Courtesy of Wayne State University.

Soon after this photo was taken, the street was widened extensively. All of the businesses on the south side of the road were seized and demolished. Much of Michigan Avenue is now a nearly-lifeless, nine-lane, ninety-feet wide monstrosity of a street. This is that same spot today:

Courtesy of Google Street View.

Allow me to point out an even more perverted example. Where Cobo Hall now stands, Jefferson and Woodbridge Avenues used to meet at a steep angle. This photograph was taken around 1890 facing that intersection toward downtown, to the east:

Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

I encourage you to click here and then examine this photo at its highest resolution. This urban environment would still be attractive to pedestrians today.

Here is that same location now:

Courtesy of Google Street View.

As tragic as this is, I am ultimately grateful to live in an era of antibiotics, public sanitation, modern building safety codes, and a 40-hour work week. But is there any reason we can't have health and comfort on the one hand, and a beautiful, functional, urban landscape on the other?

I may be too late in pointing this out, but there is an alternative to destroying the most functional and historically valuable parts of our cities. New Urbanists call it "taming the automobile"--maybe that's what we should call Phase Three of automobile history. This means building an environment where pedestrians come first and easy motoring comes second. Driving and parking are made inconvenient to the point that people only drive if they have to. Cars are marginalized and forced to drive more slowly and carefully, but they are still used. As long as we live in an environment designed for cars, we will be forced to rely on them. No "critical mass" of bicycle riders will ever change that. Only building dense, walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods can.


  1. Hi! We just moved to Corktown and this is our new favorite blog. AND, I just discovered, you cite my Uncle Clay McShane in this article. Cool.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! I apologize that the images in this post don't seem to be working. I'll have to work on that... And thanks to Dr. McShane for his research on the dangers that horses once posed to city dwellers!

    2. Yes, I noticed that the photos weren't loading. I'm going to send this link to my Uncle; he will be pleased!

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